The Spike effect
By David Hagedorn
Wednesday, Mar. 14, 2012
The third time I was asked whether I had been to Woodberry Kitchen, the Baltimore restaurant where chef-restaurateur Spike Gjerde walks the talk of locally sourced cooking, I took note. All this buzz from Washingtonians, a people who launch into lengthy negotiations just to cross the Potomac for dinner, had to mean something.
In this case, it meant they have good instincts.
Woodberry Kitchen, in the Hampden neighborhood, is part of Clipper Mill, a 19th-century industrial park repurposed into a multi-use 21st-century business and residential complex. It is an apt setting, because Gjerde (pronounced JER-dee) is a 21st-century businessman with a 19th-century sensibility.
If Gjerde had his way, and he just might, his everyday-use organic flour would come from Maryland wheat rather than Kansan. He would forgo the Greek olive oil he uses for sunflower, rapeseed and peanut oils pressed only as far away as the crow flies.
His restaurant has the details down pat. Valet parking is free, as are the filtered tap and sparkling water and bread. The servers are pert, well informed and dressed in hipster chic: plaid flannel shirts and jeans for the guys, fitted blouses and skirts for the women.
Taking a stroll around the hallways and dining rooms and patio of the warm, 170-seat restaurant, you notice wood stacked to the rafters for fueling the open kitchen's wood-fired oven. Shelves are stocked with enormous jars of house-preserved foods, each label revealing the provenance of the raw material and the date it was put up: Espelette Jam, One Straw Farm, 10/9/2011. Nectarines in Syrup, Reid's Orchard, 9/6/11.
The menu is divided into headings that include Supper, Nose to Tail, Chesapeake Oysters and Cold and Warm Plates. Its quaint typography gives a good sense of what the place is about before you taste the food, which is unpretentious. Listed in a bottom corner are the 40-plus growers, Maryland and Pennsylvania cheesemakers and local, sustainable fish and shellfish purveyors whose output is noted as the foundation for "cooking grounded in the traditions and ingredients of the Chesapeake region." The studied cocktail list favors local spirits; wines are local, organic or biodynamic.
More than anything else, and this is something that cannot be faked, there is a vibe among the entire staff that manifests full engagement in Gjerde's cause. What they've been drinking, however, is not a false prophet's Kool-Aid, but more likely the direct-trade Counter Culture coffee brewed and French-pressed at the dining room's prominent barista bar.
Gjerde comes across as a guy you want to know; at age 49 he looks more like 39, probably due to good Norwegian stock. He has boyish blond hair and flashes a disarming smile when he's not looking as though he's trying to fit the pieces of a puzzle together in his head.
Which is exactly what he is doing.
Originally from Iowa, Gjerde grew up from age 6 in suburban Baltimore County. He was attracted to the kitchen early on: "I was the kid trying to bake croissants when he was 12."
He earned a degree in philosophy at Middlebury College while throwing dorm room dinner parties prepared with a hot plate and toaster oven. Returning to Baltimore, he talked his way into a $5-an-hour job at Patisserie Poupon, learned the craft of pastry making and then took a series of jobs as a pastry chef in restaurants around town.
In the late '80s, Gjerde and his younger brother, Charlie, teamed up and opened multiple restaurants through the '90s.
"Even back then there was an awareness of sourcing," says Gjerde. "I was the guy showing up at farmers markets, asking, 'Can I get a case of this? Or that?' This was 20 years ago."
But after Sept. 11, 2001, the bottom fell out. The brothers lost their restaurants and decided to go their separate ways. By 2004, Gjerde had little money and was married with two young children. (He met and married his wife, Amy, in 1997. She had been a pastry chef at one of his restaurants.)
"Amy and I felt beat down after the restaurants closed. Had the Clipper Mill project not come along, we would probably have taken the kids and left town," he says. Finn is now 12; Katie, 8. "Woodberry Kitchen was our last swing at the fences in Baltimore."
The couple will open a coffee bar called Artifact and a sandwich shop called Half Acre, also in the Hampden area. Gjerde may be the public face of Woodberry Kitchen, but he largely credits Amy, who runs the front of the house, with the restaurant's success.
The Gjerdes based Woodberry Kitchen on one central commitment: to source ingredients from the same community that would be their clientele. In fact, the growers and purveyors who dine at the restaurant are treated to a 50 percent discount.
"The growers are our rock stars," says the chef.
After a rocky start in the fall of 2007 and winter of 2008, Gjerde hit upon a local sourcing model that worked. He expanded his network of growers, actively seeking out new ones to grow specific ingredients. He increased his kitchen work force - now at a total of 28 - so they could preserve large amounts of seasonal produce for year-round use and perform whole-animal butchery.
"This allows us to work much more closely with small farms that produce sporadically. We can take the whole animal and use every single part of it, because we have to. It's precious," says Gjerde.
It also means that certain cuts are limited, requiring menu changes throughout any busy night. A pork skirt steak, for example, might get switched to some other muscle during service; the nightly steak offering is listed generically as Tavern Steak.
Buying produce in bulk and whole animals allows Gjerde to maintain a 28 to 30 percent food cost, which is good for a fine-dining restaurant and compensates for Woodberry's higher-than-average labor cost. At a managers' meeting in mid-February, chef de cuisine George Marsh went over the stats for the yield of an 898-pound Liberty Delight steer. About a quarter of the animal was unusable, but that represents tremendous savings. Whole animals cost much less than parts - say, $2.85 per pound instead of $4.50 - and can be butchered in a way that yields many more sellable cuts of meat. The result: lower cost, higher yield.
The chef's eyes light up when he talks about the local products he loves to promote, especially Chesapeake Bay bounty such as yellow perch, oysters and rockfish, or the 17 country hams and 300 pounds of Woodberry Kitchen lardo and pancetta hanging in a farmer's smokehouse. On an insider's tour of the restaurant, he points out organic spelt flour from Small Valley Mill in Pennsylvania, stone-ground whole-wheat flour from Yeehaw Farm and tins of espelette powder made from peppers two local growers supply.
Gjerde is a pepper freak. While researching them, he found references to the fish pepper, a variety widely used in Chesapeake Bay area cooking in the 1800s that had become virtually unknown. The small, plump peppers ripen to a fire-engine red; they are intense like cayenne and produce a bright, forward heat that doesn't linger on the tongue. He looked for farmers to grow them, encouraging Denzell Mitchell of Five Seeds Farm in Baltimore and Joan Norman at One Straw Farm in White Hall, Md.
"We got a bumper crop this year, more than 3,000 pounds all told. Most of it is now pepper mash aging in oak barrels, but we dried and pickled a lot, too," Gjerde says. "It should be the hot sauce of the Chesapeake!
"Rice was grown in Maryland," he points out. "I'd like to see someone take a stab at that, but Anson Mills organic short- and long-grain rice is an exception we make. Glenn Roberts is moving the needle to drive heritage grain to be grown [in other regions]. He's worth supporting."
It clearly gnaws at Gjerde that there are foodstuffs not indigenous to the region that he still has to use. It "kills" him that he hasn't yet figured out how to make his own vinegar; lemons and limes are pebbles in his shoe.
"I don't think we can go without them," he says of the fruit. "We use a lot at the bar, but I don't want to get overdependent on them." Then, a joke: "I don't think it would be energy-efficient to have an orangerie." Therefore, lemons, pineapple and coconut are not featured on Woodberry Kitchen's dessert menu. However, coffee (a Gjerde obsession), tea and chocolate are acceptable deviations from the local-sourcing mandate.
In his mind, there are plenty of holes to fill. Odds are, the chef will find someone to raise the ducks and grow the black walnuts and varieties of the once-abundant Southern apples he wants.
Interestingly, the confidence Gjerde displays when talking about his mission can give way to self-doubt. "I wasn't going to be the next Charlie Trotter," he says. "I wasn't this great technical chef. But what I did have was this ability to talk to growers and connect the world to guests. . . . That was something I was wired for."
Gjerde does seem pleased that fellow chefs trek to Woodberry Kitchen - Alice Waters, Michael Mina and Bryan Voltaggio among them. "There has been a real sense of connection with D.C. chefs. . . . Robert Wiedmaier has been in, and Jeff Black, Mike Isabella."
"Spike was an inspiration for the mentality at Graffiato," Isabella says. "The first time I went there was three years ago. What I really enjoyed was that there was still 100 percent local, majority East Coast ingredients on the menu in winter. You've really got to respect that."
Gjerde "takes the farm-to-table movement to an amazing level," adds Scott Drewno, executive chef at the Source. "Pretty much all the chefs have been there."
Even with customers having to book a month in advance, the Woodberry Kitchen restaurateur worries that Baltimore doesn't "get" what he's trying to do, and accusations of overpricing, arrogance and locavore gimmickry on Yelp or Open Table online bear that out. He tends to focus on the one negative comment amid the many positive ones.
"We look at everything down to the penny," Gjerde says by way of defending his prices (entrees, $21 to $29). "I don't know of any other restaurant that carries this labor. I have a heart attack every two weeks."
To get his message out, Gjerde sometimes lets himself be talked into gigs that yield less than desirable results. On the "Today Show" last December, he was powerless when co-hosts Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb proved to be much bigger hams than the stuffed Southern Maryland stuffed specimen he tried to present.
"What am I doing here?" the chef recalls asking himself.
By way of helping out a peer in need, Gjerde signed up for a guest-chef stint in January at R.J. Cooper's modernist Rogue 24 in Washington. To conform to the high-style, 24-course format, the purist had to step outside his comfort zone; at one point, the presentation of a single, pristine Chesapeake oyster served on the half- shell took eight steps to complete.
"We got to think about food in a way we don't get the opportunity to do all that often," he says.
Perhaps the wise path for Gjerde is the one he's on. He'll do well to stay the course - all the way back to the 19th century.