Woodberry Kitchen Chef Spike Gjerde: What Local Means to Maryland

by Kathleen Culliton
Antoinette Bruno
October 10th, 2010

If Atticus Finch were alive today and serving flatbreads in Baltimore instead of justice in Macomb, he would probably be a lot like Chef Spike Gjerde. Woodberry Kitchen opened in 2007 to rave reviews and an avalanche of accolades for Chef Gjerde’s dedication to an ethical culinary approach. Not only is Chef Gjerde’s Southern cuisine sophisticatedly executed, it’s also local and sustainable. Not that he’s bragging—the mild mannered chef remains expert at deflecting complements; he claims that “the growers are the most important part” of Woodberry Kitchen.

Woodberry Kitchen thrives on a reputation as the Chez Panisse of Baltimore—that’s how purely local the kitchen is—the only difference being that Alice Waters is headquartered in central California, closer to our idea of verdant farmland than the outskirts of Charm City. So when Chef Gjerde informed us that the only non-local things he kept in the walk-in were lemons and limes, our jaws dropped. How do you do that in Baltimore?  

Charcuterie from Head to Tail

Chef Gjerde keeps his finger on the pulse of the local agricultural comings and goings through close contact with the small, independent farmers in Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. When a farm in New Jersey catches a great deal on special Mangalitsa pigs, he’s on the way to go pick up his order before most people know it’s there. And it’s not about competition, but connection: community is important to Chef Gjerde; he wants to know his purveyors so he can best support them. Of the small farms where he sources his proteins, he says, “it makes sense…to buy the animal whole. [The farmer] can slaughter it; we butcher it.” And that’s what he does, meaning activities like  whole goat butchery are common at Woodberry Kitchen.

Chef Gjerde’s talent lies in all of the possibilities he can see in that one animal. His goat cheese flatbread boasts braised cabrito, with leftover meat reserved for sausages. Mangalitsa pork arrives on the menu between pretzel buns or next to a farm egg with gravy, while the blood eventually becomes Morcilla. The charcuterie station includes a drawing room, a curing room, and storage room full of the sausage, bresaola, prosciutto, and pancetta that is produced completely in house. It’s a good thing Maryland has year-round access to protein. And it never hurts to have a rich charcuterie plate on hand to compensate when fresh vegetables aren’t around. 

Put-By: Pickling and Preserves

But Gjerde isn’t just protein-savvy. When 900 pounds of tomato were delivered to Woodberry Kitchen this past May, the crew worked fast against the clock to preserve their latest purchase before it rotted away into a worthless heap. With the combined efforts of the staff, their friends, and anyone looking for some experience, every single tomato was blanched, peeled, chopped, and preserved.  Some went into cans to be used in sauces and stews, while others were made into house-made ketchup. It was a long day, but a fruitful one.

And it’s not just tomatoes at stake at Woodberry Kitchen.  Since Maryland is often called the “mini-America” for its wide array of produce, there are a lot of choices for Chef Gjerde to pick from for his stock. Every jar of pickled ramps, okra, cucumbers, or watermelon rind, every can of tomatoes or green beans, and every jar of strawberry or apricot jam, began as fresh, local produce before going through the skilled and speedy hands of the Woodberry Kitchen staff.

As skilled as the team is at getting their produce preserved, they are equally creative at it realizing its full potential. The walls of the restaurant’s central dining room are lined with jar upon jar of pickles and jams that are featured in Chef Gjerde’s creative menu. His New Jersey Albacore Tuna Belly dish features carrots pickled in red wine vinegar that taste more carrot-y than actual carrots. And the preserves they’re saving for winter? They’re living with 2010 DC Area Rising Star Pastry Chef Isaiah Billington at his apartment across the street, where they prove to be excellent roommates.

The Source of Sustainability

Chef Gjerde didn’t open a restaurant so that he could be famous, or popular, or trendy; what he wants most of all is to bring Baltimore back to its former pre-industrial glory. You can tell by the tone in his voice that he’s more than just saddened by the pollution that’s deteriorating the Chesapeake Bay—he’s moved to act. And he’s tackling the problem as both chef and nature-loving citizen. Gjerde the chef is serving up dishes like Chesapeake Seafood Stew to promote the Bay to his diners. And Gjerde the civic-minded individual is involved in a city-wide movement to restore marine life in the bay. He calls upon his professional resources, of course; every oyster shell served at Woodberry Kitchen is saved, recycled, and returned to the bay to generate new oyster populations. Proving that environmental responsibility can actually be fun, Gjerde also hosts oyster festivals where professional shuckers and the Woodberry Kitchen staff provide fresh local oysters, live music, and festivities to raise awareness.

Occasional festivals aside, Gjerde does most of his work promoting sustainability quietly, the way most chefs do, i.e. with every dish he serves. The special thing about Woodberry Kitchen is that it’s made possible by the community, but also for the community. “It was…important to us to show if we treat and handle [the livestock] the way we do, and source [the] way we do, and have intense ongoing relationships with farms, it can be part of our everyday lives,” says Gjerde, adding (no doubt to the relief of his environmentally-minded peers) “and [it] doesn't have to be something you necessarily spend more for.”