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.”