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Bar renewal notice spurs change of career for new Italian restaurateur

Carl Vahl was just shy of his 25th anniversary as a lawyer when he had an epiphany: he didn’t want to practice law anymore. Instead, he wanted to open a restaurant and become a professional chef.

Carl R. Vahl

Vahl just celebrated his first month in business as the proprietor of Calle’s Cucina in Baltimore’s Charles Village. The 40-seat, linen tablecloth Italian restaurant features a host of regional offerings with a focus on seafood dishes. It’s the first time Vahl has worked anywhere other than a law firm since being admitted to the New York State Bar in 1985.

At the start of 2010, Vahl received a notice in the mail that he needed to renew his law license. He said something struck him about the notice and made him take stock of his career to that point.

“It was like ‘Wow, I’ve been doing this for a quarter-century.’ I realized that was enough time to have been doing anything and I knew I had to do something else.”

Vahl spent his law career running a small practice in Olean, N.Y., south of Buffalo. With three attorneys and a staff of 10 in a town of 20,000, he handled everything from real estate to child custody hearings. But he always questioned whether he was in the right career, he said.

“After about five years, I had doubts about whether being a lawyer was right for me,” Vahl said. “But, that’s the point in your career when you really just start to get going and it was hard to walk away from. From a money standpoint, law was always good to me and I had a family to provide for.”

Vahl said what really got to him over time was having to deal with the kinds of cases that crop up in general practice.

“Sure, there are a few happy things, but it’s usually just unhappy people having bad times, be it divorces or injuries,” Vahl said. “For me, it was just not positive. Here, though, at the restaurant, you feed the customer and they’re always happy.”

The restaurant business isn’t entirely new to Vahl. His father owned a diner in Jamestown, N.Y., where Vahl worked as a teenager. In law school, he waited on tables. But it was a trip to Italy’s Amalfi Coast 12 years ago that included recreational cooking lessons in local homes that rekindled his interest in cooking, particularly Italian.

When he decided to wind down his law practice, Vahl knew he wanted to focus on Italian cuisine. After attending a cooking school in New York City, he spent four months training at La Scuola Internationale Di Cucina Italiana in Parma.

Next, Vahl said, he had to figure out where to open his restaurant and what to call it.

“I’ve always really liked cooking, so I tried to find a way to do what I wanted,” he said.

Vahl said he decided to do it outside of the Buffalo area. And, with a brother-in-law who has lived in Baltimore for more than 25 years, he knew he had found “the perfect place.”

“I knew there was a lot of good seafood here, so I thought ‘Let’s give it a shot in Baltimore,’” Vahl said.

As for the name, it is tradizionale with a twist. The cucina in Calle’s Cucina is indeed a kitchen, but “Calle,” despite its Latin sound, refers to Vahl himself. It’s a nickname for “Carl” that reflects his Swedish heritage.

And, while owls play a role in some Italian folk tales, the one on the restaurant’s sign comes from a turning point Vahl experienced while walking through the woods. The incident happened as he was pondering what to do in his career. As he was hiking along the path, he turned a corner and happened upon a barred owl sitting atop a stump. He said he spent about 10 minutes staring at the immense bird — whose wingspan can reach up to 4 feet — and quickly felt his mood lighten.

“The owl is really just a symbol of good change for me and it’s been my kind of unofficial mascot ever since,” he said.

Leading a small staff in a busy restaurant and juggling the day-to-day dilemmas as they arise has been challenging, Vahl said. But, he said he has not regretted the decision to go out on his own doing something he loves.

“It’s stressful running a restaurant,” he said. “But, it’s a good stress that’s more like excitement than anything.”

To date, Vahl said, the community has responded positively to the new establishment that is housed in the former Yabba Pot vegetarian restaurant that closed a few months before he started looking for a location. He said repeat business has been strong already, and he has been seeing weekly increases since opening the doors.

“After about a month now, it’s going well and we’re maybe even a little ahead of where I thought we’d be,” Vahl said. “You never know what will happen, but sometimes you have to take a chance.”