Most nights at Woodberry Kitchen you won’t find salmon on the menu, the most universal, popular dish at nearly every restaurant in the country. And yet, the Baltimore hotspot is packed, swarming with people vying for a taste of Chef/Owner Spike Gjerde’s delicious food. He also doesn’t serve Coca-Cola products, or out-of-season produce. Bottom line: if it’s not sustainable, Gjerde wants nothing to do with it.
Gjerde opened Woodberry Kitchen in 2007 with his wife, Amy, in the historic Clipper Mill building, which was once a manufacturing center of cotton duck sailcloth. Previously, Gjerde was in business with his brother, cooking at a variety of different establishments since 1991. It was Spike & Charlie’s Restaurant and Wine Bar that first put Gjerde on the culinary map for his local, seasonal cooking—long before most chefs even knew what that meant. He was chef /owner at a number of succeeding restaurants, including a seafood restaurant, Atlantic; a pan-Latino concept, Joy American Café; and Vespa, a small Italian restaurant in tony Federal Hill. “I enjoyed those, but I became more and more interested in cooking with local ingredients,” explains Gjerde, who notes that over time he and his brother grew in separate directions. “I wanted to do a restaurant specifically based on the relationship between the restaurant and the people who grow the food for it. Our commitment was to source locally for everything that we did.”
The quality of Woodberry Kitchen’s cuisine is a direction reflection of the strength of that relationship. From pasta to fish-pepper hot sauce and charcuterie, most everything is in-house made with locally sourced ingredients. Gjerde even does whole animal butchery, a nose-to-tail approach to cooking with such menu specialties as fried pork trotters ($10), a.k.a pig’s feet. There are three dining rooms, a terrace, a full bar, and a barista station preparing direct-trade coffee and espresso, led by Head Barista Allie Caran. Gjerde plans to expand the coffee bar into another restaurant next door called Artifact, expected to open May 2012.
With many restaurants in Baltimore claiming to be farm-to-table, Gjerde faces stiff competition. But his commitment to sustainable agriculture and local sourcing is transparent: he has several dozen local producers, farmers and growers in his Rolodex, all of which are listed on his menu. But getting his entire staff on board with his intense mission hasn’t always been easy.
“At first it was very hard and we just realized people weren’t connected with these core parts of what we do,” explains Gjerde. “Guys with very impressive resumes would come in, but they just didn’t get it.”
Amy Gjerde, Spike’s wife and business partner, agrees: “We knew what we wanted to be, and we especially knew the things we didn’t want to be, and what we found is that we really need to have the right people around us,” she says. One story says it all: Spike hired a bartender who came to him with an ultimatum about canned pineapple juice. “He demanded we have it and I had to make a decision about what I wanted to be. It’s comical to think of it, but the answer was no, and so he left.” Now, the award-winning restaurant (Bon Appétit Top 10 2009) employs over 100 people that live and breathe sustainability. “We’re getting food runners and people coming to us because they have their own connection with these ideas and they want to work in a place that works in that mode,” claims Amy.
Even the décor at Woodberry Kitchen fits this mold. The warehouse turned farmhouse features items sourced from Baltimore’s community of local artisans. Gjerde’s longtime friend John Gutierrez of Gutierrez Studios designed the metalwork and railings for the stairs. Local artist Anthony Corradetti created the hand-blown glass light fixtures and candleholders. The bar, tabletops, and barista station were built from reclaimed wood and installed by Erik Rink of Artisan Interiors.
In a time when ingredients are sourced from anywhere in the world, chefs usually focus most on taste, not origin. But Woodberry Kitchen has different standards. “Not that taste isn’t important, we’re still a very chef-driven restaurant. But we’re also willing to ask what the implications are of how it got to us and how it was grown,” Gjerde explains.
Open seven days a week, Woodberry Kitchen’s menu is grounded in the traditions and ingredients of the Chesapeake Bay, and remains “dynamic and fluid because it’s always a question of what we’re going to get in that day or week from our producers,” notes Gjerde. The menu begins with an assortment of snacks and small bites, such as the Lancaster Co. Ladyfinger Popcorn ($1) and Deviled Eggs with Chipped ham ($4)—a recipe from Amy’s mother. Guests may order locally sourced cheeses, which are perfect alongside house-cured meats and jams. A wood-burning oven anchors the kitchen, turning out dishes like House Quark and Ricotta Flatbread with Tomato Honey ($14) and Roasted Oysters with Herb Butter, Fish Pepper Hot Sauce, and Pickled Mustard Seeds ($15).
In fact, Woodbury Kitchen focuses on farmed Chesapeake oysters, even recycling old shells so they can be replanted again. “These oysters are central to our approach, and at the center for any hope we have for the Chesapeake Bay to remain a body of water and a resource,” says Gjerde. As such, he uses nearly a dozen varieties of local, farmed oysters and cooks them every which way, from iced on the half shell to roasted, in stews and chowders, and even in an anchovy-esque dish.
Popular, seasonal entrees from the dinner menu include Springfield Farm Chicken & Biscuit with Braised Kale, Carrots, and Herb Pan Sauce ($28) and Small Valley Spelt Noodles with Country Ham, English Peas, Eggs Yolk, and “Allegheny” ($23). The meal finishes with a large selection of desserts, like the C.M.P. ($11), a jar full of malt ice cream, chocolate sauce, marshmallow fluff, and wet peanuts, which was featured on Food Network’s The Best Thing I Ever Ate show. Homemade ice creams and sorbets are also popular, with flavors like Five Seeds Farm Basil and Blueberry-Buttermilk Swirl.
“We try to look up old traditions and make new ones,” says Pastry Chef Isaiah Billington. “Usually that means that we do very product-driven stuff, like once late March comes around, we’ll make a rhubarb pie.” But not just any rhubarb pie. Billington’s will be a tart with a buckwheat shortbread crust, a rhubarb filling that’s been vacuum-packaged with a lemon vanilla syrup and then tossed in buttermilk cream, before being topped with maple toffee and rhubarb sorbet. “A lot of restaurants start with an idea, and then order and stock the pantry with stuff that fits the idea,” says Billington. “We do it the other way around.”
But it’s not just about the food. With a food to bar sales ratio of 68:32, the cocktail menu, run by Beverage and Bar Manager Corey Polyoka, offers a creative selection of cocktails crafted with local ingredients. Some of the specialty drinks include the Manhampden ($12), with Maryland-style rye, California sweet vermouth, new-fashioned Peychaud’s bitters and housemade brandied cherry, or The Gov’t Mule ($12), made with organic Vermont vodka, housemade ginger beer and ginger-lime syrup, served in an ice-cold copper mug.
“Last year was a big year for the bar, as we had canned goods to get us through the winter,” says Polyoka. “The genius and amazing side-use of our canned fruits is the delicious syrups they have created in the can.” These include blueberry and bay, gooseberry-apricot, blackberry, strawberry and spicy pickle juice. “Other by-products of canning include house made Bloody Mary mix, derived from the peeled, seeded and canned Roma tomatoes used in the kitchen.
Polyoka has also switch to smaller, “more enjoyable” size barware, from the larger “bath size” glassware that has become popular. “The day of a 10-ounce martini is dead in most serious cocktail cities, so we feel the time to bury it in Baltimore is upon us as well,” states Polyoka. His biggest challenge is guests who want major liquor brands, since the bar only serves small batch artisanal spirits. “Our servers and bar staff do a great job explaining how we select our spirits, why they are important to us, and why we believe what we are serving is better,” he explains. “Most of the time our guests love it and get excited about the craft selection and implementation of the sprits. We just have to do our part to get them to trust us and try them.”
When it comes to the wine list, the focus is on local, organic, and biodynamic. “That’s the main idea behind the whole wine program: support local wine makers and local agriculture,” says Marco Valverde, the general manager and wine director, who looks for certification first. “I don’t taste any other kind of wine. Some little farmers don’t have a lot of money but they’re trying to do the right thing, thinking about the eco-system and sustainability. Those are the wines that I’m most passionate about.”
Keeping the wine list approachable is also important. “We don’t want to just have all expensive wines,” he says. “One of my main priorities is to think ahead and know, if we have tomatoes available, then I’ll go look for something that matches that.” Woodberry Kitchen also runs a happy hour special called 3-5-7: $3 beers, $5 wines, $7 cocktails, Monday through Thursday from 5-7 at the bar, in addition to wine and beer dinners and oyster fests.
When Gjerde was developing the restaurant’s concept, he wasn’t sure if having a largely local program was even possible. “In the last four years, that original question has been answered over and over again in the affirmative,” he says. They used to have a typical pantry, allowing themselves staples like raisins, capers and olives. Now, they make their own. Gjerde cans, preserves and dries produce from May to November, which lasts them all year long.
“We’re preserving more than 5,000 pounds of tomatoes. We can our own, tomato paste, marmalades and jams,” says Gjerde, “and every piece of meat and poultry is butchered in house. At the end of the day, we want to put every single penny back into that.” And it just keeps evolving. “We will never reach our goal, because we’re always trying to improve,” adds Valverde. “We’re always asking ourselves, how are we going to make today better than yesterday?”
According to Gjerde, they manage cost just like any other restaurant, but are able to take advantage of surpluses and abundances unlike other establishments. Although he pays more for organic produce, meats, fish, and other products, he strives to keep Woodberry Kitchen casual and friendly. And, he loves how differently diners can approach the food: some come and sit at the bar for a flatbread and a beer, others shoot for the moon and do six courses and spend a lot more.
“That’s what’s at the heart of a neighborhood restaurant with more than a neighborhood following,” he says. “We’re now part of the conversation. We’re willing to make those decisions when other people won’t. People always say you can’t do it… but we are!”
Kate Parham is a Washington D.C.-based freelance food and travel writer. She also reports on wine and spirits, health, consumer finance, and other lifestyle topics. Her byline has appeared in USA Today, Real Simple, Cooking Light, ISLANDS, American Way, and the Robb Report, as well as numerous other publications.