Lou Sumpter is finally being heard.
In 2012, the quiet chef entered Woodberry Kitchen, Baltimore’s fanatically local destination restaurant, as a stage. He was 22 and had no formal culinary education, but did have a few years of experience cooking at pizza places around Charm City. Sumpter knew he wanted to be in a serious kitchen, and was drawn to the idea of working with a wood-fired oven. For him that meant Woodberry, where he had a friend who worked pastry. He had his in.
“I wasn’t sure what was actually happening when I staged there,” he says. “They were doing all of the whole-animal butchery, the pickling — everything was happening out of that space. I was immediately like, this is amazing. I just felt that I had to be there and learn as much as I possibly could.”
Sumpter says he intended to stay for a year. Instead, he wound up working every station, progressing from flatbreads and garde manger to the hot line and then to the wood-fired oven before he was eventually promoted to sous chef. “Then I started taking over brunch and it went from there.”
The “it” he’s referring to is becoming the chef de cuisine of Woodberry Kitchen, the operation that Baltimore’s first James Beard Award winner, Spike Gjerde, opened nearly a decade ago. It’s a job that comes with a lot of expectations, especially in terms of reputation, sourcing, and volume (they average between 200 and 350 covers a night). While Gjerde committed the place to a mid-Atlantic larder from the start, the menu itself can be expansive. “We don’t pigeonhole ourselves to any one cuisine,” Sumpter says. “We’ll do old-school Baltimore dishes, like coddies, but we also make congee and Italian soups.”
Gjerde calls Sumpter a great leader by example. Sumpter still works every station on the line and is committed to studying cookbooks, both keeping up with the new (his current favorite is On Vegetables, by Jeremy Fox) and looking to the past, by reading Maryland cookbooks from the 1800s. And the dishes at Woodberry are starting to reflect his voice and style.
“Given Lou’s experience and his creativity and his technical ability as a chef, Woodberry’s never been better,” Gjerde says. “I think the food is becoming more recognizably his.”
On a recent June night, the menu ranged from chilled asparagus soup to Hmong sticky rice to a Buffalo-style soft-shell crab. In a nod to Maryland, the “Buffalo sauce” was actually an emulsion of Gjerde’s own Snake Oil hot sauce and butter. There were also the menu staples, like Spike’s crab dip, as well as roasts — a bone-in ribeye, cast-iron chicken, and two types of fish served “out of the oven.” Sumpter loves working with whole fish, and his porgy was recently featured in the New York Times’s “36 Hours in Baltimore.”
“I used to struggle to get three words out of Lou,” Gjerde says. But over time, and with encouragement, he began speaking up. “Now, his is the voice of the kitchen, the one that’s keeping things on track. It’s literal and metaphorical. Literally, you need to hear his voice in the kitchen above everything else that’s going on, saying yes or no, providing direction and critical feedback.” But it’s also metaphorical: “Because of his experience and his understanding and his talent, he needs to be the one that’s underpinning the daily operation of the kitchen.”
Sumpter smiles slightly when talking about his job, especially when discussing the challenges that arise with such a big operation, like a recent brunch where they cranked out 496 covers. Parts of the menu change daily, but he works to keep it consistent. For example, in the past, Woodberry recipes weren’t always written down, so there’s a collection of lost dishes that were “amazing — but unfortunately no one remembers how to make them.” Now, Sumpter tries to document “everything that makes sense to be recorded,” even if it’s just quickly on Snapchat.
In the future, he hopes to stage again, perhaps in the Bay Area. He says his goal is to eventually open up a bar, though he doesn’t want anything “too big or too crazy.”
Still, when asked about the menu, Sumpter’s answer reflects his years of cooking in the House of Spike. “I’ve gotten the local sourcing bug, so I don’t think I could work in a different way.”