Woodberry Kitchen: Finding a Voice through Regional Identity

By Caroline Hatchett

By

Caroline Hatchett
Oysters for the audience at Spike Gjerde's main stage demo at ICC.
Oysters for the audience at Spike Gjerde's main stage demo at ICC.

Spike Gjerde’s pantry at Woodberry Kitchen is as noteworthy for what it includes as what it excludes. Instead of using black pepper, he almost exclusively relies on fish pepper (in ground, fermented, and fresh forms) to season dishes. Brought by enslaved Africans to Baltimore, the fish pepper seasoned the city’s early seafood dishes, and Gjerde is reintroducing it to the Baltimorean’s collective taste memory. He also uses herb oils made with locally produced canola oil in lieu of flying in olive oils to the East Coast, and bakes and cooks with locally milled grains (AP has worn out its welcome). 

Over time, his kitchen has also become less reliant on meat and much more focused on seafood. “We were wrestling with what our role in the food system could be,” says Gjerde, who sought answers by working with a network of fishermen, aquaculturists, policy makers, and nonprofits. Turns out, by feeding his guests Chesapeake Bay fish and shellfish, he can also play a part in improving the health—and ensuring the future—of the Bay. 

“We’re on the shores of one of the greatest estuaries in the world,” says Gjerde, who presented on the main stage of the 11th Annual StarChefs International Chefs Congress, bringing along T.J. Tate, director of seafood sustainability at the National Aquarium, and Vernon Lingenfelter of Pennsylvania’s Limestone Springs Trout Farm. 

Gjerde presented dishes that encapsulated his philosophy and showed off the Chesapeake’s character. Trout, mustard butter, spelt-buckwheat spaetzle, fish pepper oil, breadcrumbs, and radishes is an ode to Pennsylvania-Dutch cooking. His signature oyster pie is an update of a 400-year-old Eastern Virginia dish, complete with spelt-rye pâte brisée, white sweet potato (rather than roux to thicken the sauce), bay leaf, garlic, and perhaps the most powerful life force in the region—the oyster. 

With fishermen feeling the squeeze from pollution and overfishing, the number of oyster farms in the Chesapeake has exploded from one or two to 317, according to Tate. Not only are oysters providing supplemental income, they’re also cleaning the watershed, providing an environment conducive to vertical farming, and feeding a whole lot of people. On the main stage, Gjerde served 250 roasted oysters—each a briny, tiny vessel of change.

What will be the vessel in your kitchen? Serving more beans because you know they help enrich the soil, or using local vinegars instead of imported citrus?  

When Gjerde opened Woodberry Kitchen in 2007, he knew he wanted to source local foods, and nine years later, the restaurant’s cuisine is defined by the very essence of the Chesapeake, its history, and the future of the Bay.  

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