French Connection

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Photography by David Stuck

Cindy Wolf is, well, fired up about her fireplace. The fieldstone beauty wasn’t part of the early vision of her new kitchen, but after an incongruous outline of brick was unearthed from beneath circa-1980s, salmon-colored floor tile—and the shadow of a hearth was discovered on the basement ceiling of the 1905 house—the fireplace became her obsession. “It drove the entire kitchen design,” says the Foreman-Wolf restaurateur, sipping on a non-fussy cup of French vanilla coffee. (No, they don’t serve that at Johnny’s.) Once the notion of a kitchen fireplace became lodged in her brain, Wolf couldn’t let go. And Brian Thim, her interior designer, along with contractor Jeff Bayer, of Bayer Construction in Catonsville, couldn’t say no. “It wasn’t the easiest thing to achieve,” says Thim, an associate with Rita St. Clair Associates. “But we were determined to figure it out.”

The fireplace, which dominates what was once a wall of cabinets, drove decisions about storage. Pantry cupboards with roomy pullout bins share a wall with the refrigerator, a scaled-down 30-inch Sub-Zero. Even the stove, from the French company La Cornue, is small—it couldn’t accommodate a holiday turkey or party roast. Going with a smallish oven “was a conscious decision,” says Wolf, who has lived in the Roland Park house for three years. “If I need to cook something large, I can do it at work.” While buying an
industrial grade Wolf was tempting (“number one, it’s a great oven. Number two it has my name on it”), she opted for the brand found in the kitchens of grand homes in the French countryside.

La Cornue stoves come in all sizes and can be ordered in custom colors with matching cabinetry. “I thought about getting baby blue,” says Wolf. “It’s my favorite color.” However, an oven that matches her eyes might not please future homebuyers, she decided, so she went instead with a smoky black, with stainless trim and brass knobs. “I was so excited when it was delivered,” she says. “It sat in the hallway and I almost hugged it a few times.”

In another space accommodation, Wolf’s pots are tucked in an unlikely spot. “I love Julia Child,” she says. “I cooked for her. So I did what she did.” She opens a door with a flourish to reveal a narrow back staircase with walls lined in pegboard, hung with copper and All-Clad cookware—reminiscent of the beloved chef’s own home kitchen, now enshrined in the Smithsonian. Before Wolf redesigned the interior at Charleston seven years ago, she says, “I worked in basements and enclosed rooms for my entire career.” Now she has an expansive view of the restaurant’s dining room, where guests graze on the low country cuisine that has garnered Wolf recognition as a three-time James Beard-award finalist, with Charleston a consistent No. 1 in Zagat, and a top five restaurant nationwide by OpenTable.

Initially, the chef figured her home kitchen would resemble her workplace, with open shelving to keep everything within easy reach and a large stainless steel worktable. “I tried to nudge her toward making it more homey, more warm and inviting,” Thim confides.

Once a fireplace became the focal point, his concerns disappeared. Wolf barraged the designer with photos of fireplaces in French chateaux, stone structures in generations-old kitchens with high ceilings supported by heavy beams and whitewashed walls. She began to fantasize about installing a cast-iron frame so a pot of polenta could hover over an open flame, or fowl could crisp on a spit. “I was at Michel Guérard’s three-star Michelin restaurant outside of Bordeaux, (Les Prés d’Eugènie),” she says. “He has a wood-burning fireplace and does quail in there.”

If her kitchen had been wider, Wolf says she would have installed a center island; “I don’t like cabinetry in my face.” Instead, she faces a plain white wall of tumbled marble bricks, as soft to the eye as a feather pillow. The counter itself is burgundy-colored marble, veined in gray with hints of turquoise. Thim found the stone in a pile of remnants at Universal Marble and Granite Company. “It was probably quarried 30 years ago. You can’t get this anymore,” he says.

The fireplace stone, from Lancaster County, Pa., is laced with shimmering mica, and reminds Wolf of her childhood (“I picked up mica in my driveway in North Carolina,” she says). The thick mantelpiece embedded in the stone was hauled down from the Endless Mountains in northeastern Pennsylvania, and the ceiling beams were reclaimed from a 19th-century Lancaster barn. “It meant a great deal to me to have things from Pennsylvania,” where her parents were both born, she says.

The fireplace represents Wolf’s family in other ways. She envisions sitting around the kitchen table—in this case a charcoal gray, polished soapstone surface with a nickel-colored velveteen tufted banquette—with her mother, sister, niece and nephew, playing board games by the fire. “Our lives have really changed,” she says, “I grew up in a traditional family where everyone would be dressed up on holidays. We’d sit in the living room thinking, ‘Can we please leave?’” Wolf says with a grin. “We’re not like that anymore. We have fun.”

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