Spike Gjerde and his Woodberry Kitchen team taking canning to new heights


Chef-owner Spike Gjerde salts a batch of Padron peppers at Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore. He is expanding his food-preservation program as he opens more restaurants. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
September 3, 2013

Chef Spike Gjerde stands in a dusty construction zone but is seeing something entirely different. Spreading his arms wide, he says, “Over here, we’ll have counter service. You know, like an old-fashioned diner.” Gjerde, chef-owner of Baltimore’s Woodberry Kitchen, is describing his newest venture, Shoofly, a “farmhouse diner” scheduled to open this month in the Belvedere Square neighborhood.

Any new restaurant from Gjerde, 50, is enough to make the Mid-Atlantic food community take notice, but it is the kitchen space, larger than needed for a 75-seat diner, that might be the most newsworthy. Woodberry’s preserving and canning operations, the keystone of the locally focused menus, will be moving here, along with the five-person canning team. It’s the next logical step as the chef plans to ramp up production and extend the Woodberry imprimatur to retail sales.

For Gjerde, this is not about creating an empire. It’s a continuation of his passionate engagement with the agricultural economy of the Chesapeake region. He remains committed to linking local farmers to the food on his guests’ plates. Like Alice Waters, who 40 years ago championed the organic food movement, Gjerde is leading the way on local sourcing year-round, not just when it is convenient. “More than anything, we want to spread the gospel, we want to show that local sourcing can be a way to eat. I think it still feels like window dressing to a lot of people.”

There were two goals converging when the Shoofly space became available. First, the Woodberry team was worried about tomato season. They hope to process 60,000 pounds of tomatoes before the end of October and need a kitchen. While the space at Woodberry is vast compared to many city restaurants, the growing preserving program was edging out the line cooks.

The more strategic reason for a preserving kitchen is inherent in Gjerde’s long-term goals: Tie together local agriculture and scaled-up production to offer commodity items (ketchup, mustard, jams, jellies and pickles) to Baltimore-area institutions. And if possible, do so via traditional food service distribution channels. “Some chefs get a product they like, they work on the recipe, and then turn to someone else to co-pack,” or actually produce it, he says. “Eventually, something is lost.”

Unwilling to compromise on sourcing and ambitious about distributing his products, Gjerde initiated a conversation with Johns Hopkins President Ronald J. Daniels and executives at Bon Appetit, the university’s newly contracted food-service management company. Bon Appetit’s Farm to Fork program fit perfectly with Gjerde’s plans for locally sourced micro-produced foods, and the university couldn’t be more delighted. Daniels calls Gjerde “an imaginative and visionary partner.”

“It’s contagious, and you start to see the opportunities for these partnerships and collaborations that do wonderful things for the community,” Daniels says. “He’s just a superstar.”

That wasn’t the only conversation Gjerde started. While attending Martin Lo’s Acidified Foods Workshop at the University of Maryland, Gjerde and his two primary preservers, Isaiah Billington and Micah Martin, met Lisa Staley, chief officer in the Center for Process Review at the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. From there, the three chefs forged a path they hoped would lead to product approval.

“We set up a meeting with Lisa, and she gave us lists and checklists and regulations. Isaiah and Micah are rock solid and don’t want to do anything but follow these rules and make the best products. Isaiah, at this point, understands everything so deeply, it’s informed our entire process.”

Searching for the right regulatory agency was a little murky. Initially, it wasn’t obvious whether to connect with the city or the state; Gjerde just wanted to make it work. He has a food safety consultant on board, and Billington and Martin are working closely with two “process authorities.”

As Orwellian as that title might sound, these university academics “are particularly interested in the pH and also water activity of these [canned food products] and processing methods to ensure the safety of these products to consumers, while reducing the potential risk of botulism,” according to one such authority, Beth Calder, associate professor at the University of Maine.

It became clear that the list of products would need to be limited. The approval process for reselling products was different, and more demanding, than those preserved and served at the restaurant. Gjerde says, “We went a little ‘Portlandia’ last year, but now, everything we do has to be preapproved and the recipes can’t be altered. Focusing in and developing specific recipes, in some ways, meant fighting the chef’s desire to riff and be super creative. These products will be simpler. They will be more useful ingredients and will fit into the menu in more ways. They’re true pantry items.” He thinks of this as part of the learning curve, and like home cooks who take on preserving, he’s learning to make foods that are the most useful for his kitchens.

To meet production demands, Billington, Woodberry’s director of preserving, has been hunting for equipment. For the past three years, they have crushed tomatoes using equipment scaled for a regular restaurant kitchen. “We would get in 1,200 pounds of tomatoes, and it used to take six huge stock kettles just to process them. But, the C120 is so powerful, it’s a different world.”

That would be his newly acquired Robot Coupe C120 mechanized food mill, and to hear Billington talk about it, you would think he’s driving the hottest car in high school. This power-driven food mill “strips blackberries down to dry seeds and makes the most beautiful puree you’ve ever seen,” says Gjerde. The C120 has changed the way Billington and the rest of the preserving team look at tomatoes and every other pureed, seeded or peeled ingredient.

From restaurant equipment to food manufacturing equipment is a big step, and while visiting chefs may openly envy the C120, the Cooker/Mixer, a 60-gallon steam kettle with an agitator, downright baffles them. It’s a big machine, about the size of the professional kitchen’s standalone Hobart mixer, but much heavier. The work bowl holds two upright, stacked layers of half-gallon jars for water-bath processing, keeping the heat reliably at 212 degrees. When the machine is not being used for processing, sauces are reduced in the heated work bowl and the mixer arm stirs purees that might otherwise scorch — think jellies, jams, ketchup and tomato paste.

Billington, 29, has moments of philosophizing: “Let’s unwind the idea of luxury and local food,” and “Let’s reject the fetishization of artisanal production.” But these days, he is also spending his time looking for the “perfect jar for our pickles.” The collaboration between grower and manufacturer has never been so critical. Kirby cucumbers must fit for the process to work. Billington calls it indigenous practices, “finding what works from the seed all the way to the jar and then out of the jar. It has to fit in every way, with our label, with our packing techniques. All of it. If you line up everything, at every stage, it all falls into place.”

All in all, Gjerde continues to think large. He encourages local farmers to grow and mill grains and flours, wonders whether cooking oil could be expressed from local vineyards’ grape seeds and plans to dehydrate and grind a wide range of paprikas and chilies, including piment d’espelette, grown just for Woodberry by a Maryland farmer.

With luck, and a little more funding for the proposed Baltimore Food Hub, in 2015 Gjerde will move the canning operation to the three-acre development that will also include a farm, market, and food incubator for local entrepreneurs. There are 19th century buildings with large loading docks and dark, cool storage — an ideal setting for the preserving and storage. The Food Hub project manager, Greg Heller, says, “Spike is the spiritual leader of the Food Hub.” The developers hope Gjerde will coach new food businesses and connect them to local growers.

Gjerde is as busy as ever. Later this year, watch for his Parts and Labor, his full-service butcher shop, to open in the Remington neighborhood. Whole animal butchery is as central to Gjerde’s restaurant kitchens as preserving, and, with this move, he will make access to local meats and poultry available to the broader community as well.

And, every Friday afternoon, in a grassy area behind Artifact Coffee, you’ll find the chef hosting Union Graze, a lively farmers market with music, local beer and fresh foods from the same growers supplying Woodberry Kitchen. When last seen, Gjerde was flipping scallion pancakes with abandon, handing them to everyone within reach.

Barrow, a Washington food writer, is working on her first book, “Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Practical Pantry” (Norton, 2014) and can be reached through her Web site, www.mrswheelbarrow.com.

Have questions about canning or other preservation techniques? Barrow and Woodberry’s Kitchen’s Isaiah Billington will join Wednesday’s live Free Range chat on food at live.washingtonpost.com.

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