Chef Spike Gjerde, in the kitchen with line cooks Stephen Puzio, far left,… (Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON…)
The third time I was asked whether I had been to Woodberry Kitchen, the Baltimore restaurant where chef-restaurateur Spike Gjerde walks the talk of locally sourced cooking, I took note. All this buzz from Washingtonians, a people who launch into lengthy negotiations just to cross the Potomac for dinner, had to mean something.
In this case, it meant they have good instincts.
Woodberry Kitchen, in the Hampden neighborhood, is part of Clipper Mill, a 19th-century industrial park repurposed into a multi-use 21st-century business and residential complex. It is an apt setting, because Gjerde (pronounced JER-dee) is a 21st-century businessman with a 19th-century sensibility.
If Gjerde had his way, and he just might, his everyday-use organic flour would come from Maryland wheat rather than Kansan. He would forgo the Greek olive oil he uses for sunflower, rapeseed and peanut oils pressed only as far away as the crow flies.
His restaurant has the details down pat. Valet parking is free, as are the filtered tap and sparkling water and bread. The servers are pert, well informed and dressed in hipster chic: plaid flannel shirts and jeans for the guys, fitted blouses and skirts for the women.
Taking a stroll around the hallways and dining rooms and patio of the warm, 170-seat restaurant, you notice wood stacked to the rafters for fueling the open kitchen’s wood-fired oven. Shelves are stocked with enormous jars of house-preserved foods, each label revealing the provenance of the raw material and the date it was put up: Espelette Jam, One Straw Farm, 10/9/2011. Nectarines in Syrup, Reid’s Orchard, 9/6/11.
The menu is divided into headings that include Supper, Nose to Tail, Chesapeake Oysters and Cold and Warm Plates. Its quaint typography gives a good sense of what the place is about before you taste the food, which is unpretentious. Listed in a bottom corner are the 40-plus growers, Maryland and Pennsylvania cheesemakers and local, sustainable fish and shellfish purveyors whose output is noted as the foundation for “cooking grounded in the traditions and ingredients of the Chesapeake region.” The studied cocktail list favors local spirits; wines are local, organic or biodynamic.
More than anything else, and this is something that cannot be faked, there is a vibe among the entire staff that manifests full engagement in Gjerde’s cause. What they’ve been drinking, however, is not a false prophet’s Kool-Aid, but more likely the direct-trade Counter Culture coffee brewed and French-pressed at the dining room’s prominent barista bar.
Gjerde comes across as a guy you want to know; at age 49 he looks more like 39, probably due to good Norwegian stock. He has boyish blond hair and flashes a disarming smile when he’s not looking as though he’s trying to fit the pieces of a puzzle together in his head.
Which is exactly what he is doing.
Originally from Iowa, Gjerde grew up from age 6 in suburban Baltimore County. He was attracted to the kitchen early on: “I was the kid trying to bake croissants when he was 12.”
He earned a degree in philosophy at Middlebury College while throwing dorm room dinner parties prepared with a hot plate and toaster oven. Returning to Baltimore, he talked his way into a $5-an-hour job at Patisserie Poupon, learned the craft of pastry making and then took a series of jobs as a pastry chef in restaurants around town.
In the late ’80s, Gjerde and his younger brother, Charlie, teamed up and opened multiple restaurants through the ’90s.
“Even back then there was an awareness of sourcing,” says Gjerde. “I was the guy showing up at farmers markets, asking, ‘Can I get a case of this? Or that?’ This was 20 years ago.”
But after Sept. 11, 2001, the bottom fell out. The brothers lost their restaurants and decided to go their separate ways. By 2004, Gjerde had little money and was married with two young children. (He met and married his wife, Amy, in 1997. She had been a pastry chef at one of his restaurants.)
“Amy and I felt beat down after the restaurants closed. Had the Clipper Mill project not come along, we would probably have taken the kids and left town,” he says. Finn is now 12; Katie, 8. “Woodberry Kitchen was our last swing at the fences in Baltimore.”
The couple will open a coffee bar called Artifact and a sandwich shop called Half Acre, also in the Hampden area. Gjerde may be the public face of Woodberry Kitchen, but he largely credits Amy, who runs the front of the house, with the restaurant’s success.
The Gjerdes based Woodberry Kitchen on one central commitment: to source ingredients from the same community that would be their clientele. In fact, the growers and purveyors who dine at the restaurant are treated to a 50 percent discount.
“The growers are our rock stars,” says the chef.