Antonio Baines at Tapas Teatro

by Bonnie North

You should sit down, recognize everything on the plate - and enjoy it!”

 

That’s the humble goal of Tapas Teatro’s Antonio Baines, the self-taught young chef who has gained an impressive array of gushing reviews from Baltimore Magazine’s “Best of the Best,” to a string of City Paper “Best of Baltimore” awards — to even a full out rave in the New York Times Travel Section!


“You shouldn’t have to be a ‘food guru’ to understand my menu. I don’t like to lose people with my food. Everything we do is very, very simple…” insists Antonio.


At Tapas Teatro the small plate dishes may be simple but they are also the product of this chef’s intuitive command of his ingredients, his eye for a brilliant presentation and his fresh  innovations on the tapas concept. “I want to keep people interested in what we’re doing, keep them coming back to see what’s new.”  Antonio explains,
“The small plates concept forces you to be constantly creative. ”


He experiments with his daily specials, working the most successful  and popular dishes into the regular menu as they evolve.


“One thing you’ll never find here is a recipe out of a cookbook!” He proclaims, “I use cookbooks for ideas, inspirations — the recipe is the skeleton of the dish. You have to flesh it out and make it your own and I enjoy that.”


Antonio has worked in professional kitchens since his first gig washing dishes at age 13, but he started cooking long before that. “I was an only child and my mother worked.  If I wanted to eat, I had to cook!”


Antonio joined Tapas in the spring of 2001 as the grill man, working the hardwood fired grill in Tapas sizzling open kitchen. But Tapas’ owners, Patricia and Qayun Karzai (who also own b in Bolton Hill and Helmand in Mt. Vernon) soon saw enough of Antonio’s larger promise to give him the position of Head Chef when it opened only a few months later. By October of 2001, Baines had assumed the tasks of purchasing, menu creation, scheduling and overseeing a staff of six.


Being situated within the popular Charles Theater movie complex is both a boon to Tapas’ business and a continual trial by fire for Antonio and his staff when repeated surges of customers pour out of the 5 screen theater and fill every table all at once. Managing that kind of  exhausting pace is “Something you don’t learn in culinary school,” Antonio admits, glad that he rose through the ranks instead. (It’s also the reason that Tapas does not take reservations.)


The  Karzais  saw his potential and invested heavily in Baines’ talent, sending him twice to Spain where he traveled to Madrid and Barcelona to research and experience real Iberian food.


It was a bit of a shock:  “In Spain the tapas are free. That’s something most of us here in the States don’t realize. They are just a little snack that you’re given to go with your drinks, something to keep you from getting too drunk,” he laughs,  “ I never saw a drunk Spaniard either…” But when he saw what  genuine Spanish tapas were he thought — “Man, how am I gonna’ sell this back in Baltimore?”


To make it work he took the essential idea and “really ran with it,” employing an Iberian culinary style in his dishes while keeping his plates simple, beautiful and innovative. 


Antonio is adamant when it comes to locating the proper traditional ingredients though, tracking down suppliers as far off as Philadelphia for hard to locate Mediterranean items like fresh sardines and octopus.


He sees an exciting future ahead for the Baltimore restaurant scene. “People here are coming to appreciate the effort we put into our work, into doing it right. The scene here is changing and it can only get better and better. I want to say to the industry magazines, like Restaurant Association Magazine and Restaurant Digest: Get up here! Come on up from DC and Virginia ‘cause we’ve got some great food goin’ on here in Baltimore!”


Tapas Teatro

1711 N. Charles St.

Baltimore, MD 21201

410.332.0110

adacent to The Charles Theater



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