Here’s one of those truth-is-stranger-than-fiction facts: Some of the best pastrami in Maryland—west of Corned Beef Row, of course—comes from a “culinary tavern” in Frederick run by an Episcopalian from California.
Whose kitchen produces such savory smoked meat? None other than Kim Firestone, 81, the scion of rubber royalty.
“I [couldn’t] imagine being 81,” he says from the third story of the old department-store building that houses his restaurant, Firestone’s Culinary Tavern. Wisps of white hair sneak out from beneath his Firestone’s baseball cap, exactly as they do on the cover photo of his memoir, Reflections on a Silver Spoon: How a Foodie Found Home. “Looking back, I can remember when I would have thought, ‘Seventy, who cares after that?’ Your perspective changes.”
Over the years, his perspective has shifted seismically. The grandson of Harvey Firestone, the founder of Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, Kimball Firestone was born into the good life, but was never fully comfortable with it. For years he searched for fulfillment, taking a series of jobs—some seemingly in stark contrast to his privileged upbringing—before he discovered his true calling.
“He has a background of having the finest, and he passes that on to the customers,” says Kathy Wasley, who has worked for Firestone in a number of ventures for more than 40 years, including at the restaurant. “How you treat the guests, the music, the environment, the quality of the ingredients—everything has to be the way he likes it.”
It’s Firestone’s obsession with quality—without the pretension—that has made the restaurant, in the heart of downtown Frederick, a favorite among locals and out-of-towners alike. “Every day in a restaurant is like starting from scratch,” he’s fond of saying. “It doesn’t matter how good you might have been yesterday; it’s today that counts.”
As he sits in his office on this chilly March Saturday contemplating his journey, he couldn’t be more grateful for his resurrection as a restaurateur. “It changed my life, because it put me into a different orbit,” the affable Firestone says. “I’m involved with these people every day. It’s almost like having another family.”
The one he was born into was among the most notable of 20th-century American business. Harvey Firestone’s timing couldn’t have been better. He started The Firestone Tire and Rubber Company in Akron, OH, in 1900, just as automobile production was set to explode. It quickly grew to become one of the world’s leading tire manufacturers, posting profits of over $1 million by 1910. (Adjusted for inflation, that’s roughly $25 million today.) A year later, the inaugural Indianapolis 500 was won on Firestone tires, and the brand quickly became a household name.
He can’t recall his parents ever fixing a meal. Not once.
Firestone was just five when his grandfather died in 1938, but by that time his father, Leonard, was ensconced in the family business. Based primarily in Southern California, Len, as his friends called him, played golf and tennis with Hollywood celebrities like Robert Montgomery, and counted President Gerald R. Ford among his friends. At one point, his family lived in a Beverly Hills mansion, but Firestone spent much of his childhood at boarding schools and summer camps. (When he did go to a local school, he was driven there by a chauffeur.) The estate had a pool, a tennis court, and quarters for the staff, including the family cook, Paula. He can’t recall his parents ever fixing a meal. Not even once. Instead, he honed his palate on steak tartare and chicken Kiev at swanky spots like La Rue Restaurant on Sunset Boulevard.
“I wish we’d have had more of a home life,” Firestone says. “We didn’t live like regular folks. We had a lot of help in the house and grew up with things many people didn’t have. Part of what’s motivated me through life is trying to balance that [privilege].”
His collegiate career at Stanford University in the 1950s was interrupted by a three-year enlistment in the army, but, eventually, Firestone graduated with a degree in psychology. After a stint as a reporter at the small Indio Daily News in Southern California, he returned to Stanford for his MBA and worked in investment banking before succumbing to the seemingly inevitable. In 1965, Kim Firestone got into the family business. “I’d avoided connecting with the company,” he says. “But I finally came to the conclusion that maybe I should stop avoiding it and do something for a company that had done a lot for me.”
After various jobs in the financial department at the headquarters of Firestone Tire in Akron, OH, he transferred to Washington, D.C., where he became vice president for government relations. By this time he was settled in suburban Maryland with his wife and five children. On the surface, he seemed to be living the American dream, but he was restless.
Firestone grew up riding horses, and he always appreciated the rhythms and tranquility of farm life—very much the antithesis of the corporate existence he was leading. So in a leap of faith, in 1976, he resigned from the company that bore his name and got into breeding and boarding horses. “He came from an elite environment, but he works like everybody else,” explains Wasley. “He has a farmer’s mentality.”
In 1978, Firestone was adjusting to his new lifestyle when unimaginable tragedy struck. On a sunny summer morning, his firstborn, daughter Kimberley, was killed in a car crash on River Road in Potomac. She was just 16 years old at the time. “It tore me up,” he says, the wound still at the surface decades later. “I was overwhelmed. I felt like I was in a different world for at least six months, because I couldn’t believe it had happened. It had a huge impact on me, and probably my marriage.”
“He came from an elite environment, but has a farmer’s mentality.”
By the early ’80s, the marriage had ended, and, for the first time, Firestone had to fend for himself in the kitchen. “I was cooked for most of my life, by staff, by the boarding schools, by the army,” he says. “When I found myself living by myself on the farm, I thought, ‘I don’t want to go around warming up frozen food,’ so I started to do some cooking and became a decent cook.”
Even as a young boy, Firestone was a bit of a foodie. While at camp one summer, he wrote to his mother, Polly, about a meal in which he’d devoured 11 pieces of watermelon along with chicken, pickles, pickled peaches, and ham-stuffed biscuits. “I ate more than I’ve ever eaten in my life,” he recounts.
Dinners at iconic Los Angeles restaurants such as Chasen’s were treasured, but so were meals in his college dorm, or at an army mess hall. He even enjoyed waiting tables in the dining hall, as a high-school student at The Webb Schools in Claremont, CA. The work seemed to fit his blue-collar ethic. “I enjoyed being part of the action in the kitchen,” he says. “It freed me from having to sit at the table and behave myself.”
When the equine business didn’t pan out (nor did a rather random attempt at shrimp larvae farming in Ecuador), he saw an ad in the Frederick News-Post for a small frozen-yogurt store in a Frederick strip mall, which he bought and transformed into a sandwich shop that also sold baked goods. “I think I have a basic gene of entrepreneurship that takes me off in different directions,” he says. “They don’t all necessarily make sense, but I like to get into new things.”
Clearly, his nomadic nature was aided by a healthy bank account, which he’s reticent to discuss. He will say, however, that while he had sold much of his Firestone stock before the Japanese corporation Bridgestone bought the company in 1988 (a windfall for stockholders), he wasn’t going to starve without gainful employment. “I had a safety net, shall we say, that enabled me to keep going even when things weren’t going particularly well,” he says. “I’m fortunate in that regard.”
And in this one: When the lease on his cafe ran out, Donnelly’s Irish Pub, a longtime Frederick staple, came up for sale. With a prime location on Market Street, Firestone had a hunch it could fit his vision for a “casual but elegant” eatery.
When Firestone’s Restaurant and Bar (later renamed Firestone’s Culinary Tavern) opened in 1999, it was in trouble, because Firestone had a hard time finding the right staff. “I’ve always found the secret to success is getting good people and letting them do their jobs,” he says. Stability came when he hired Jack Walker, who took over as executive chef and stayed for 14 years—an eternity in the restaurant business. Under the direction of Walker (who left in 2013), with plenty of input from the boss, the restaurant acquired a reputation for serving consistently delicious dishes. Top-quality ingredients also have been key to its appeal. “I tried to use the freshest ingredients from as many local purveyors as we could, but still make the menu approachable,” Walker says. “The friendliness of it reflects Kim. He’s very approachable. You can be open with him. That’s the secret of the restaurant. He has a standard he wants to uphold.”
Diners have taken note. The place draws Frederick regulars and visitors from Baltimore and D.C. These days, after eating lunch at the restaurant, Firestone likes to pitch in behind the counter at his next-door market, which sells sandwiches, soups, and staples along with more gourmet offerings like 18-month aged Gouda. His four children and two stepsons are scattered throughout the country with his 13 grandkids, while he continues to live on a Middleton farm in Frederick County with his yellow lab, Chiquita, and a dozen or so chickens. Each morning he feeds his flock and collects their eggs. In the growing season, he tends to the tomatoes and herbs in his garden. Sometimes he plucks basil for the restaurant.
It’s a simple, peaceful existence for a man who took nearly a lifetime to carve out his proper path. “Everybody knows him,” says Gillian Berluti, the manager of the market and Wasley’s daughter. “It’s a passion project. He loves good food and drinks and making people happy. It’s more than just a business—it’s a life.”