Serving It Up
Frederick's Top Chefs Dish on Their Favorite Restaurants, Home Cooking Tips and What They Like to Eat
Frederick County is home to dozens of restaurants, ranging from simple cafés and diners to fine dining establishments that have become regional destinations, as well as many ethnic eateries reaching nearly every section of the globe.
To find out more about the people who make Frederick such a dining hub, we sat down with seven of the area’s best chefs to discuss their cooking philosophies, favorite places to eat and even advice for novice home cooks. The seven chefs we chose are: Ric Ade at Ayse Meze Lounge; Stephen Hartzell at The Tasting Room; Pha Huynh at Lucky Corner Vietnamese Restaurant; Rich Regan at Monocacy Crossing; Chris Smallwood at Alexander’s at Buckeystown; Bryan Voltaggio at VOLT and Family Meal; and Jack Walker at Firestone’s Culinary Tavern.
When did you know you wanted to be a chef?
Ade: I’d say 17, when I worked in some restaurants in high school. I decided to go into the Navy. They said, “What do you do?” I said, “I cook a little bit.” I progressed there, and when I got out I went to college for cooking. It just built up from there. Hartzell: I started messing around in the kitchen when I was 10, 12 years old. I never wanted to be a doctor or a fireman or a policeman, I wanted to go away to France to be a chef. Huynh: I’ve been cooking since 1984. I was working at the Hyatt Hotel and Conference Center in Washington, D.C. Smallwood: When I stopped being a dishwasher. They just moved me up to line cook out of necessity. I liked doing it, and it’s what I went to school for. Voltaggio: It started probably when I was working at the Holiday Inn at [Francis Scott Key] Mall. I was 14 years old. I was a busboy and asked the chef if I enrolled in a culinary program at [Frederick Community College] or the Career and Tech Center if I could work in the kitchen. I did and that’s when I got my first job as a cook in a restaurant. Walker: Probably my early 20s. I joined the Marine Corps and injured myself in boot camp, so I left. When I came back I was working in restaurants, and I’ve always enjoyed the people in restaurants more than anything. Regan: I was late coming into it. I always knew I wanted to work for myself, but I was out in the business world, a couple sales positions, I kept quitting and working part time at a restaurant in Baltimore. Eventually, it got in my blood, and I couldn’t get the same challenges out in the nine-to-five world as I was getting in restaurants.
What do you like to eat when you go out?
Voltaggio: For me, it depends on the time of year. This time of the year I want to go out for crabs—I’m a Maryland guy at heart. … I’m a big fan of barbecue. I search everywhere I go in a new city and in our area. I’m always looking for barbecue. I love Hispanic food. I love really authentic Hispanic food. If I’m in San Francisco, I’ll go into Chinatown and look for a great restaurant there. A lot of it is travel oriented. Ade: Everything. I was just on vacation, we did contemporary Mexican, a tapas restaurant, a farm-to-fork type of Southern restaurant and barbecue. I was in North Carolina, so I did barbecue. Hartzell: I love spicy food. I love Thai food, I love dumplings. I love Korean food. Anything that will make me sweat. I love Indian food. I really, really crave spicy food a lot of the times. I love Latino food. I’m a taco junkie. I can crush tacos. Huynh: Mostly Thai food. It’s my favorite. Spicy food. Sometimes Chinese. Regan: My wife and I have a 10-year-old daughter, she loves going out to eat. As long as we get value for our meal, it could be a hot dog stand or La Diplomat, down in D.C. I don’t mind dropping a fortune on a meal as long as I come away feeling like that was worth every penny. Smallwood: I don’t really go out a lot. If I were to go out it would probably be sushi or Southern. Walker: Pizza. As far as the sophisticated stuff, I like straightforward, kind of simple stuff. I really like Southern, Low Country-fare type of stuff.
Where do you like to eat in Frederick County?
Hartzell: I kind of bounce around, and try to support everybody. It’s one thing I’ve loved about this town. … I love going to VOLT and getting some small plates. Wine Kitchen has an awesome charcuterie; the chicken-liver mousse is out of this world. I go there to get that. Summitra has great Thai. Huynh: There are many good restaurants here. Mostly I go back to Virginia or Montgomery County. I lived there for many years. Smallwood: Lucky Corner. Voltaggio: For barbecue, sometimes I go to the Blues BBQ Co. Truck. I tend to go there quite often. We also go to Mangia e Bevi with the family. They take great care of us. Normally, I don’t eat out a lot. I like Black Hog BBQ & Bar, too. Walker: Honestly, I don’t go out much. And when I do, it’s not in Frederick. I enjoy having drinks at the Tasting Room after work, and I like to go to Blue’s BBQ Co. Truck. Ade: When I’m home here, I’m busy. I don’t normally get the opportunity, but I might sneak out to lunch. I like to frequent the Downtown restaurants. I live Downtown, so I like to support that, and keep the money Downtown as much as possible.
What are the most common mistakes home cooks and other novices make in the kitchen?
Walker: Not heating the pans up enough. Not knowing the time they put something in, the weight of something, and trying to do too much, get too elaborate. Ade: Not enough salt. Those little tiny shakers, they don’t work. People come to restaurants and say, “This tastes so good. What’d you season it with?” Salt and pepper. It’s just seasoned properly. Voltaggio: Flavor enhancers: Acid, salt, citrus. These little things incrementally add to get the right balance. Hartzell: A lot of home cooks follow recipes to the T. They’re too afraid to deviate from the recipe, move something, pull something out they don’t like. There might be mustard seeds in a recipe, and they say, “Oh, I don’t like mustard; I’m not going to do this recipe.” Just take them out. Don’t think it’s going to ruin the whole dish because you don’t like something. Regan: I think they just have a fear. They don’t understand cooking is really simple. With all these recipes and everything, it gets daunting. To be honest with you, it’s not. Those are guidelines. You just need to start with quality ingredients and you’re always going to wind up with a nice end product. … Home cooking, you should just have fun. Smallwood: Cooking at home, you have to keep it simple. You can’t be playing around with so many things you can do in a [commercial] kitchen with a range that’s 10 burners, 12 burners. … I think it’s keeping it simple and just master the techniques, instead of trying to make little blocks of food and stuff like that, getting all foo foo. Huynh: I think most of it has to do with having the right recipe and all the ingredients for it. That’s the major part of trying to make a similar dish to what we have. It’s very doable, it all comes down to knowing how to be able to cook, how to prepare it, what comes first, what goes last. That’s the most important part of cooking.
What is the best tip you can give to novice cooks?
Huynh: For someone learning how to cook, it’s not just about going and throwing everything in there. It’s step-by-step. First you have to know how to season, how to marinate, what goes with what. … Maybe the flame is too high, and you need to cook something on low heat. Hartzell: The use of acid, vinegars and stuff, for finishing sauces or roasts. Not everybody does it, but put a little vinegar in there. It cuts through fat, it brightens up the dish, it elevates the complexity of it and it really adds some balance. I’m a huge believer in balance, as all chefs are. Walker: For beginning cooks, I always say stick to one continent. If something has an Italian flair, stick to Europe as your other ingredients you’re going to put in there. Eventually you can kind of move on from that. I think people try to put a lot of types of cuisine into one meal and it just doesn’t work. Regan: Strip it all the way down. Grill something. Braise something. Poach something. Boil something. Get the moist-heat cooking and high-heat cooking methods down. Ade: Read. Practice and read. Smallwood: People come in and get the pork chops all the time, or get the chicken and say, “How did this get so juicy?” or “How does this stay so juicy?” Brine. Brine’s one of those simple things you can do at home and you get a lot of mileage out of it. Voltaggio: I think the biggest complaint I get is, even with the nonstick pans, people are afraid to get a good sear on a piece of meat or fish. … People don’t want to get their countertop all splattered with grease spots, but cooking, searing or sautéing requires high heat.
What is your favorite comfort food?
Smallwood: Macaroni and cheese. Voltaggio: My mother makes a really great tomato sauce, so her pasta and meat sauce. Ade: Meatloaf. Fried chicken. It’s a mix, it goes back and forth. Hartzell: One thing I miss from time to time, or if I see it on a menu, like Cafe Nola does a good job with theirs—meatloaf. It takes me back to being a child and sitting down to dinner with the whole family. It takes me back to a simpler time. Huynh: My pho. I could eat the pho everyday. [Laughs] Regan: My wife’s lemon chicken. I could eat that every day. Walker: Pizza. Hands down. And cold fried chicken.
What’s your favorite guilty pleasure snack?
Ade: Peanuts. Salted Planter’s, not even fancy Williamsburg ones. Hartzell: Frosted Mini Wheats. I always have cereal at home. It’s quick and easy. Huynh: Sweets. I love sweets, desserts and stuff like that. Cake, or something like that. Regan: Salt and vinegar potato chips. Those are awesome. Smallwood: Pretzels. Voltaggio: I’m in a weight loss competition with a bunch of other chefs, so right now I don’t have any. [Laughing] Anything crispy … crispy and salty. Some sort of chip or something like that. Popcorn is probably on there, too. Walker: I love junk food. Probably PayDays. I love PayDays. PayDays and gummy bears.