Sustainability Chef Isaiah Billington of Woodberry Kitchen
2010 Clipper Park Road
Baltimore, MD 21211
Before entering the restaurant world, Chef Isaiah Billington claims he had “next to no food culture.” A Florida native in a food-neutral family, he wasn’t raised by the gastronomically gifted nor did he spend his nights making homemade pasta or blueberry pies as a kid.
He attended the American University’s School of International Service, but felt that there was a moral ambiguity to the socioeconomic development industry. Looking for more certain fulfillment, he began to explore the foodservice industry. He took his first kitchen job under Chef Nancy Longo at Baltimore’s Pierpoint Restaurant. Chef Longo specializes in modern Maryland cuisine, and the practice of paring down classics stuck with Billington when he left to work with Chef-Owner Sonny Sweetman at foodie hot spot Abacrombie Fine Foods and Accomodations in the Mount Vernon district of Baltimore. Aptly, it was under Sweetman that Billington discovered his proclivity for pastry.
When Chef Sweetman sold the restaurant, Billington joined the team at Woodberry Kitchen under James Beard Award nominee Chef-Owner Spike Gjerde. Here the farm-to-table Alice Waters influence goes well beyond mere gimmick. Produce from the local Maryland watershed is cured, preserved, pickled and put-by to last through the winter (which is considerably longer than in sunny California). Media accolades for Billington’s sweet Maryland-centric creations have cemented him as a Baltimore culinary wonder but his reach is turning national. His desserts have recently been featured on the Food Network.
Interview with Pastry Chef Isaiah Billington of Woodberry Kitchen – Baltimore, MD
Francoise Villeneuve: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Isaiah Billington: For me the nice thing about cooking in contrast to what I'd be doing before I got into restaurants was the clarity of it, if I cook something I know it's good once I taste it. In college I studied social and economic development projects where you would never know if you had done the right thing, even after evaluation reports. In the restaurant I know where the money comes in, I know what we spend our money on, and I know the more I sacrifice here, the more I'm aiding that cause. Once I started cooking I said I realized that I knew whether or not it's good; if everyone is finishing their meals and you are proud of your work then you can feel moral clarity about what you are doing. That's really all you can ask for, that you know you're doing something right
FV: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with and without a culinary school background?
IB: I do not recommend culinary school if it’s going to saddle you with enough debt to keep you from working that eight dollar an hour grunt job under a great chef in his prime, shoving education down your throat with every word and gesture. That $50,000 salary for kitchen manager at a wings joint is going to be a lot more attractive if you have student loans to pay back.
FV: What’re your top three tips for pastry success?
IB: Sacrifice everything; live at your job and don’t scale back. Once you start to scale back it will be much harder to reengage. There’s so much out their to learn and you can learn about it as it's happening. Information that took years to travel around the world today is instantaneous. And finally, as Michael Laiskonis said, “be ready to be the golden boy.”
FV: What is your pastry philosophy?
IB: Staying true to the food, that's the first step of integrity. The second is being honest about who we are to our guests. I want to take good ingredients and not get in their way. I want to take old traditions, something people already love, and re-imagine them. But I work hard to keep any ego off of the plate—if rhubarb comes in, we’re making pie.
FV: What goes into creating a dish?
IB: I think being ingredient driven is the first step in finding integrity of the dish. How we write and execute and plate has to be in line with that. Woodberry Kitchen’s entire function is to connect diners to what local farmers are doing. The better we are at our job, the more the local agricultural community is dictating our menu. We try not to serve a dish unless we know it's good for you and you are going to enjoy it. A lot of chefs say they make everything in house but what they mean is they make all their own cakes, sorbets, and ice creams, but their base ingredients are the same as those in the next restaurant down the street. That’s not cooking, that’s shopping. When we say we make everything, we mean it. If I use peanut butter, we milled the peanuts, if we use jam, fruit purees, or confited lemon rind, it came in as a base level raw ingredient.
FV: What steps are you taking to become a sustainable restaurant?
IB: All of our organic waste is composted, and recyclable material recycled. The actual restaurant is in a renovated old warehouse, built mostly with sustainable and reclaimed materials. We limit our sourcing as much as we can to local, organic or low-impact producers. We’ve put by literally tons of produce from this year’s harvest to keep supporting them.
FV: How do you keep abreast of the latest trends and culinary developments?
IB: The interwebs, absolutely. There’s not so much of a community of chefs in Baltimore the way there are in some more densely populated areas. I love Cooking Issues, The Quenelle, and Ideas in Food, but really there are too many to list.
FV: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
IB: Growing up, really. Learning how to push people without yelling and stamping my feet. Assuming responsibility for any failures anywhere in the kitchen, because I always know I could have done more. Learning to regard myself—just another dumb kid—as a role model for all of the other dumb kids, and act accordingly.
FV: If you had one thing you could do over or do again, what would it be?
IB: My career’s still short yet. I feel like my biggest mistakes are ahead of me. I think that I would start paying attention to cuisine from a younger age if I could. My food culture growing up was suburban American. Food was just a commodity for a long time.
FV: How would you define success?
IB: Sleeping well at night, because you’re both exhausted and at peace with your effort.
FV: What ingredient do you feel is underappreciated?
IB: Buttermilk. I wish I could use as much of that as I do heavy cream.
FV: If you weren’t a chef, what do you think you’d be doing?
IB: Nothing of note. I’m a smart guy, but I need the high-pressure environment.
FV: Where will we find you in five years?
IB: Baltimore, I hope. There’s no other city with a prouder but more poorly served culinary tradition. What I know about food I learned here, and I owe a debt.