Tony Foreman, People Person: Big Fish Q & A With Baltimore Restaurateur

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Tony Foreman

Tony Foreman has changed the face of Baltimore’s food scene. In 1995, when he moved back to Baltimore to open the restaurant Savannah (with his then wife, still business partner Cindy Wolf) the top restaurants in town were Tio Pepe and The Prime Rib — both of which had been around for nearly 30 years.

Since then, Foreman Wolf has opened six restaurants — Charleston, Petit Louis Bistro, Pazo, Cinghiale, and Johnny’s in Baltimore, and a second Petit Louis in Columbia – all of which they own. Along the way, they have churned out a few Baltimore food stars — Charm City Cakes’ Duff Goldman and Josh Hershkovitz of Hersh’s Pizza & Drinks to name a few — and countless trained waitstaff, raising the bar for Baltimore’s restaurants.

With a B.S. from the Widener School of Hospitality Management and a Sommelier Certificate from the Colmar School in France, Foreman is both chef and sommelier. Well-honed and perfectly dressed, he is the consummate professional in a business that often seems to be anything but. His default mode is reserve, rather than extrovert.   And yet, he is a champion for the people on his “team” — a conscientious boss (not his word) who loves to teach, offers health insurance to all employees, and promotes managers exclusively from within.

Foreman oversees a staff of 350 people, in six restaurants, seven nights a week. He tries to visit every restaurant, every day. In addition, he and his partner Wolf host a regular radio show on WYPR called Foreman and Wolf on Food and Wine. Every year he travels the world, often with members of his staff, to experience food and vintages in their native culture. It’s a busy life for a quiet guy.

Mr. Foreman is 49. He grew up in Roland Park and graduated from Gilman School. Married, with a new baby, he lives in Roland Park with his wife Katie. Baltimore Fishbowl met with him recently at a corner table in Johnny’s.

I read that you always planned to come back to Baltimore to be a part of making this town better. 

I don’t know if it was planned exactly, but yes, I love Baltimore, I have great belief in this city and I wanted to come back. It’s a bit of an underdog town, and when people say “you can’t do that in Baltimore” it pisses me off – I think “Oh, yeah? Watch me.”

What was your first job in the restaurant business?

When I was 14, I started working at The Governor’s Club on Eutaw Street – it’s gone now. I was a dishwasher.

Did you come from a ‘foodie’ family?

(Laughs) No, the opposite. But because of our family situation, and because I was the oldest, I cooked for everyone. I guess I got to like kitchens…

Did you always know you wanted to be in the restaurant business? You went to a hotel school…

 The only thing I learned at hotel school was not to hire people who go to hotel school! And no, I didn’t always know. I wanted to be a teacher and a football coach.

Where did you meet Cindy?

We were both working at a restaurant on K Street [in Washington, D.C.] called Georgia Brown’s.

How do you two divide up the work in an operation as big as Foreman Wolf?

Cindy loves the kitchen, and the kitchen at Charleston in particular is her baby. I like to do a bit of everything.

Describe your typical day.

There really isn’t one, they’re super-varied. A lot of days start early, with the farmers at market, or at the bakery with the pastry chefs — that’s early morning stuff. The middle of the day is family time. Usually I visit every restaurant, every day, and I’m involved in all parts of the business. In a 20-minute span I may be tasting wine, showing someone how to shuck oysters, polishing glasses. I may be talking to the dishwashers – tabletops are unbelievably expensive, so that becomes an important job.

What’s the biggest challenge in your job?

Balance. Doing the right thing by all parties. Some people get to be successful by ignoring the people component of the business, but its important to me to do right by my people.

Does offering medical insurance and promoting from within help attract better staff?

I don’t know, but at least I can sleep at night!

 What do you look for when hiring a restaurant manager? How do you train your staff?

Managers grow from the inside. They have to be good teammates, they have to take the job personally. It involves keeping things sane in the kitchen, among other things. Managers hire the waitstaff, chefs hire in the kitchen – it’s their arena, I can’t be that involved. With waitstaff, the most important thing is training the eye to notice what needs attention. We have a big list of training procedures, an ‘order of service.’ And we never stop training.

What do you think of the locavore movement in Baltimore?  

The locavore movement is a little funny to me.  I don’t understand why common sense is a trendy thing.  We have worked with two dozens farms locally for over fifteen years.  It’s just easier to get good product from folks who you know.

 Each of your restaurants is different. What inspires them?

The origin of each one is personal. I have a full-blown movie in my head of what I want them to be. Usually something I saw, somewhere. Petit Louis is a fantasy of a French neighborhood restaurant that’s been around for years. It was inspired by a place in Paris called Chez l’Ami Louis. When we were thinking about opening Louis in Columbia, we found that people wanted a larger scale, destination restaurant. So we changed the formula a bit.

I always felt that Johnny’s was maybe your favorite…

Well, it was the newest one, and new babies are always that way. They need attention, they need care. The intention was to be the opposite of Petit Louis, to fill a different need.

Who is Johnny?

There are eleven Johns in my family. I’m John Antony, no h.

Who is your role model in this business?

George Jackson, who owned the Governor’s Club. He prioritized the people he spent the day with, and tried to make their lives a little better.

 Do you watch cooking shows?

Very few. A lot of those people are misguided. It’s all about themselves, not about the people they’re working with.

Why are you successful, in a business where 80 percent of restaurants fail within five years?

I don’t focus on being successful, I focus on improving. You can’t think about what happened yesterday in this business. I’m pretty confident, I do the best I can, and I go to sleep every night planning to do better tomorrow.

 What’s the best moment of your day?

Waking up my daughter first thing in the morning. She’s started saying “da-da, da-da”! Sometimes she says “da-doo.”

Describe your last meal.

My wife Katie’s Italian wedding soup. I mean it. It’s a light meatball soup, very simple. The meatballs are made with ground turkey or chicken. With it, maybe a glass of Sangiovese.

 



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2 COMMENTS

  1. Quality, heart, and hard work clearly matter deeply to you (and CIndy) on every level of your creative endeavors. It sounds like employees are treated almost like extended family – high expectations with training to succeed. When I moved here 20+ years ago, I couldn’t understand why there were so few decent (much less excellent) restaurants. Today, there are many wonderful options to discover at all price points. Thank you for sharing your European sensibilities with Baltimore and Columbia, and best wishes to your family.

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