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feb. 6 washington spy

February 06, 2002

Spy food


"Pasta makes the world go round. Pizza holds it together," says Nelson Haje Jr., owner/chef of the Washington Spy Restaurant, the downtown eatery that has given new life to the building that served for years as Hagerstown's Greyhound bus terminal.


Haje came to Hagerstown from Potomac, Md., where he owned a pizza and pasta place. When hunting a spot for his restaurant, he first looked on the outskirts of town. But he and his wife, Karen, like local history and were interested in the downtown architecture and the way the city was laid out. The bus station, at 33 Antietam St., wasn't on the market, but Haje approached the owner and struck a deal.

Haje named his restaurant Washington Spy - the name of Washington County's first newspaper, a weekly published from 1790 through 1797.

The entrance is at the back of the building - a few steps off the lot large enough to handle buses in the old days, now with room for plenty of free parking for his patrons. Washington Spy can accommodate 150 in four seating areas, and private parties as well.


The flavor of the old terminal - old photos and the original ticket window - blend with those of a very diverse menu. Burgers, fries and chicken, are surely there, but they take a back page in a bill of fare that includes Pesto, Neopolitan Crostini and Frito Misto appetizers, Souvlaki, and two pages of entrees - pastas and meats and seafood, and a page each of creative calzones and specialty pizzas.

Washington Spy also features a large beer list, including vintage brews - maybe a couple of hundred, Haje estimates.

"I read about beer. I seek beer," he says, claiming the largest selection from D.C. to New York.

Haje kiddingly refers to himself and the New-York-born John Cardinale as Oscar and Felix - the "Odd Couple" of Broadway, film and TV. He also made sure to mention Ryan Osteen, another Spy chef.

Q: What kind of environment do you need to cook?

A: "Clean is number one," Haje says.

"I like a nice spacious environment," says Cardinale.

Q: How did you come to be a chef? What's your training and experience?

A: "My whole family is in it. My grandfather was a chef in Italy. Two uncles were chefs on Italian cruise lines. My father was pastry chef at the Venice for years," says Cardinale.

Cardinale got his first cooking job at the Venice, the Hagerstown hotel, when he was a sophomore in high school. Cardinale is a 1985 graduate of The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. He did his apprenticeship in Florida, and worked in Florida restaurants for six years.

"I started washing dishes at a nursing home at 16. I moved up to chef's helper," Haje says. He grew up and learned to cook in the Washington, D.C., area.

"It was all on-the-job training from chefs who didn't mind teaching," Haje says.

Q: How do you know how much food to order?

A: "It's hard in Hagerstown," Haje says. "I order minimum amounts of food. If we run out, so be it. Everything is fresh," he says.

The hardest thing is getting people to come downtown, Haje says. He's hosted cigar dinners, beer tastings, featured jazz musicians. Attendance hasn't met his hopes or expections. He's proud of his restaurant, proud of the food he serves in generous amounts at prices that are not outrageous. He just wants more people to give it a try.

Q: What's the hardest thing about being a chef?

A: "Technically, I don't find anything hard," Cardinale says. "Our menu is very diversified. A few key ingredients can be adapted into different dishes," he adds.

Q: Do you have any cooking tricks?

A: "There are no tricks in the kitchen. A good chef does not take short cuts. Organization and discipline in yourself helps you cook better," Cardinale says.

Q: What's your favorite part of being a chef?

A: "Sauting," says Cardinale without hesitation "I love going out to the restaurant to see people," he adds.

Both enjoy the creative nature of their profession.

Haje's favorite part of the job?

"It's seeing people enjoy themselves and appreciate your creativity. The payoff for the creativity is the appreciation of the public," Haje says.

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