Baltimore chef Spike Gjerde recently revealed that he is going to be adding a new member to his family of restaurants. In mid-September, Shoo-fly will join Gjerde's acclaimed Woodberry Kitchen and buzz-worthy Artifact Coffee in the Baltimore dining scene. And Gjerde's not just opening this "farmhouse diner" concept — a descriptor which he admits "doesn't really mean anything." He's also moving all of the canning and preserving operations from his flagship over to the newer and bigger kitchen. And there are even more projects coming up beyond that (including retail, butchery, and beyond).
Eater caught up with Gjerde by telephone as he and his team drove out to look at soft-serve machines for Shoo-fly to see if they can make soft-serve work on Gjerde's local sourcing ethos. "We get some amazing local milk, but the whole question about how to create a soft-serve mix based on local dairies is kind of up in the air. It hasn't been done very frequently," he explains. In the following interview, Gjerde explains all that he's got in store for Baltimore, reflects on how "the energy is returning" to the city's dining scene, and shares his philosophy on creating food systems and appreciating Chesapeake cuisine.
So congrats on Shoo-fly's impending opening. This was sort of borne out of needing to open up space over at Woodberry Kitchen, right?
Yeah, that was definitely the kernel around which this organized itself. But it's turned into something a lot more than that because we've gotten more comfortable in the space and the building has started to speak to us as it seems to when we get into these cooler older spaces. I think we've got something really fun with Shoo-fly.
Yeah, how did the "farmhouse diner" concept come about? Did you know that's what you were going to put in there?
Not so much. We just kind of got in there and we were thinking about food that we love. I love a good diner as much as anyone, but for me there's also this kind of ambivalence about the quality of ingredients used to make that kind of food. It ends up being a little bit of a guilty pleasure because I love a Western omelet, but at the end of the day I'm not sure I want to be eating those eggs or that particular sausage. So that was the thinking.
We have the raw materials to create an amazing diner, so we wanted to take a swing at it. Baltimore still has some really cool ones and has had really fun places in the past, but maybe not as much right now. And the whole "farmhouse diner" is a loose description. It doesn't really mean anything or make any sense if you think about it. It's just our kind of shorthand for it.
So it's like a diner with your style of ingredients?
Yeah, it's a diner with a lot of rusticity. It's the first time that we've gone into an existing restaurant space since we opened Woodberry. It was very slick and we really had to scruff it up a lot to feel comfortable. It's part of our approach. Part of me is modernist at heart, but I'm also very wabi-sabi at the same time. This place needed to get roughened up.
You're also moving your canning and preservation program into Shoo-fly. Are you going to be expanding it even further now that you have the new space?
It's going to be a little bit bigger, and we're getting licensed by the state to be able to do retail. That's a huge piece. Up until now, obviously Woodberry is a restaurant. We have not been able to sell and have not endeavored to sell anything beyond our doors. Anything that we prepare for the restaurant is sold at table. So this, I think, is an important step for us to be able to ratchet up the scale a little bit, buy a little more from our growers, and share some of these products with people in a different context.
Yeah, this seems like a win for Mid-Atlantic ingredients.
That's exactly how we see it. It's a win for the farm and the farmer, and hopefully for the customer. Woodberry, I love it to death, but we want to see the ideas that are expressed there grow in a way that's not necessarily related to restaurant dining. So that's a huge part of this.
Woodberry Kitchen [Photo: Facebook]
Can you tell me more about that?
Sure. The way we conceive of Woodberry is that it's a restaurant but also we've been compelled to create this whole food system, all the value added parts. We've got amazing growers. They bring us incredible ingredients. And then the rest is left to us. That means butchery, that means the canning and preserving that we do, that means baking. We're trying to bake with local grains and other ingredients. So our thought is that we need to expand on that not by opening a series of restaurants but by creating a bigger footprint for that system to support everything we want to do. So that means the butcher shop, that means the canning gets its own space, a free-standing bakery that works under the same principles that we do at Woodberry right now, and eventually the whole thing is able to support a lot more farms and farmers.
And you already have a lease for the butcher shop, right?
Yep, we've got a permit for that. We've got a budget meeting on the 9th and then we're off to the races. I mean, base building work has started and I would see our work starting by September 1st.
So a pretty busy Fall coming up then.
You know, there's that constant question when you're in the restaurant business, which is are you spreading yourself too thin? For us, conversely, it means that we're going to really be able to focus more on the guest experience [at Woodberry] as we are able to lift some of the pressure from some of these other food system functions. Because right now we're preparing for a seating and at the same time we've got guys that are breaking down whole pigs. You go in the back to get on the range and there's four gigantic pots of blueberry jam that are just gorgeous. But it feels a little bit at cross-purposes sometimes. I think ultimately Woodberry will become a better restaurant if these things are spread out a little bit.
Yeah that was going to be my next question. So with all of these projects clearing up space at Woodberry Kitchen, how are things going to change there?
We have a beautiful kitchen by any measure. What we're able to do there is substantial, but the specific requirements with butchery or, if you're getting serious about preserving, we've found that we really need a kettle with an agitator to do some of the things we want to do. It wasn't going to happen at Woodberry, but it is going to happen at Shoo-fly. Woodberry will be about Woodberry. We're looking at Shoo-fly because the kitchen there is really substantial and we're able to dedicate a serious portion of it to canning and processing.
Canned and pickled products at Artifact Coffee. [Photo: Facebook]
Also I read that you're going to be part of the Baltimore Food Hub?
That is a much more complex project, but yes, we've been actively participating in the development and planning for that. I think we're really close to getting all the pieces that we need to make that happen. What's happening in Shoo-fly, especially the canning piece, is kind of an intermediate step which gets us to a much better place. It gets us our state approvals, it takes some of the pressure off of Woodberry, and it allows us to take a next important step in understanding some of these processes.
The Food Hub would be the step after that. We'd be moving into a full-size commercial kitchen that is just set up for canning and processing, preserving of various types. A cool thing that we love about that space is that it's got below-grade storage. You want to keep your pickles and your preserves in a cool, dark space. This cool, old building has that. To have the proper storage is going to be great for us.
That is good. But that's not until late 2014 or so?
Right. As it kind of comes together and we see who else is interested in being there. Another important piece is an incubator, which would help food start-ups get their feet on the ground. Other cities have them, and they've proven amazingly successful for job development.
I also wanted to talk a little about Baltimore. Maybe it's my own Mid-Atlantic bias, but I feel like Baltimore is a little under-sung. What do you think? How has the city changed toward restaurants?
I've never seen it more activated than it is now. I've been an interested observer/participant for 20-some years, and I always felt that Baltimore has been in a bit of a state of unrealized potential where you felt that maybe this time it's going to turn a corner. But it was almost always a case of one step forward, two steps back.
But recently there's just so much more happening. More restaurants, more energy, and I've got to believe more people are going out just because there are so many more restaurants in a city that is otherwise not experiencing any explosive growth. For me, the exciting part is that the folks that are taking a similar path to ours with regard to trying to understand how local food system works is happening more and more. That more people are taking that seriously is a positive thing. Can they take it more seriously? Yes. But it's definitely part of the conversation. That I have to be grateful for.
I think you're right about Baltimore being kind of under-appreciated. What we lost in the last decade, unfortunately, is some of the great old restaurants. Virtually all of them. The Marconis and the Haussner's... Nothing really filled the void. Nothing really stepped up as we lost our great dining houses. That's something that's not coming back. But I feel like finally the energy is returning to the dining scene.
And what about the ingredients and cuisine of the Chesapeake region. Obviously I see it at local restaurants, but do you think that is widespread across the region?
No. I think we have a very tenuous connection with a lot of those traditions. This year has been a very difficult year when it comes to Chesapeake Bay crab. The crabs just aren't there. It's hard to say why. We had a fairly low level of recruitment in the Spring, and it's just continued. We had three solid years with really encouraging numbers, but this year we had a very weak survey with regard to spawning females. It just has continued in that vein this whole Summer.
Crab are funny in the sense that we don't really fully understand everything about them. There's a lot of theories right now about why things are so bad. It's gonna be a story. They might start closing some of these fisheries if things don't pick up or we don't understand what's happening. It'd be devastating. With one exception, I think [blue crab is] the biggest value fishery we have in the Chesapeake right now.
So when it comes to Chesapeake cuisine, I think there's a tenuous connection because it was established so much earlier than other highly regarded cuisines. It predates Creole/Cajun cooking of Louisiana by 200 years. It predates Pennsylvania Dutch cooking by 300 years. It's easier to connect and piece together real traditions that weren't established in the mid-1600s.
[Photo: Dusan Vuksanovic]
How is it more difficult for you?
I just think some of the information isn't there. It wasn't the most well-documented cuisine. We have great people like Michael Twitty working on understanding the cuisine of the early colonial era, but I still don't feel like I have a real handle on it. We spend a lot of time making ham. We have a butcher who has dug into the nature and the traditions and styles and techniques around Maryland ham, which was clearly one of the great hams of the colonial era. Whether it was Afro-Caribbean, Native American, or Anglo-European ingredients, trying to work within that framework and understanding Chesapeake cooking as the first fully Creole-ized cuisine of the New World, that's a little bit of a challenge.
For me, to understand that enslaved Africans had such an impact on the cooking in Maryland and the Chesapeake region because in those early years we were largely an extractive economy focused on tobacco. And so food and agriculture around food wasn't as well organized as it was in New England or further South in the Carolinas. So enslaved Africans and slaves that had spent time in the Caribbean informed a lot of how cooking evolved in the Mid-Atlantic around the Chesapeake. That's why okra and a lot of these ingredients — fish pepper is something we're really connected with — that's where I think they were so prominent. They deserve more prominence now.
That's interesting. So I was reading something Docsconz wrote a couple years ago that you "use traditional technique and a Modernist mindset to question how everything is done" at Woodberry Kitchen. I think it's curious this intersection between the traditional and progressive cooking. What do you think about that?
You can characterize just about anything you cook with or anything you use to cook as a technology. We're not Luddites, but we love understanding older technologies. Canning and preserves, you know. Canning is certainly a technology. Combi Oven is a technology. Circulators and sous-vide cooking are technologies that we use. Wood-burning oven is an ancient technology that we use. I think that's really perceptive.
At the end of the day, we're cooks and chefs that are trying to create delicious food for our guests. We're not happy unless the food is delicious. But there is a bigger picture that I think that been somewhat overlooked. Some chefs might look at pickling as kind of a neat thing to add flavor. We really look at it as something we have to do. We're compelled to can and preserve because of our commitment to local sourcing and our desire to buy as much as we can, participate as fully as possible with our local agricultural economy of this area.
One of those things that we don't allow ourselves is that rationalization that we will use local food or local ingredients whenever possible. There's that "out" that people allow themselves. Because we put our local food system and our growers first, that presents the framework within which we work. It's not my particular culinary imagination. In other words, I don't come up with a dish and say, "All right, what part of this masterpiece can I get locally?" We're presented with the products from our local growers and then we're compelled as chefs and cooks to make it taste great.
So if I put my creativity first, if I put myself first as a chef, it ends up that I feel I need to have whatever crazy [ingredient]. And I probably won't be able to find it locally. But if I just look around and this is what I have, this is what I'm working with, then that's creativity in a way that's at least as interesting as it's been conceived in the last decade or so. And we're not, by any tiny stretch, the only folks that are thinking like this. But it is great to be able to do it in this region because there's so much happening and so much available to us.