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Food that speaks for itself

Another in a series of conversations with local chefs

Another in a series of conversations with local chefs

May 29, 2002|by KATE COLEMAN

katec@herald-mail.com

Jerry Howerin grew up on a 25-acre farm in Delaware. Peppers - banana and cherry peppers, a lot of which went to canneries, were the main crop, but there was a variety of produce, he says.

"We always had lots of fresh everything."

For nearly two years, Howerin has been back in the country atmosphere of Mercersburg, Pa.

But the "country" in which the 32-year-old executive chef at The Mercersburg Inn works is one of elegant fine dining. The cuisine served in the mansion's dining rooms - they can seat 60 people - would measure up to that of any posh Manhattan eatery.

The inn was built in 1909 as the private estate of Harry and Ione Byron. The Byrons owned the tannery in Mercersburg, and Prospect, their Georgian mansion on 6-and-a-half acres just outside town, indeed has views - the Tuscarora Mountains, the chapel of the Mercersburg Academy, just across Pa. 16.

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Sandy and Walt Filkowski looked for a more than two years before moving from Northern California to become innkeepers six years ago. The inn, with 15 beautifully appointed guest rooms - each with a featherbed mattress cover and Egyptian cotton sheets - has original oak woodwork, period light fixtures, porches and views of the Pennsylvania countryside. Tours of the mansion are available only until 3 p.m. when overnight guests check in.

Dinner is served on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings from 5:30 to 8:30, and Sundays from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Menus feature a "prix fixe" dinner for $50 per person as well as a al carte items.

Staff write Kate Coleman recently made the 22-mile drive on a glorious spring afternoon to The Mercersburg Inn to talk with Howerin and Sandy Filkowski.

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

A: "I like a busy environment and a professional environment. Things need to have their place. You need to be organized and clean."

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

"Everybody cooks" in Howerin's family - his parents, his grandparents. Howerin's dad still makes about six gallons of his red sauce every year. He cites his grandmother's passion for cooking as a major influence in his decision to become a professional chef.

But Howerin didn't choose the culinary arts immediately after high school. He went to Glassboro State College in southern New Jersey to study business, and got a job as a waiter at a nearby restaurant, the Old Swedesboro Inn. When it was busy, Chef Richard Austin, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America (the other CIA) in Hyde Park, N.Y., enlisted Howerin's help in the kitchen and liked what he saw. He had the young man moved to his staff and later asked Howerin if he had ever considered culinary school.

Howerin says he was having more fun cooking than studying business and headed for New York and the two-year program, graduating from CIA in 1993.

He worked in different restaurants in different places, including the Pleasant Peasant in Philadelphia and The Garden Gourmet in Rehoboth Beach, Del. He spent some time on the West Coast, working in San Francisco and Santa Barbara, Calif.

Q: Do you have any tricks in the kitchen?

A: Howerin doesn't know what his tricks are. He admits to a knack, however, of knowing that something is done 10 seconds before the timer goes off. "It's just intuition."

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

A: "That's something you totally get a feel for."

There are days when "everyone wants the halibut." There are other times - such as Mother' Day - when several reservations were canceled at the last minute - something a chef can't anticipate.

Q. Do you have a favorite dish?

"I'm very good with seafood. It's a very delicate item to cook. There's a very limited window of opportunity to get it right."

Prior to coming to The Mercersburg Inn nearly two years ago, Howerin was chef at an inn on Tilghman Island in the Chesapeake Bay. Boats with fresh seafood would dock at the inn. Howerin had soft-shell crabs in pots just outside his kitchen.

"It's a little different here in the mountains," he says. But he's working with a new food purveyor and has what he needs delivered by next-day air.

There are people who ate in Howerin's Tilghman Island dining room, who drive from the Chesapeake Bay to Mercersburg for his seafood, says Sandy Filkowski.

"I like doing game as well - farm boy that I was," he says.

Q: Do you get to use your creativity in your career as executive chef?

A: "We change the menu about every three weeks."

Recent appetizers included Sesame Crusted Pork Ribs with Oriental Slaw and Teriyaki Barbeque and Red Pepper, Baby Spinach and Mushroom Pate with Reduced Balsamic Glaze. Entrees included Herb Crusted Roasted Pork Loin with Garlic Mashed Potatoes, Garden Vegetables and a Lemon Dill Scented Vinaigrette and Grilled Baby Lamb Chops with Blue Cheese Potato Salad, Garden Vegetables and Port Wine Vinaigrette.

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