BACK TO THE LAND
Pioneering farm-to-table chef Spike Gjerde readies his next restaurant in Baltimore.
There was a time, not that long ago, when the focal point of Maryland dining was the soaring open hearth that blazed away each night in the heart of Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore. The most coveted table sat right in front of it, where you could watch a team of at least three chefs waltz around each other through dinner service as they stoked the fire, fed cast iron into its bricks, and pulled out some of the most thoughtful, inventive cooking on the entire East Coast.
Now, that wood-fired oven has been filled in, converted into a fireplace, and splashed with a lacquer of white paint.
“I couldn’t say that it felt like good riddance, but it was cathartic, in a way,” says James Beard Award-winning chef-owner Spike Gjerde as he walked about his former restaurant space in mid-October.
But like many chefs across the country following the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the restaurant industry, Gjerde is in the midst of a reinvention. There was a moment there when he thought he might throw in the toque for good, when his A Rake’s Progress at The Line Hotel in Washington, D.C., shuttered in 2020 and his flagship Woodberry pivoted into an outdoor operation that would never be able to fully replicate the magic that once happened inside. Luckily thanks to the pressure of one fateful landlord, and a little bit of reimagining, now all of that has changed.
“At the end of the day, I’m a restaurant person,” says Gjerde, 60, who opened Woodberry in 2007 and quickly gained national recognition for spearheading the farm-to-table movement in the Mid-Atlantic, which, for this particular cook, did not just mean sourcing the occasional local tomato.
Every single ingredient, from the salt on the table to the grains in his bread to each piece of lettuce or pork or poultry—even the cast iron—came from within the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. (In fact, Woodberry was the first restaurant to use Butter Pat pans.) If they couldn’t source it locally, they’d make it, from jams to pickles to hot sauce, or attempt to, like letting house verjus stand in for the acidity of imported citrus or working with small farmers to replace black pepper with regionally grown and historically significant fish peppers.
Inspired by naturalist Wendell Berry and his own research into the effects of agriculture on the nation’s largest estuary, Gjerde had created a restaurant uniquely rooted in sense of place, with an ever-rotating menu depending on the season and schedules and crop plans of his thoughtfully chosen regenerative growers—meaning those prioritize the land first. It quickly became a mecca for eco-conscious foodies, as well as everyday diners who came in for the iconic flatbreads but left in awe of the abundance of this verdant landscape.
“I felt kind of blessed that we had the Chesapeake Bay to point to, it wasn’t an abstraction, it wasn’t some broad word like ‘environment,’ and it was, and is, in trouble! With one of the things contributing to that being large-scale agriculture,” says Gjerde, referring to the complicated side effects of conventional farming such as erosion and nutrient run-off, not to mention increased chemical use that impacts biodiversity and greenhouse gas emissions that are contributing to a warmer planet. “We wanted to say, well, what’s a better alternative?”
And in the next few weeks, he will continue to prove that there is one, as he reconfigures this sprawling 19th-century mill and reopens as Woodberry Tavern. The former cathedral-like dining room will now be reserved for events, while the smaller side room, once used for weddings and dinner parties, will become the main affair.
“It somehow manages to be both grand and intimate,” says Gjerde, pointing out the floor-to-ceiling industrial windows, weathered brick, and new sleek bar, built using locally reclaimed wood and pink marble held over from the former church that once housed A Rake’s Progress. “It’s warm, inviting, glowing—just a magical little jewel box that feels like time has passed here and, in turn, feels timeless.”
This reductionist approach is showing up in other ways, as well, from a smaller waitstaff and three-person kitchen with a more equitable pay model to a curated menu whose details have yet to be finalized. As ever before, the kitchen will remain entirely regionally sourced, with each meal offering diners a new and unique window into both the time of year and the local food system.
Over the last 15 years, Gjerde has fostered longstanding relationships with folks like Rob Miller of Distillery Lane Ciderworks in Jefferson, who stops in on this Thursday afternoon to deliver boxes brimming with heirloom apples, featuring names like Arkansas Black and Newton Pippin and Ashmead’s Kernel, all freshly picked less than 60 miles away.
“Place looks spiffy!” calls out Miller before darting into the kitchen.
“These are the real-deal apples,” says Gjerde. “They make my favorite cider in the world.”
In some sense, nothing has changed at 2010 Clipper Park Road near the Hampden neighborhood of north Baltimore, and yet, in others, so has everything. There’s a newfound lightness to Gjerde’s step as he shows off the freshly installed oak paneling or walnut bar taps or brick-glass tavern exterior. After what he calls “the darkest times” of not knowing what the future would hold for Woodberry, he exudes an evident excitement in envisioning its days ahead.
“You know, to me, Woodberry was this really beautiful, controlled chaos—there was no challenge when it came to local food that we wouldn’t take on, and in a way, I realized that massive old operation was not sustainable, in a meaningful sense,” he says, referring to the thin margins experienced in many restaurants, especially when supporting local farmers whose prices are not buffered by a large-scale commodity system.
“Now it’s about figuring out what comes next,” he says. “We’re getting ready to turn this kitchen on, and our goal is to keep doing our sourcing, keep cooking, and present it in a way that makes our guests like they’re getting incredible value out of it. That’s the most meaningful thing.”
Of course, he’s going to miss that wood-fired oven. Like we will, too.
“It was spectacular,” concedes Gjerde. “It was the heart and soul of this restaurant—the visual of it, the energy of it, it was central to what Woodberry was.”
But ultimately each year, the summer tomato season comes to an end, and a chef like Gjerde is then tasked with looking forward to the beautiful greens and delicate squash of fall and winter. One way or another, live fire will return.
“We had a little ceremonial toast to the oven before I swung the hammer to knock the first brick out,” says Gjerde. “It was an emotional moment. But Woodberry’s approach has always been hinged on seasonality. Change is inherent to who we are.”
Read Spike’s Sichuan Pepper Squash + Tofu in Family Receipts.