Do not ask for lime in your cocktail at Woodberry Kitchen. Search the premises of the Baltimore restaurant and you’ll not find a lemon or a lime, not in the cooler, not at a chef’s station, not behind the bar. Nor will you find a drop of olive oil, or a salmon steak, or lobsters scuttling over each other in a burbling water tank. No one grows citrus or olives in the Chesapeake watershed or fishes for salmon or lobster off the mid-Atlantic coast, so those ingredients are not on the menu. Tibetan pink salt and Oregon fiddleheads? Please.
Woodberry Kitchen, and A Rake’s Progress, its sister restaurant in Washington, D.C., are the nexus of a radical food experiment by Spike Gjerde ’85. In 2015, the James Beard Foundation named him the best chef in the mid-Atlantic, so far the only time it has conferred the prestigious award on a Baltimore cook. He has founded or cofounded 11 restaurants and coffee shops in the Baltimore-Washington area since 1991. Not all have endured, but Woodberry and A Rake, as Gjerde calls them, are thriving, with menus that reflect an uncompromising commitment to local organic growers and suppliers.
One of the prime culprits in the global climate debacle, he believes, is the way we eat. Gjerde has staked his livelihood on fostering a food community that doesn’t ruin the soil, doesn’t needlessly pump carbon into the atmosphere, and doesn’t breed flavor and nutrients out of food in favor of durability so it can be shipped 3,000 miles. He encourages local organic farmers and biodynamic vintners and responsible fishermen in the strongest possible way—he buys what they produce, feeding millions of dollars into the mid-Atlantic foodshed to help sustain vital but often precarious businesses. He did not invent the farm-to-table restaurant; Alice Waters was there with Chez Panisse 30 years ahead of him, with many others following her lead. But he may have gone further in the rigorous pursuit of locavore dining than any restaurateur in America. He loves food, but a deeper love may be for the ideas he’s pursuing to subvert the American industrial food system.
Isaiah Billington used to work for him as a chef. Now he operates Keepwell Vinegar near York, Pennsylvania, and supplies Gjerde with novel vinegars made from locally sourced inputs like aronia berries and sorghum and ramps. He says, “Absolutely nobody does it like him. He goes from first right into fifth gear. One day he says we’re not using lemons in the kitchen anymore, and that’s it, it’s over, it’s done. I think one thing Spike is willing to do that other chefs maybe aren’t is to imagine what food would be like if you didn’t have access to certain things, and then imagine that your guests want to go on that same trip with you.”
Tall, skinny, restless, and painstaking, Gjerde has progressed from a college kid fascinated by a Vermont bakery to a chef-evangelist happy to pursue ideas that upend the dominant food paradigm. “I’ve come to understand, from talking to a lot of farmers and from doing a fair amount of reading, that the way we are feeding ourselves on this planet is contributing to a lot of the problems we are having,” he says. “That has added to my resolve to figure this out. We are on the verge of losing a lot of what we cherish about our lives on this planet. I feel like we’re reaching a breaking point, and food production is playing a huge role.” He believes that too much of the global conversation about sustainability is not about sustaining life but about sustaining an industrial food system that is insupportable. “I hate the word ‘sustainability,’ because we’re having a ‘sustainability’ conversation and meanwhile we’re driving off the bridge.”
In the late 1990s, Gjerde found himself staring at a carton of mangoes. They were in the cooler of one of the four restaurants he operated at the time, a Mexican and Caribbean place named Joy America Café. Like most restaurants, Joy America bought food for its kitchen from a conventional restaurant purveyor. But Gjerde liked to supplement with produce he bought at Baltimore farmers’ markets. He had recently admired peaches from a grower named Dave Reid but had passed on them for Joy America because they didn’t fit the menu. Now here he was, gazing at mangoes. “The pan-Latin concept of the restaurant compelled me to buy these things,” he says. “So I was buying all this stuff that I didn’t have any connection with. I’m in the walk-in thinking, Why am I buying these mangoes? I’m literally looking at the box thinking, Where are they from?” He couldn’t answer that. Nor did he know who had grown them, or what kind of agriculture the growers practiced, all things he knew about produce he bought at the farmers’ market. “I can’t buy peaches from Dave Reid because my menu says that I need mangoes for the concept behind this restaurant, and I just thought, well, the next thing I do, I won’t let anything get in the way of what I can purchase from these guys.” The ethic that now governs his restaurants was forming in his mind.
The interest in food had been there all along. As kids, he and his younger brother, Charlie, would play restaurant, writing menus that offered “Shrimp New Orleans” and advised diners that “White Wine will be accompanied with dinner. Coffee will be served with deserts [sic]. If any special requests ask.” At Middlebury, he hosted small dinner parties for friends, cooking on a hotplate. He studied philosophy, mostly because he was interested in theory, or as he says, “being a little bit out there.” He had no plans for an academic career but liked reading, thinking, and talking about big ideas.
He started hanging around a Frog Hollow bakery called Knave of Hearts. “I just thought it was the coolest place in the world. I was mesmerized by this little bakery making these whole-grain breads. It took me like a month or longer to finally ask the owner if he’d have any interest in me coming in and helping out for free, just because I wanted to be there. He was like, ‘Sure, we start at midnight.’” Gjerde would ride his bicycle to the bakery on freezing Vermont nights and learn all he could about baking bread. In addition to philosophy, he was studying Chinese, and one of his language teachers liked Italian bread. If Gjerde knew he was going to be late to class, he would bring fresh bread in atonement.
After completing his degree in 1985, he returned home to Baltimore. Walking downtown one day, he noticed Pâtisserie Poupon, a French bakery run by Joseph and Ruth Poupon. He strolled in and asked if they had any day-olds. He knows now that it was an inappropriate question for an artisanal bakery, but he was still thinking like a college kid. Then he asked if they were hiring. Joseph told him to come back with a resumé. Gjerde concocted one, and Poupon said, “Okay, you can start at 4 a.m.” Later, Ruth laughed with Spike about the look on his face: Whoa, I got the job! Whoa, I gotta be here at four in the morning!
He cites this as his first step in becoming a chef. “What I loved about Poupon was that we would be making pastry and talking about pastry, and with Joseph, I had someone who was grounded in traditional French pastry,” he says. “We’d be talking about all the types of pâte à choux that there were. Then I’d go home and read about it and then come in and ask him about more things.” He worked for Pâtisserie Poupon for about two years, then quit to be a pastry chef at a couple of Baltimore restaurants. Looking back, he thinks he left too soon, that he had more to learn, but he was impatient to move on.
By 1991, he was working in a private dining room called the Center Club. His brother, Charlie, was looking for something to do other than manage a LensCrafters, and their father, David, had developed an interest in wine. So they hatched the idea of opening a restaurant, with Spike as chef (or, more accurately, learning to be a chef day by day), Charlie looking after the dining room, and David handling the wines and bankrolling the venture. The elder Gjerde ran the idea past a friend who was in the business. Spike recalls, “He said, ‘Oh, that’s gonna work. What could go wrong?’ Right. Exactly. But anyway, it happened.” They took over a failed jazz club opposite Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, home of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and opened Spike & Charlie’s.
At first, they tried to run a restaurant upstairs and a jazz club downstairs, but it wasn’t long before they revised that plan. “The jury was still out as to whether we were going to be able to operate a restaurant, but the writing was on the wall that we were not jazz club operators. That is one tough business.”
Day by day, they figured out how to succeed at the other tough business. Spike & Charlie’s became a favorite spot on symphony nights. Concertgoers booked tables for dinner before BSO performances, and musicians came by after the show. “We had Yo-Yo Ma playing ‘Happy Birthday’ to a woman in the dining room. I still get chills thinking about that moment. It was really a fun, energized place to kind of learn the ropes, which is the other thing that was happening. We were literally learning how to run a restaurant. My dad was there, and he was our business manager, and he was writing out long budgets and our ledgers all by hand.”
Spike & Charlie’s would be packed before BSO concerts, sometimes empty on nights when the Meyerhoff was dark. But the business did well enough that the Brothers Gjerde expanded. They opened a bistro called Jr., a seafood place named Atlantic, and Joy America Café. “We were cruising along,” he says.
In 2001, they decided to bring their managers and chefs together at a company retreat. “We went up to this rustic little resort in West Virginia and had this hilarious fun time. We cooked a big supper together. There was a little lake, and we went out in canoes and had a giant water fight, and everybody ended up in the water. The next day, we went down to this central lodge. It was the only place that had a TV, and it was on The Today Show, and one of the twin towers was burning.” The date was September 11.
In the pall and economic slump after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, business at the Gjerdes’ restaurants fell off markedly. “As a company, we weren’t ready for that. We weren’t robust enough to take it.” He now realizes that he and Charlie had expanded too fast in the late 1990s, leaving themselves vulnerable to the kind of setbacks they experienced after 9/11. Struggling to pay bills and iron out other difficulties unique to each restaurant, the brothers started closing them in 2002. By 2006, they had shuttered every one and amicably unwound their partnership.
Gjerde wasn’t out of the business for long. Later in ’06, a Baltimore developer approached him about putting a restaurant in a dilapidated circa-1850 flour mill in the Woodberry neighborhood, part of a large business and residential redevelopment project. Working closely with his then wife Amy, who is still coproprietor of the restaurant, he set about putting his evolving ideas about a local food economy into practice. “I was drawn toward small-scale growers who were thoughtful and trying to take into account the environment and the Chesapeake Bay and their workers and the communities that they were producing for. As I was being drawn to that, I was being repelled by what I was learning about industrial food production.”
He examined what he calls “the ubiquitous whole of how we eat now”—huge grocery stores, mass-produced convenience foods, factory farms—and wanted no part of it. “It all comes from the same source, from industrial monoculture,” he says. “From farms that, no matter what label you put on them, don’t do what farms have done for us for thousands of years. They don’t sequester carbon. They’re not integrated with habitat—a lot of times they displace habitat. They don’t support families economically. They don’t support communities.”
Woodberry Kitchen opened for business in 2007 and within a couple of months was a success. Isaiah Billington was there at the beginning. “We started with something like four cooks, and it’s a fairly big restaurant,” he remembers. “The first night we seated, like, 60 people. The next night there were 100. A week after that, there were 200 every night. We were getting our asses handed to us. We didn’t leave the building for two years. I’d go in at 7 a.m. and go home at 1 a.m. It was too cool.”
Spike watched bemused as his server gamely informed the 44th president of the United States that on this night, he’d have to sip a local spirit laced with verjus.
Gjerde likes to joke that Woodberry Kitchen has a motto: “Surely we can find a harder way.” His commitment to using only food produced in the mid-Atlantic meant going into the canning business, to put up fruit and vegetables that would not be available from local farms during the winter; he refused to fall back on February produce from California, Mexico, or South America.
He had to cultivate relationships with dozens of farmers and other producers. He had to build a dependable network to supply everything on his menu from unconventional sources.
Then he found a harder way. Sure, he had lined up local sources for pork, carrots, lettuce, oysters, milk. But pantry staples like flour, sugar, hot sauce, pepper, and citrus fruit? Those still came from a six-page order he placed each week with a large regional food service company. So he became obsessed with finding a local source, or inventing a substitute if he had to, for every item on the list. Lemons and limes for the bar? Out, replaced by verjus, an acidic juice from unripened grapes, made for him by a Maryland winery. Olive oil? Nobody raises olives in the mid-Atlantic, so he and his cooks substituted locally produced alternative oils. He replaced Tabasco with Woodberry’s own Snake Oil, made from fish peppers, a historical crop brought back and grown for him by local farmers.
Gjerde says he has trimmed that multipage pantry list to about a half-dozen items, and he hasn’t stopped yet. He’s still trying to figure out alternatives to sugar, cornstarch, and black pepper. (For the last, he’s got an idea about adapting horse parsley seeds.) “A lot of restaurants are inwardly focused. The chef has a vision: These are the foods that we do. This is our dining experience. Our vision, by definition, is outward, because we are so connected to this food community. That means paying attention to the weather in a way that I might not otherwise and paying attention to the health of the Chesapeake Bay because that’s where our fish and shellfish come from. I’m trying to listen to watermen and growers and makers who are telling me what’s going on.”
He is reconciled to a few concessions. He knows he can’t operate dinner restaurants without coffee and tea, neither of which can be locally sourced (though he is scrupulous about the ethical sourcing practices of the roaster he buys from). His wine lists include bottles from Maryland and Virginia . . . and from California and Europe. But the bars at Woodberry and A Rake’s Progress, which he opened in D.C. in 2018, are stocked only with hard spirits, liqueurs, and beers from mid-Atlantic distillers and brewers. No Dewar’s Scotch, no Belvedere vodka, no Anchor Steam or Heineken.
Gjerde enjoys telling a story about the night he served the Obamas and a party of 12 at the Washington restaurant. Apparently, Barack Obama favors European vodka, on the rocks with a lime. Spike watched bemused as his server gamely informed the 44th president of the United States that on this night, he’d have to sip a local spirit laced with verjus.
As Gjerde has pursued his ideas, he has helped develop a local food network that is renewing a mid-Atlantic food culture. For example, Woodberry bakes all of its bread from grain grown and processed in Pennsylvania, Maryland, or Virginia. “The history of grain growing and processing in this part of the country is interesting because there was a time when there was a lot of grain grown and milled in the mid-Atlantic,” he says. “Pre-Civil War and pre-railroad infrastructure, this was a center of a grain economy. But when we opened Woodberry, there wasn’t a lot of that still in existence.”
So he searched for mid-Atlantic farmers and millers to help restore a regional grain economy. On an organic farm in a tough Baltimore neighborhood, a teacher-turned-farmer named Denzel Mitchell has helped bring back fish peppers, a traditional crop that had all but vanished in Maryland. A Virginia grower, Heinz Thomet, has been experimenting with dry-farming rice. The farmers are willing to experiment because they know Gjerde will buy what they produce; he tries to lower their risk to acceptable levels. Isaiah Billington acknowledges that Gjerde’s early support enabled him and his partner, Sarah Conezio, who also cooked for Spike, to establish Keepwell Vinegar and make it a viable business.
On any given night, Woodberry Kitchen’s menu lists “today’s growers”: Next Step Organics, One Straw Farm, Third Way Farm, Trickling Springs Creamery, Karma Farm, the Great Wicomico Oyster Company. Gjerde estimates that since Woodbury Kitchen opened for business, it has returned $13 million to growers, with an additional $3.7 million worth of purchases from local beverage companies.
There’s a fascinating variety among those growers. Denzel Mitchell cultivates 1.5 acres of produce, much of which he sells to Gjerde, on an organic farm in Sandtown-Winchester, a West Baltimore neighborhood in which one-third of the houses are abandoned, unemployment stands at around 20 percent, and rioting erupted in 2015 after the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore police custody. In 16 hoop houses, essentially inner-city greenhouses with raised beds, he grows a variety of lettuces, kale, beets, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, carrots, watermelon, okra, and squash. Much of it goes to city markets, schools, and restaurant kitchens. As part of Mitchell’s nonprofit Strength to Love II program, it also provides jobs and other services to people trying to return to the community from incarceration, an all-too-common issue in Baltimore.
Joan Norman owns One Straw Farm with her husband, Drew. “He grows it and I sell it,” she says. With their son and son-in-law, they run a 55-acre certified organic vegetable farm near White Hall, Maryland, northeast of Baltimore. (The whole operation, including hayfields, buildings, a pond, and some hogs, encompasses more than 300 acres, much of it rented.) Joan estimates they sell to about 40 restaurants, and she can rattle off by memory what she sends to Gjerde: “Kale, collards, chard, arugula, spinach, cabbages, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, zucchini, yellow squash, hard squash, cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, beets, turnips, kohlrabi, potatoes, watermelon, cantaloupe, strawberries if I have ’em, basil, herbs, fish peppers.”
The most significant source of revenue for One Straw is its community-supported agriculture program, which has 1,200 subscribers. But, she says, restaurateurs like Gjerde are important to local farmers beyond whatever they buy each week. “I applaud Spike for his great effort in bringing awareness to the fact that there are local farmers,” she says. “He has made a name doing that, and he has worked hard. He did it before it was cool, way before it was the thing to do.”
Around 2011, Matt McShane was vice president of a software company with an office opposite Woodberry Kitchen. He lived in Silver Spring, Maryland, and hated the rush-hour commute, so after work he’d stroll over to Woodberry for a drink and some appetizers, waiting out the worst of the traffic. He also had a house on the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia’s Northern Neck, where as a hobby he grew oysters off his boat dock. One day he was eating oysters at Woodberry, and one of the cooks asked him what he thought. McShane replied, “Quite frankly, the oysters I take from my dock taste better than these.” The cook challenged him to bring up a couple of dozen the next time he came around. He did, the Woodberry chefs liked them, and so the Great Wicomico Oyster Company was born. It now sells to more than 25 restaurants (and ships 2,000 oysters per week to Las Vegas).
These days, McShane is a full-time grower. With his wife, Kelly, a former Navy physician’s assistant who served in Afghanistan, he raises the oysters on 23 acres of water leased from the state of Virginia. On 16 acres of land, they grow lemongrass, Spanish oregano, rosemary, Thai basil, saffron, strawberries, lemon cucumbers, and two varieties of asparagus. They have 20 fig trees, and as an experiment, they are trying to grow Chinese chestnuts because Spike wants to make chestnut butter. McShane also raises New Zealand white rabbits: “The farm has 60 to 65 working does and eight very happy bucks. I say, ‘Spike, you tell me what you want and what you can pay for it, and if I can back into the number so we both make money, that’s fine.’”
Gjerde says, “The farmers that I’ve come to work very closely with are entrepreneurs, and I think there’s a thread of that in the history of farming in the United States. In the historical accounts I’ve read, farmers were always looking for a new market or a new product. The large-scale commodity farming that we now accept as the norm isn’t that old, you know, maybe a hundred years in a country that has 400 years or so of European settlement and millennia before that of Native American communities. We’ve settled on this thing that happened only in the last hundred years, but I don’t accept that it’s the sole way that we should be feeding ourselves.”
Under an elevated section of Interstate 83 in downtown Baltimore, there’s a large farmers’ market every Sunday. Gjerde has arranged to buy corn from a farmer there. But when he gets to his stand, the farmer’s face falls as he realizes that he’s already sold it to someone else. “I totally freakin’ forgot,” he admits. Gjerde needs the corn today for Sandlot, his outdoor bar and restaurant situated on a man-made beach on the city’s waterfront. He has an idea for how the Sandlot cooks could pull back and tie each ear’s husk to create a handle, then grill the corn and serve it with butter and seasoning. It’s a hot, sunny August day and Gjerde expects good business on the sand, and he really wants that corn. So, he walks to another grower and buys five dozen ears, which all go into one sack. He is parked a couple of blocks away and doesn’t have a cart, so he has no choice but to hoist the sack over his shoulder. Walking to his car, he staggers under the weight, perhaps consoled by the idea that to serve his Sandlot customers, he’s found a harder way.
Gjerde concedes that his restaurants would be more profitable if they operated more conventionally. His locally sourced raw materials are premium quality but expensive, and he can only charge so much in his dining rooms. An attempt at a Baltimore whole-animal butchery with an attached restaurant called Parts & Labor closed in 2018 after five years of trying to make it work. Americans are too accustomed to cheap factory-farmed meat, he believes, to pay what Parts & Labor had to charge in a business already known for thin margins. “The $1 hamburger is a fact of life,” he says. “The cost of industrial meat is so low and based on so many costs that can be pushed onto the workers and the environment.” Then he adds, “The failures are hard to take. They take a toll.”
Nevertheless, he leaped at the chance to open A Rake’s Progress in the Line, a Washington boutique hotel, in 2018. He also operates a coffee shop there and handles the catering for the hotel, which has presented its own challenges. Event planners want the tried-and-true: beef, chicken, salmon. Gjerde has to tell them, “Sorry, no salmon; how ’bout some rockfish?” And he’s got another project under way, to create a combined farmers’ market and vegetarian restaurant in an industrial area of the district that’s under redevelopment. He’s working with architects now and hopes to be open by the end of 2020.
He admits that he’s disappointed that there are still so few restaurants like Woodberry Kitchen, disappointed that his ideas haven’t taken hold in more of the hospitality business. “You know, I’m part of a generation of older chefs. They’re more financially successful than me, they figured out what worked for them, and they weren’t looking to change. My hope was with younger chefs who were cooking and thinking about food in a way more open to what was going on. I still hope for that, but it’s hard to make money this way, and you’re not going to cook with a lot of the ingredients that you love.
“Solving how ingredients from local farmers can make a business go is something that I’m endlessly fascinated by. There are chefs whose cooking is their creative expression. I probably thought I would be one of those, and I’m not, you know, I didn’t have the technical ability or the imagination. But there’s another form of creativity that I find really satisfying, which is figuring out the problem of how we eat and how restaurants are part of that solution. Figuring out how to translate something that a local grower provides to something that our guests will love.”
It’s an idea big enough to keep him busy for a while.