“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.