Three years ago, in the mountains of western Maryland, Spike Gjerde was on his hands and knees tugging a chanterelle mushroom out of the ground when his cell phone rang. It was the sous chef at his renowned Baltimore restaurant Woodberry Kitchen, who told him they had some visitors—a half dozen agents from the Maryland Department of Health.
“They were wearing dark blue windbreakers that instead of saying FBI said Health,” Gjerde remembers, shaking his head. The problem? He and his staff had produced thousands of jars of pickles in the restaurant’s kitchen without the requisite permits. Officials stretched yellow tape around the contraband and told employees it had to be destroyed.
At this point, the allegedly dangerous substances are typically tossed in a dumpster. But Gjerde was determined to recycle the glass, so his staff painstakingly dumped each jar into a strainer. “And they just stood there and watched us,” he laughs.
Most chefs would simply start buying pickles. But Gjerde has a different culinary mantra: There has to be a harder way. And so he launched his own preservation facility with four full-time, year-round employees making jams, pickles, hot sauce and dried spices, all stored in a warehouse a few minutes from Woodberry Kitchen.
Today, nearly every upscale restaurant lays some claim to farm-to-table bona fides, but Gjerde takes the philosophy to extremes that are, depending on your point of view, either visionary or slightly absurd. He uses no citrus or olive oil, since neither can be sourced in the mid-Atlantic, and instead opts for locally made vinegar and organic sunflower or rapeseed oil. He buys almost nothing from distributors, even if they buy from local farms, because he wants every penny to go directly to farmers. His total expenditure on local food in 2016 was more than $2 million.
“Spike is in his own league,” says Jeremiah Langhorne, the chef and owner at the Dabney, a Washington D.C. restaurant that also showcases the mid-Atlantic foodshed. “Most chefs’ attitude is ‘This is something we want to do if it works out.’ Spike says, ‘This is what we’re going to do, and we will change other things around to make sure that it works.’”
Gjerde has been widely recognized for his commitment. In May, 2015, he won the James Beard Award for best mid-Atlantic chef, becoming the first Baltimorean to take home the culinary industry’s top prize, which would resonate beyond the local food scene. Ten years after he founded Woodberry Kitchen, he’s assembled an eclectic Baltimore restaurant empire known as Foodshed, which includes a flurry of establishments that have debuted in the last few years: Parts & Labor, a butcher shop–restaurant; Bird in Hand, a coffee shop–bookstore near the campus of Johns Hopkins University; and his newest venture, Sandlot, a summer-only beach bar on the Baltimore waterfront that opened in June.
Each is an example of what you might call the Gjerde Way: Seek out a friendly developer willing to trade cheaper rent to boost the neighborhood; invest profits into supporting local farms, whose produce in turn attracts an affluent clientele; use their patronage as a magnet for other businesses. “What we’re trying to do with all our restaurants is to find a way to feed ourselves and our community,” Gjerde says. “If you run a truly local business, one that supports growers and workers and eaters, the impact is immeasurable.”
Gjerde can take credit for bringing new optimism and opportunity to a city that tends to attract national attention only for drugs or racial violence or an award-winning TV show (The Wire) about drugs and racial violence. Artists, screenwriters, musicians—a new creative class—are moving in, lured by cheaper rents and amenities like the ones that Gjerde provides and inspires. According to the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance, the median income in the Woodberry-Remington-Medfield area, the postindustrial neighborhoods where three of Gjerde’s restaurants are located, is up by 20 percent since 2010.
The main street in Hampden, the hilly neighborhood adjacent to Woodberry, is lined with an oyster bar, a donut shop and record stores. A few miles away, patrons of Gjerde’s butcher shop can now stop by the R House, a food court serving everything from arepas to poke bowls. Most recently, Gjerde played advance man at Sandlot, a seasonal beach bar in Fell’s Point with beach volleyball courts, a vintage Airstream trailer and shipping containers that serve as its kitchen and bar. But it’s only temporary—over the next 10 years, the al fresco restaurant will be transformed into a public park surrounded by a 27-acre retail project slated to include a West Elm furniture store, a coffee roaster, a yoga studio and a farmer’s market. “Spike creates neighborhoods,” explains Bill Struever, the developer behind Woodberry Kitchen. “The true value isn’t the direct payback on my investment but the indirect value he creates for my neighborhood.”
Struever first worked with Gjerde in the ’90s, when he backed the chef’s first restaurant, Spike & Charlie’s, which they opened in an old jazz club near Baltimore’s symphony hall. Back then, Gjerde wasn’t focused on buying local; just keeping the kitchen running was work enough. But on weekends, shopping for his family at the local farmers markets, he was soon filling up the back of his car with produce for the restaurants, too. It wasn’t long before he needed a small pickup truck for his haul.
In 2004, after Spike & Charlie’s closed, Struever offered him a space in the Woodberry neighborhood, a former ironworks factory along a creek dotted with abandoned grist mills. There were no available liquor licenses in the district, and friends told Gjerde he was crazy: No one knew where Woodberry was, let alone how to get there.
But for Gjerde, it had immense potential: It was a big space at an affordable price; whatever profits he made could be plowed into supporting local farms rather than rent. For the menu, Gjerde mandated that everything come from Maryland, Virginia or Pennsylvania—a much greater sourcing challenge than for restaurants like Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, where so much is in season all year round. This fall, as Woodberry Kitchen celebrated its 10th anniversary, its menu was overflowing with roasted Chesapeake oysters, Maryland duck breasts and cassoulet-like ragouts of dried local beans.
To sustain his restaurants on purely local produce, Gjerde has to preserve a massive stock of out-of-season ingredients, all of which he stores at Woodberry Pantry, a warehouse in an old industrial park. Accessible only by screechy freight elevator, his cavernous storeroom is filled with shelves of dehydrated strawberries and peaches, boxes of jams and jellies, and bottle upon bottle of Gjerde’s signature hot sauce, Snake Oil, made with an heirloom Maryland chili called fish pepper. In the past year, to keep up with demand for the sauce, Foodshed purchased 35,000 pounds of fish peppers from area farmers.
Two miles southeast, in the Remington neighborhood, Parts & Labor offers another example of the Gjerde Way. In this case, his partner was Seawall Development, which in 2010 began buying up buildings in the area, a gritty mix of dilapidated auto shops and row houses. A butcher shop and restaurant in one, Parts & Labor sits on a busy road near a series of storage facilities, a Mr. Tire and the 7-Eleven where Gjerde had a late-night run-in with the eccentric director and Baltimore native John Waters. (“Just about everyone in Baltimore has a Waters story,” says Gjerde. “What’s the point in living here if you don’t?”) The building was once a car-storage facility and a tire shop, and for months after it opened, residents continued to stop by to see whether they could get their flats fixed.
In the shop, above the retail meat cases, are photos of the farms Gjerde sources from, and alongside the dollar amounts his restaurants have spent at local farms, down to the penny: $1,084,468.24 at Liberty Delight Farms, $284,099.50 at Whistle Pig Hollow, both about 20 miles northwest of Baltimore. “We source from local farms. Period,” the menu declares. It’s a not-so-subtle jab at competition that buys local only when it’s as cheap and easy as buying anything else.
For John Dimling, the owner of Whistle Pig Hollow, it’s been a remarkable partnership. “Spike provides an outlet for people like me who want to raise animals where the land costs are higher and the feed costs are higher.” Even more impressive, he adds, Gjerde visits each farm himself. “A lot of people will take a picture or make a phone call. He sends the kitchen staff and wait staff to see us. He wants all his employees to know the story from farm to finish.”
But it’s not enough just to drop a restaurant into an up-and-coming neighborhood—no matter how good or diligently sourced the food. To survive, a loyal following is essential. Woodberry Kitchen, Parts & Labor and Artifact, Gjerde’s coffee house in nearby Medfield, have earned one, according to D. Watkins, who wrote much of his acclaimed memoir of life in the East Baltimore crack trade, The Cook Up, while drinking coffee at Artifact. “Spike is an amazing Baltimore figure,” Watkins says. “He’s created a culture of eating that didn’t exist here.”
Part of that culture, he says, is food that isn’t only for rich people—or, to put it bluntly, for white people. Baltimore is a notoriously segregated city where 63 percent of the population is African-American and nearly 25 percent of city residents live in poverty. “I think the elite thing comes when you go to a place where you’re not welcome,” Watkins says. “There are restaurants, especially in the Harbor East area, where you’re not greeted in the same way. You’re not going to feel the same way as you do when you walk into Woodberry Kitchen.”
Gjerde channeled those sentiments two and a half years ago when his name was announced at the James Beard Awards, just two weeks after riots had broken out across the city in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death in police custody. Looking surprised, he nervously adjusted his tuxedo on his way to the podium and took a deep breath before he spoke. “Woodberry Kitchen is a restaurant that is of, for and in Baltimore, a city which needs a little bit of good news right now,” he said. “And this,” he continued, holding up his medal, “is going back to Baltimore.”