Wearing his trademark horn-rimmed glasses, chef's whites, and well-worn Dansko clogs, Linwood Dame stands in the corner of his open kitchen, puts a pinch of English sea salt over a watermelon-and-feta salad and simultaneously studies the row of lunch tickets to make sure the food is finding its way to the tables in a timely fashion.
"Was this tuna returned because the first piece was overcooked?" Dame grills a server as he garnishes a plate. "How long has this table been waiting?" he asks another server. "What do we have on pick up?" he shouts to a sous chef.
It's high noon at Linwoods restaurant on a warm spring day, and the lunchtime crowd is humming. Today, like most days, Dame stands "on the line," acting as the liaison between servers and chefs. With the seriousness of an airport security guard, Dame inspects each and every white Villeroy & Boch plate that goes out—perfectly propping a crusty baguette next to a heady bowl of bubbling onion soup, positioning a dish of raita just so alongside a plate of barbecued salmon, drizzling green olive oil on an appetizer of roasted tomatoes with rustic pesto. With his 6-foot-3-inch stature and shock of gray hair, Dame (or "Woody" as he is affectionately called) not only presides over the kitchen but physically towers over the dining room, his very presence enabling diners to eat with ease. Quite simply, they know there's nothing like a meal at Dame's.
"People walk in that door and look for him in that line," says night chef Jay Rohlfing. "It's reassuring for them when they see him. As a boss, he's tough, but he's honest. He works just as hard as you do. He comes in the morning, and he stays until it's over."
Like most Thursdays, this one will be a long day's journey into night. Dame has been here all morning, meeting with his catering crew, working the lunch line, and running his weekly manager's meeting (during which every waiter and bus boy are discussed as well as the glassware and lightbulb inventories). And fueled by his passion for the work (and the steam of a daily afternoon double espresso), he works the dinner shift until nine before going back to his Federal-style home in Cockeysville.
After 20 years at the helm of Linwoods, the 54-year-old Dame is still going strong. His innovative cuisine, taking inspiration from India to Asia to California, draws power players, leaders of industry, and Greenspring-Valley types. "His food is consistently great," says Stone Mill Bakery owner Alfie Himmelrich. "He doesn't compromise and that shows in every aspect of what he does. He has kept his hand in every aspect of the business because he's driven to be the best."
Designer Jay Jenkins of Jenkins Baer Associates, who has known Dame personally and professionally for more than a decade, also speaks in superlatives. "Genteel and gentleman are the best ways to describe Woody," says Jenkins, who recently gave the space a dramatic face-lift. "I have always admired his taste, his thoughtful way of treating everyone, and his desire to uphold the highest standards of his profession."
The business is a family affair. His wife, Ellen, (with whom he fell in love when he saw her riding a circus elephant on TV during her Richmond, VA, reporting days) works the front of the restaurant and greets most customers by name, while son, John, 17, a junior at St. Paul's School, hosts. "I opened my doors for the first time in the summer of 1988," says Dame, "and I couldn't believe it. Our first Saturday night, we fed 80 people, and we did a pretty good job. The next Saturday, we did 150, and we did a terrible job—we had to back it up. I was way over my projections—it was quite a ride."
When Dame opened his doors in Owings Mills, he was an unknown in a town whose culinary kudos included snowballs, crabs with Old Bay, and Berger cookies. Still, the food business had been good to him, and he was undaunted by the challenge. Straight out of the famed Culinary Institute of America (CIA), Dame co-owned a successful French bistro, The Butlery in Richmond, VA, for several years, but after issues with his partner (who wanted to expand the business too quickly), he decided to move to Baltimore to be closer to his wife's family and open a place he could call his own.
At the time, the now-bustling stretch of Reisterstown Road that Linwoods calls home was a culinary wasteland. "I knew I was going to open a restaurant," says Dame. "I just didn't know where. I got tours of kitchens from Canton to Dundalk. As I sat in traffic jams up and down I-83, I noticed Mercedes and BMWs going out of the city, and I realized the money was in the county."
The type of food to be served was important, too. Recalls Ellen, "Things were really happening in the California food scene, and it had yet to reach Baltimore. We liked the idea of creating a place where people could come on a Tuesday night and have something simple, or they could come in on a Saturday night and have an innovative meal that was serious and sophisticated."
While the menu has grown with more tapas-style choices and the catering business is booming, the food is still known for its freshness, quality, and consistency. "When Linwoods opened, there was nothing like it in northern Baltimore," says Kenneth Himmelstein, owner of Samuel Parker Clothier, who eats at Linwoods twice a week. "Other than Ruth's Chris, there's still nothing like it in the area for casual, sophisticated dining. I go because I like the atmosphere. I like the service. I can go there and get a hamburger or the best piece of fish in town."
Back in the kitchen, dozens of catering orders are taped to a white tile wall. Within the next few days, Dame will cater a small luncheon with barbecued duck for one of Baltimore's most high-powered families and throw a 60th birthday party for 275 with hand-shucked oysters and chilled jumbo shrimp. Behind the scenes, Dame checks in with then-catering chef Alison Fishbein as she peels 15 pounds of beets for a Washington, D.C. wedding and speaks with Saon Brice, who is experimenting with micro greens in yellow-and-blue gelatin for a nautical-themed bar mitzvah. As his staff buzzes around behind the scenes with the energy and urgency of an inner-city emergency room, Dame gets ready for four off- and on-site catering events the next day. By the end of the next day, he will have fed 1,000 people, not including the some 400 he feeds daily at the restaurant. Then again, it's just another day at Linwoods. "I never stopped to think of it that way," he says when asked how many people he feeds a year. Numbers have never daunted him.
Dame's first cooking school was his mother's humble kitchen in a South Side Chicago home, where 10 children would crowd on two benches around a large rectangular farmhouse table. "There were two seats on each end—my father at one end and my mother at the other end, always next to a baby in a high chair," Dame says. As the eldest, he was helping his mother, Bobby Jean, bake chocolate cakes and prepare meals at age five. "We never went out to dinner because we couldn't afford to, so preparing dinner was a big deal in our house. My mother would roast whole chickens, and they'd be lined up across the table. My love for food came from that, not really knowing at that time that's what I wanted to do. It was just part of my life."
But finding a more formal profession after dropping out of Peru State College in Nebraska a few weeks into his freshman year didn't come as easily. After working for a construction company and cleaning up blood spills in a local slaughterhouse, he had enough bus fare to make the trek back to Chicago from college. "I just showed up [at home]," Dame recalls. "I can still see my father sitting here. He said, 'What are you doing home?' I said, 'I quit.' And he said, 'Rent starts on Monday.'"
After a year of odd jobs in construction, the then-18-year-old Dame enlisted with the U.S. Coast Guard, where he stayed for four years. It was on a buoy tender boat in Lake Superior that Dame developed his work ethic and honed his cooking skills. "Those were the greatest years of my life," he says, "and I learned there is no such thing as 'no.' I did things I definitely wouldn't do today. We had to go out and get stranded sailboats out on the high seas, or we would take a small boat over to a buoy and have to strap ourselves onto it to fix the buoy—no matter the weather. I'm surprised I'm alive."
Cooking also became a source of great pride. "We had these five-gallon drums off to the side of the boat, and we'd cook," says Dame. "Fishermen from Lake Superior would drop off the fish, and we'd set the grills up and go to work on the fish. Instead of going to the commissaries, we'd go into town and buy what we needed. There were instant mashed potatoes on the boat, but we'd go and buy real potatoes, strip steaks, and tenderloin."
Toward the end of his tour of duty, Dame considered a career in cooking and asked the captain if he could become the ship's cook so that he would get the experience he needed to apply to culinary school. The captain agreed, and by 1982, Dame had graduated number two in his class (just behind Michael Chiarello, Emmy-winning Food Network chef) from the legendary Culinary Institute of America.
Dame is known around town not only for his food, but also among food suppliers, as being one of the most discriminating palates in the business. "Whether it's sea bass that has skin on it when it's not supposed to, or if a filet comes in a little too small, he will make you come back again," says Stephen Vilnit, marketing manager of Jessup-based seafood supplier J.J. McDonnell. "I can't count how many times I've dropped things off myself on my way home. He definitely knows what he wants. It's a top-notch operation from the quality of the product they use to their quality control. They don't skimp on anything."
Dame concurs that he will not compromise when it comes to quality. "If I want to buy rockfish, that rockfish has to be the thickest cuts or don't send it to me," he says. "With iceberg lettuce, how many heads are in a case? I want that head to look the same every time. We want our guys in the produce houses to open the box and check it, because when it gets to the front door here, we are going to check it. Fuel is expensive, so it better look right or it's going back, and I want it back again within a few hours."
General manager Lesley Desautels, who has worked for Linwood for 14 years, recalls his first words to her when they met. "He said, 'Hi, I'm Linwood Dame,'" remembers Desautels. "'I expect 100 percent, 100 percent of the time.'"
Dame still feels that way, but he's softened over the years. "I have high standards," agrees Dame, "but I manage completely differently than I did 20 years ago—I could be pretty brutal. And I can still be pretty brutal from time to time. If you make a mistake, you are going to hear it, and I won't be polite. I don't care if you are having a bad day because this is where we have to be right now."
Says Linwoods executive chef Thomas Devine, who has known Dame for 23 years, "In the early years, plates would get smashed," he recalls with a laugh. "He has mellowed."
But Dame has not relaxed in his enthusiasm for food. While he enjoys an occasional Orioles game, a thrice-weekly workout with a personal trainer, world-class vacations (he just returned from a Mediterranean cruise) and is an avid reader (Ted Sorenson's Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History was a recent book), food is both profession and passion. "I live to eat," says Dame.
His executive chef agrees. "He wakes up at 6:45, and by 7:15 he knows what he is having for dinner," says Devine. "Years ago, Linwood was in Paris with Ellen, and it must have been midnight there. He called me, and I could barely hear him. He says, 'Do you have a pen and paper? I just ate these well-cooked haricots vert in a nice vinaigrette and the best salad. Are you getting all this down?'"
That devotion to food has paid off. "When we opened, the community didn't know him," says Devine. "He really wanted to earn the respect of his customers through his food. That's hard to do, but he really did it."