What’s Cooking at Hotel Revival?

There’s not much that Wilbur Cox Jr. cannot stomach. The Executive Chef at Hotel Revival in Baltimore freely admits “I’ll eat anything.”

Despite being a bona fide member of the offal-elite—those who never say no to any animal part, Cox is also a diehard vegetable lover. He makes liberal use of them at Square Meal, one of the new restaurants at the new hotel at Mount Vernon Place, expected to open early next year.

It’d be easy to categorize the restaurant as another farm-to-table. But that genre doesn’t capture the spirit of Cox’s cooking. Sure, the food is fresh; yes, it’s from a farm. True, he’s friends with fishermen and ranchers. Duly noted. But here’s what makes his take better. A real connection, a deep memory, comfort from a farm. When Cox was a boy, he spent summers on his grandmother’s acres out in North Carolina. So while Square Meal’s dishes could simply be an ode to the farms of Maryland (boring), Cox seems to realize that what you eat is an antidote to hunger pangs. In brief, he speaks the language of the stomach—cheesy, crispy, umami, McRibby. Growl. And should he forget, the boy that ate hot buttered biscuits on a summer day 20 years ago will remind him to up the yum. Employ the chef skills for sure, but don’t be beneath using bribery to tempt people to eat their vegetables. They are so much more pleasant when they’re shaped like noodles, or smoked over charcoal, or when bacon is mixed in.

The chef’s infusing fun back on the farm: sweet potato gnocchi, bacon dashi, buttermilk dressings, and mushroom crisps all make appearances at Hotel Revival’s Square Meal and Topside.

Joyride caught up with the chef who, although has played serious, working alongside some of the best in Baltimore, County Cavan in Ireland and in Southern Norway, was vamping up comfort food that could be packaged as happy meals for the three karaoke rooms.

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What would surprise people about the region’s food?  

The city food scene is way more exciting. When I was a teenager, Baltimore was all about Crab Imperial with two sides, or Maryland crab soup. Now it’s about the oyster. We also get seafood unavailable anywhere else, like soft-shell clams. They look like baby geoducks (pronounced gooey-duck).

I keep coming back (from doing stints across the country) to Baltimore because of the state’s culinary diversity. We’ve got the Eastern Shore for seafood; the mountains in the West have almost Appalachian cuisines. Ninety minutes north is Amish country. The city chefs use all of this.

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Favorite Maryland ingredients?

Prosperity Acres for their amazing goats, which I’ll be using in a ravioli. Goot Essa’s cheeses. Baugher’s Orchards grows cherries, apples, and Asian pears. The vegetables, and the amazing lettuce, at Karma Farms. For American whiskey and rums, the restaurant has partnered with Old Line Spirits and Peabody Heights, both of which can be toured.

Why do eaters fall in love with Amish ingredients?

Goot Essa is a great example. Here’s this world class operation in Howard, Pennsylvania. It’s not just how manual the process is but how all the ingredients come from the same farm. They feed the cows that they milk for the cheese. The milk is still warm when it goes to the building where the cheese is made. Goot Essa also has their own underground geothermal-cooled aging cave. If you buy cheese at the supermarket, god knows how many cows’ milk went into that block.

If visitors to Baltimore want to taste Amish delicacies, where should they go?

The Lancaster County Central Market or just get lost on a country road and stop by the numerous farm stands that litter the side of rural highways.

Blow me away with an item on the menu. 

We have partnered with Liberty Delight Farms and they produce amazing beef.  We will smoke short ribs on the bone low and slow for about 8 hours.  We will then glaze them with preserved peach / chili “BBQ”, and finish them with bone marrow aioli and puffed beef Chicarrones.  This way you will experience three different cuts in three different textures, all from the same animal.

What are your favorite techniques?

I like to cure and to ferment, for sure. But transforming cheap ingredients into something great is close to my heart. Anyone can take an expensive cut of meat and make it delicious. But what about a pig’s tail or a lamb’s neck? I want them to standout. I want to make diners appreciate those cuts of meat.

You say you love butchering … vegetables. You also like cooking vegan/vegetarian. Why?

A vegetable can express so many flavors depending on what you do with it. It can be contorted. Going back to what I said about cheap ingredients, I can take a common (and cheap) sweet potato and make it incredible.  If you roast sweet potato in its skin, peel it, then hang the flesh in cheese cloth for two days in the fridge, we call the resulting liquid “sweet potato maple.” If I want to go further, I’ll add a few pinches of salt and let the sweet potato maple stand at room temperature for a week, fermenting. The finished product will have the consistency of maple syrup but smell like lavender. Mind Blown!

That’s great that you have such a love for vegetables. So many times, if you make special requests at a restaurant, they can’t be accommodated.

When a chef has an attitude about cooking vegetarian for a customer or any other requests, that pisses me off. That customer is paying your salary. That’s your chance to get creative and to create a moment for that person.

You are an amateur forager. Any luck finding anything?

I found a Berkeley’s Polypore that weighed 15.6 pounds. I’ve also foraged lion’s mane, chicken of the woods, Dryad Saddle, hens of woods, wood ear, reishi, and chanterelles.  Also cat tails, wild garlic mustard, and Queen Anne’s lace.

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What’s exciting to you in the ‘food trend’ world?

Baltimore is still the new kid on the block but the food scene is blowing up. This year one of the chefs in the city won a James Beard Award. You can find what you want whenever now. That’s what’s putting us on the map now. People always ask why I don’t move to D.C. I like Baltimore just fine. It’s a city of neighborhood.

I like the shared knowledge of food. For the first time, we can see what’s going on around the world in the palm of our hand and learn from others far away.

With this connectedness, we now compete on the world food scene. Because of this, chefs now have to go the extra mile. Your old normal isn’t good enough. You need to shock the diner a bit, and take them out of what they know.

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Is food paired with karaoke also a trend to expect?

It’s completely clever. I loved the idea when Revival told me about the three private karaoke rooms. I don’t know anyone else doing this. For the karaoke menu, we’re going to do playful renditions on your favorite fast foods, like the “RoFaux” Box based on my favorite fried chicken at Royal Farms. Only, we will fry smoked quail, and include marble potato fries, and house made bread and butter pickles.

What’s your karaoke go-to?

“Humpty Dance” by Digital Underground; and Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me.”

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