At Woodberry Kitchen, Spike Gjerde’s soaring restaurant in a former Baltimore mill, citrus is in short supply. It’s not that the James Beard Award-nominated chef doesn’t dig orange, lemon, and lime; rather, he deems them decidedly non-Mid-Atlantic ingredients. When the kitchen or the bar calls for something acidic, he prefers using verjus from a local winery instead.
In a world where the word sustainable induces eye rolls, Gjerde’s approach to locavore cooking transcends the norm. His full-time preservation and canning team churns out 50,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables for Woodberry Kitchen and nearby sister restaurants Artifact Coffee and Shoo-Fly. Gjerde, who sources local salts and flours, also single-handedly resurrected the Chesapeake’s long-lost fish pepper, asking his farmer partners to sprout the native plant for his fiery, handmade Snake Oil hot sauce.
“We’re not trying to recreate a meal from the 1800s, but on some level we are drawing from very much the same ingredients and raw materials of the past,” Gjerde says. “All of the sudden we can get anything from anywhere. That isn’t as compelling to me as working directly with the agricultural economy of this place.”
We’re not trying to recreate a meal from the 1800s, but on some level we are drawing from very much the same ingredients and raw materials of the past.
“This place” is Baltimore, where Gjerde was raised. Ever since opening his first restaurant—the now-shuttered Spike & Charlie’s—with his brother in 1991, he has been determined to elevate the city’s culinary scene.
“I came back after school and never thought of going anywhere else. I just always felt that this was my home and I wanted to get back to it,” he says. Unlike, say, the Carolinas or New Orleans, Gjerde doesn’t believe the culinary region is well-documented. “It’s not as celebrated,” he points out, “but there is so much to draw on historically and agriculturally.”
Iowa-born Gjerde admits he “isn’t from a food family,” yet while studying philosophy and Chinese at Middlebury College, he was the kid “who threw dinner parties with a hot plate. I was drawn to food and cooking, but the light really snapped on as an intern at Patisserie Poupon [in Baltimore]. I never looked back.”
These days, Gjerde and his wife/business partner, Amy, only have the time to look forward. Today, their new butcher shop and restaurant hybrid, Parts and Labor, opens in an old auto-repair shop as an extension of the whole-animal butchery operations currently in place at Woodberry Kitchen.
“When it comes to meat what we’ve come to understand is that we need to buy whole animals, pay the grower directly, and then the onus is on us to create delicious food for our guests and make the restaurant work economically,” Gjerde says. “We can’t just call a butcher shop and ask for a local steer.”
From Chesapeake oysters to Pennsylvania-style sundaes, here are the 10 dishes that helped Gjerde develop his passion for Mid-Atlantic cooking.
Whole-wheat Italian loaf at Knave of Hearts (Middlebury, VT)
I was in college, at Middlebury, and had no sense of my culinary potential at the time. But I was captivated by this little bakery in town, Knave of Hearts, and I worked there at night for free with this amazing guy named Root—what we would now call a stage [internship in a kitchen]. He worked with whole grains and we would all cluster around the warm oven on cold Vermont nights talking about feeding people, and just how nurturing and perfect a bowl of rice and beans could be. For me, it was an awakening around food and community. Root’s signature bread was whole-wheat Italian. It sounds humble, but it was incredible. I would work all night and then bring these loaves to my teachers, hoping they would help my grades. (Facebook/Woodberry Kitchen)
Chocolate Éclair at Patisserie Poupon (Baltimore, MD)
After college, I was walking down the street in Baltimore and I passed by Patisserie Poupon. I got my nerve up and walked in, and after asking if they were accepting applications, I brought my resume back the next day and somehow got hired as an apprentice. It was my first real paid cooking experience, and I couldn’t imagine a better place to have landed. It was, and still is, a great, traditional French pastry shop. One day, I was talking about éclairs and how I didn’t like them, but that’s because I didn’t have a thoughtful appreciation for that textural combination of pastry cream, pâte à choux, and fondant until I tried their version. You have to think when you taste. That chocolate éclair allowed me to start from zero. (Photo: thebaltimoredish.com)
Ratatouille pizza at Spike & Charlie’s (Baltimore, MD)
My brother and I opened a restaurant called Spike & Charlie’s. I was already enamored with Alice Waters and Chez Panisse’s cooking when I became immersed in the Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook, and it was a time when I was trying to find my own way as a chef. There was a line in the book, before a menu featuring salt cod ravioli in fish consommé, in which Alice says, “This menu also includes one of the very few original dishes we have cooked.” That got me thinking about the difficulties of reinvention. We made something at Spike & Charlie’s that I had never really seen before: a ratatouille pizza. We cooked each finely diced vegetable individually, crumbled local goat cheese over it, and put it in the wood-burning oven. It was my first stab at something original. (Photo: Food52)
I met Amy and became more interested in and aware of the cooking she grew up with in Pennsylvania. Her mother made these delicious and simple deviled eggs that she had a special purpose-built carrier for. It wasn’t restaurant food, but what you ate at home and at picnics. It was one of the first things we agreed would be on the menu of Woodberry Kitchen, and it set the tone and direction of the restaurant. (Photo: Liz Barclay)
C.M.P. sundae at Mack’s (York, PA)
In central Pennsylvania, the C.M.P. sundae—chocolate, marshmallow, crushed peanuts—needs no introduction; it’s relatively ubiquitous. Amy and I used to eat it a place called Mack’s, in York. It also made its way onto the Woodberry Kitchen menu, with fresh cream ice cream, chocolate sauce, marshmallow fluff, and wet peanuts. For Amy this sundae was just a fact of life, but for me it was transformative. (Photo: Yelp)
The Rebel Within at Craftsman and Wolves (San Francisco, CA)
Craftsman and Wolves in San Francisco has become a little bit of a shared obsession for my son Finn and I. We both love everything about the place, but I am awed by the execution of the Rebel Within, which encloses a beautiful savory muffin around a perfectly cooked egg. I still believe good baking trumps all, and this is a prime example. (Photo: craftsman-wolves.com)
Chesapeake Bay oysters with Snake Oil at Woodberry Kitchen
Before it was overfished, Chesapeake Bay was one of the world’s most important estuaries and productive oyster grounds, turning up 20 million bushels a year at its peak. It’s a priority for Woodberry Kitchen to serve as many of the area’s great culinary treasures as possible, and so I like highlighting different varieties of these oysters. A while back I became aware of the heirloom fish pepper, which was used along the Chesapeake in the 1800s and 1900s to add spice to seafood. I started making a hot sauce with it called Snake Oil. When I tasted a Chesapeake oyster with it, it was a revelatory moment, because I tasted something that was truly of the region. (Facebook/Woodberry Kitchen)
Chicken and biscuit at Woodberry Kitchen
The chicken and biscuit is one of a handful of suppers that has been on the menu since Woodberry Kitchen opened. Six years ago, Jimmy Bradley was my chef-hero of the moment, and I adapted his boned-out half a chicken for cooking in our wood-fired oven. (Facebook/Woodberry Kitchen)
Tokifact was a pop-up collaboration we did at Artifact Coffee with Erik Bruner-Yang of Toki Underground. The ramen he created for it was a revelation to me in that it was created with almost all local ingredients from our kitchen. We extruded alkaline noodles with Pennsylvania spelt flour, and Erik coaxed incredibly deep flavors from a broth made of [chicken] and pig’s feet. Amazing. (Photo: Facebook/Artifact Coffee)
Bowl and a beer at Artifact Coffee (Baltimore, MD)
What I’ve been doing every Wednesday at Artifact Coffee for the past couple of months is special to me. We offer a Bowl and a Beer for $8. It’s a big, filling bowl of gluten-free, vegan soup—like black bean chili or pasta e fagioli with organic beans—that uses ingredients from local growers. I wanted something that would feed the body and lift the spirit. It goes back to the seed that was first planted at Knave of Hearts—the importance of feeding people is something that never really left me. (Photo: Facebook/Artifact Coffee)