In the pantry at Baltimore’s Woodberry Kitchen, chef Spike Gjerde is raving about bottles of local vinegar made by two former employees. He’s got even more to say about the big glass jugs of verjus pressed from a Maryland vineyard’s unripe grapes; the acidity of the juice allowed him to stop buying lemons and limes — which aren’t grown commercially in the Mid-Atlantic — years ago.
But when he spots a tub of Gulden’s Mustard on the shelf, he shakes his head in frustration. “Mustard is one thing we haven’t been able to figure out yet,” he says. “I’m still buying it, and it drives me crazy.”
Over the past 10 years, Gjerde, 54, has been steadily transitioning his now six restaurants across the city (including the recently opened harborfront Sandlot) to rely almost entirely on locally sourced ingredients. It’s all part of his effort to align the reality of the operation with his obsessive vision: self-sustaining regional food systems that return value to growers, provide the most delicious food for eaters, and protect the planet. In the meantime, the innovative way he cooks with said ingredients — accentuating crab and oysters fresh from the Chesapeake Bay, for example, or turning local spelt into noodles served with spring vegetables and ramp butter — earned him a James Beard Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic award in 2015 and a place on Eater’s list of America’s best restaurants.
“I think I became kind of radicalized as I started to understand more about commodity farming and industrial food production in this country,” he says. “That’s what really cemented it for me, this idea that this food system is going to drive off a cliff.”
This fall, for the first time, he’ll apply his principles to a restaurant outside of Baltimore: A Rake’s Progress, in Washington, DC’s new Line Hotel. The eagerly-awaited opening (currently set before the end of the year) is a milestone for Gjerde and will be a test case for whether his approach can be applied to a different landscape, in terms of both dining culture and agriculture.
Building a Baltimore Food Economy
Most farm-to-table chefs put heirloom tomatoes on the menu when they’re at the farmers market; Gjerde’s Foodshed restaurant group paid $80,000 to buy 220,000 pounds of Maryland tomatoes last fall and canned them to to use at all of his restaurants year-round.
It took him many years, however, to get to a place where he understood that processes like canning were indispensable to serving truly local food. When Gjerde — who was born in Iowa but has lived in Baltimore since he was 6 years old — opened Woodberry Kitchen in 2007, he declared a serious farm-focused mission for the first time.
“We had this commitment to local sourcing but had no idea how to do it,” he says. Little by little, he honed the approach alongside a dedicated team. Most of his other restaurants grew out of what was happening at Woodberry Kitchen, applying the same method to different restaurant environments. “The big question, more than a concept, was, ‘What’s the best way to feed ourselves?’ and we’ve been trying to answer that ever since.”
“Locally” is probably a good answer, according to significant research. Michael H. Shuman, a leading economist and expert on local food economies, argues that producing, processing, and consuming local food produces four distinct benefits: stronger community economies, ecological sustainability, better health for community residents, and stronger civic engagement and equality.
Gjerde believes strongly in all four, and he threw himself into prioritizing them in the kitchen on a day-to-day basis. When the restaurant ran out of frozen tomatoes after only a month, for example, his team realized they needed to start canning. When that was too much to do at the restaurant, they moved the operation off-site to a facility, Canning Shed, that now also produces jams made from local fruit and Snake Oil Hot Sauce, a replacement for Tabasco made with locally grown hot peppers. Butchering a whole steer and three hogs a week in the restaurant’s kitchen was “crazy,” he says, so he later opened Parts & Labor, a craft butcher shop that supplies meat to all of the group’s spots and is also its own restaurant.
As Foodshed grew, he found more and more ways to ditch commodity foods the group still relied on. Olives don’t grow locally, so chefs at all of the restaurants cook with local canola and sunflower oils. When it comes to nuts, Gjerde uses peanuts from Virginia and black walnuts and hickory nuts when they’re available from a local forager; definitely no almonds or cashews. He’s almost managed to entirely phase out black pepper, and sugar is his next big project: The bar at Woodberry Kitchen already only uses local honey, maple syrup, and sorghum, but he’s still working on getting refined sugar out of the restaurant’s bakery (which does, however, only use flours made from local grains). There are exceptions, of course: Coffee can’t grow in the region, so Gjerde's Artifact Coffee serves sustainability-focused Counter Culture coffee and follows Woodberry’s principles when it comes to everything else on the menu.
“He didn’t invent this idea of sourcing food locally. It’s an ancient concept,” says Drew Baker, co-owner of Maryland’s Old Westminster Winery, who sells both wine and some of the aforementioned verjus to Woodberry Kitchen. “But what he does that’s so special is he puts his money where his mouth is. You could buy a truckload of lemons at a fraction of the cost [of the verjus]. Most restaurants are interested until they find out it’s going to add 25 cents to the price of a cocktail. Woodberry doesn’t care about that 25 cents — it’s about the commitment.”
To make it work, at the beginning of each year, Gjerde and his team hold grower meetings with all of their farmers and producers to map out a big-picture plan for what they’ll buy over the next 12 months. Producers often adjust their plans to grow what the restaurants need. While the number is impossible to verify, Foodshed estimates it has paid more than $30 million directly to growers in the Mid-Atlantic over the past decade.
“In a positive sense, they’re extremist, in that they really are truly dedicated to farm-to-table, to local purchasing,” says vegetable farmer Jon Shaw, who owns Karma Farm just north of Baltimore. The Foodshed group is Shaw’s biggest customer; he estimates that the restaurant group spent somewhere between $30,000 and $50,000 with him last year. He also believes other restaurants in the city have started shifting their sourcing to local producers as a result of the popularity of Gjerde’s establishments.
And the fact that it’s Baltimore, a working-class town not especially known for its cuisine, is important to Gjerde. “One of the things I love about what we’re doing is the fact that it’s happening here,” he says, gesturing at the modest skyline. “I can’t do a $238 tasting menu here and expect anybody to show up. We are testing this and doing this in a city that is value-conscious, and we’re making it work.”
Can It Work in D.C.?
Gjerde won’t be the first chef in D.C. that’s focusing on local foodways, of course. And chefs already on this path in D.C. have faced some challenges when it comes to branding.
“I was actually very nervous about having a restaurant like ours up here. There just weren’t many restaurants doing it,” says chef Jeremiah Langhorne, who opened the Dabney in D.C. at the end of 2015 with a mission to showcase local food.
The Dabney has been incredibly popular and landed on Food & Wine’s list of Restaurants of the Year 2016, but Langhorne says he intentionally avoids drawing attention to its emphasis on local farmers. Servers are trained to explain where the ingredients come from, for instance, but they don’t offer information on farms unless asked. “A big problem we’ve run into has been the commercialization of the idea of sourcing locally,” he says. “It’s kind of left a bad taste in people’s mouths and created this backlash.”
It’s an issue Ellen Gray, co-owner of Equinox, one of D.C.’s oldest farm-to-table restaurants, also worries about. “I personally can’t stand the term ‘farm-to-table’ anymore. It’s so beat down and overused,” she says.
When chefs jumped on the local-sourcing bandwagon by throwing greenmarket green beans onto a menu otherwise comprising seafood from China and avocados from Mexico, for example, the term became meaningless, and the landscape saturated. Gray and Langhorne suggest that in D.C., diners have stopped trusting the claims restaurants made, even when they were legit.
It’s a challenge Gjerde is well aware of. He also hates the phrase “farm-to-table” and trips over what to call his cuisine instead. But that ambiguity — coupled with the city's growing enthusiasm for local farmers markets, urban farms, and local product — is something the Sydell Group, the hotel group that owns the Line, is hoping to tap into. “We got in this conversation about the fact that D.C. doesn’t really have a signature style of food,” says Andrew Zobler, founder and CEO, explaining why they turned to Gjerde. Perhaps taking cues from what the surrounding land produced would be the best way to create one?
The Road to Opening
The biggest challenge in taking an operation like Gjerde’s to a new city is establishing a network of producers. In some ways, he already figured out the nitty gritty of getting it done while working out the kinks in Baltimore; on the other hand, this time he’s trying to start where he wants to land, rather than gradually working up to a more pure approach.
One element making it easier is the fact that while the hotel, built inside a former church, feels like a world away from rustic Woodberry Kitchen, Baltimore is close enough that Gjerde is able to source from many of the same growers. (Woodberry Kitchen and A Rake’s Progress will be fewer than 50 miles apart.) “It’s not a substantially different climate,” he says. There are some Southern Virginia crops — like pomegranates and figs — he may pull from that he wouldn’t have used at Woodberry. But getting the restaurant ready has primarily meant securing bigger commitments from growers he’s already working with, while chef de cuisine Opie Crooks (who left Woodberry to run the kitchen at A Rake’s Progress) has been going to local markets and meeting new producers to add to the roster.
There have been kinks. Originally, Gjerde planned on using meat from animals butchered at Parts & Labor, but USDA rules won’t let him transport it over state lines. There also isn’t space at the new restaurant for butchering, so buying whole steers or hogs from a producer near D.C. isn’t an option. “We’ll have to see about beef and pork — how much we’re going to do and how we’re going to work it into the menu,” he says while getting ready to taste-test grass-fed beef that just “landed” from Virginia. The decision, in other words, may come down to not serving steak at all or serving some grass-fed beef from a local producer, a slight step down from the purer approach of purchasing whole animals.
The focus of the menu at A Rake’s Progress, thankfully, was always going to be more on smaller game — like poultry and rabbit—and Gjerde has been able to line up local sources on that front. For example, he’s already agreed to buy rabbits from a producer in Virginia who was selling him oysters and decided to diversify.
Overall, the menu will be slightly more refined to fit the feel of the restaurant space: a dramatic balcony overlooking the hotel lobby, with cathedral ceilings and light streaming in through massive stained-glass windows. “We’re just going to have to do it with a little more polish, without getting fussy… just a little more finesse,” he says.
Downstairs in the lobby, Gjerde is also behind the coming coffee shop the Cup We All Race 4 (both names refer to paintings), outside of which will be an internet radio station. He’ll host a show that focuses on local food issues, like the speaker series he started out of Artifact Coffee, Origins, which is broadcast on Heritage Radio Network.
There is no doubt in Gjerde’s mind that he can build a successful restaurant that both depends on and fosters a thriving local food economy in D.C., just as he’s done in Baltimore. And now that he’s built this model and is about to test the waters in a new city, he’s even willing to entertain the idea of bringing it elsewhere.
“In the past, I would have said, ‘Absolutely no way,’” he says. “But we’re trashing the planet right now, and for me, the question has become: How do we feed ourselves without trashing the planet? For some reason, the last couple of months, that question became really, really important to me. I’ve kind of arrived at this new sense of urgency.”
It’s an urgency that makes the sight of mass-market mustard particularly agitating. It’s an urgency that suggests whatever happens in D.C., flinching and ordering truckloads of grass-fed steak from New Zealand or citrus from Florida is not an option.
On a train from Baltimore to D.C., Hannah Ragan, Gjerde’s director of operations, sums it all up. “Other chefs say, ‘We source locally when we can,’” she says. “Spike says, ‘It’s the only way.’”