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Cooking Up Quite a Reputation

James Barrett of Westin Annapolis is up for Maryland Chef of the Year
What does it take to be Maryland’s Chef of the Year?    
    A concoction like this: The broth is daffodil yellow, screaming of spring, contradicting the misconception that chicken and dumplings is reserved for the cold of winter. Instead of big risen pillows, the dumplings are clever little Italian gnocchi. The geometrical cuts of ­chicken, moist all the way through, have seared surfaces.
    This is not my mother’s chicken and dumplings, and my mother was a celebrated cook who ran the kitchen of our family restaurant.
    Chicken and dumplings à la Chef Barrett rises from tradition to innovation.
    The traditional vegetables are blended into the chicken stock in which they were cooked; hence its flavor and color. The potatoes are transformed into gnocchi, bite-sized dumplings made from potatoes, flour and egg.
    That chicken stock has a lot to do with making good cooks and extraordinary chefs.
    Good stock is one among many skills that’s put Barrett on a short list of five chefs, only one of whom will be named Chef of the Year at the Maryland Restaurant Association’s April 16 banquet in Baltimore.
    A Southern Anne Arundel County boy, Barrett grew up in Fairhaven crabbing and waterfowl hunting with his family. Two uncles are farmers, working land near Routes 4 and 258 that used to be in tobacco. Butchering hogs with his grandfather was part of winter’s routine.
    Tradition was one-half of Jamie Barrett; the other half was as modern as any other kid born in 1972, having a good time in high school, not looking far ahead.
    He worked in local restaurants through high school for pocket money. At Skipper’s Pier in Deale, he progressed from dishwasher to crab hand to line cook to prep cook.
    Anne Arundel Community College, where he was briefly a communications major, wasn’t for him. He fell back on what he knew, working a second gig at Pirates Cove in Galesville as a line cook.
    “It was a great springboard,” he says. Pirates Cove owner Bob Platt had hired a couple of chefs whose passion inspired the young line cook. “We were buying whole fish and chickens and breaking them down to utilize every bit, all the way down to stock from the bones,” Barrett recalls.
    His future came to him over his car radio as he was driving home late from Pirates Cove. Johnson and Wales College of Culinary Arts in Norfolk, Virginia, was offering credit for work experience.
    By summer, the 21-year-old was packed up and headed down.
    At Johnson and Wales, along with speech and math, Barrett’s classes included Stocks and Sauces, Butcher Shop, Bulk Production and Continental Cuisine. In Production Kitchen, Barrett and fellow students cooked “for huge numbers of people.”
    In three years, he earned his bachelor’s degree, graduating cum laude from the Providence, Rhode Island, branch of the college.
    By graduation, Barrett was both humble and able. “I learned how much more I had to learn,” he says. He also had his pick of three hotel jobs.
    Over the next decade, he crisscrossed the country, working in big hotels with lots of growing room in Colorado, New Mexico, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Arizona.
    “I had 18 mailing addresses in 10 years,” says the Southern High grad. “The people you meet, the things you see: It’s unbelievable.”
    He met his wife, Martha, on his first stop along the way. They live in Crofton, raising sons Max, 11, and Sam, nine.
    He kept moving and growing before ending up at Westin Annapolis, which gives him the challenge he likes: “banquets, catering and 24-hour room service” on top of making his hotel restaurant “not just another hotel restaurant.”
    He’s trained to do the routine parts; he rises above routine by returning to his roots.
    “My thing everywhere has been to buy local, seasonal and fresh,” Barrett says. That means buying as much as possible in a 300-mile circle — and the closer to home the better.
    “My grandmother had a backyard garden, so freshness, canning and pickling was what I was used to,” he says. Summer means not only serving what’s fresh now, but also putting up for winter. Tomatoes become preserves; cucumbers pickles — and both show up on the year-round menu at Azure, the Westin’s restaurant.
    On the Westin roof, Barrett grows herbs and raises bees. Herbs flavor and garnish all the dishes; honey he uses, he says, “everywhere I can, even in liquor infusions.”
    “Total product utilization” is another part of Barrett’s philosophy of food. The lingo wouldn’t mean much to our ancestors, but they’d understand the practice of using a chicken, fish or lamb all up, all the way down to the bones. It’s economical — to kitchen and to customer, Barrett says — and it’s in. Calf brains and sweet breads are delicacies in some of his favorite trendy restaurants, though not on Azure’s menu.
    Barrett’s own style favors simplicity over exoticism: “Rather than hiding flavor under tons of other stuff,” he says, “I layer flavors to complement each other.” Thus, a piquant corn-and-fennel salsa accompanies his crab cakes, which rest on a puree of red peppers.
    The comments of diners tell him he’s succeeding. He reports that “guests from all over the country are shocked” — and delighted — to find this hotel restaurant eschews the standardization that never shocks and never surprises.
    Those voices are now amplified by Barrett’s nomination by the public and peers as a finalist in the Maryland Restaurant Association Chef of the Year competition. This is the 58th year “stars of the industry have been voted on based on creativity and consistency of menu and involvement in community,” says the Association’s Sarah Cunningham.
    The first Barrett knew of his nomination was “a phone call from the Maryland Restaurant Association saying he was one of five finalists,” he says, in amazement. “It’s crazy. But I’ll take it. It’s quite an honor.”
    It’s an honor that’s already reverberating. The competition’s been tweeted by George Takei, the former Star Trek officer Sulu who is the Howard Stern show’s announcer on Sirius XM Radio. “He’s got over a million followers,” says Barrett. Voting is being pushed by the corporate office of Westin Hotels, Barrett’s Annapolis employer.
    Give Barrett your vote through March 9 at www.marylandrestaurants.com/events/awards_gala.asp.