Editor’s Note: A few weeks ago, the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy hosted an all-day seminar cleverly entitled “Food Fight” to discuss issues related to our food supply in the Chesapeake Bay region. One of the more interesting people that the ESLC brought in that day was the renowned chef and owner of Baltimore’s Woodberry Kitchen, Spike Gjerde. Gjerde is a greatly respected foodie in the mid-Atlantic region, and the Spy was interested in his thoughts about the local state of food, sustainability, and hopes for the future is what and how we eat. While the Spy recorded Spike’s comments that day, the acoustics in the room and the placement of the loudspeakers produced unacceptable audio quality and we therefore made a decision to transcribe his remarks instead. They are presented here, lightly edited (with some omissions due to the poor audio quality/inaudibility).
I had made a commitment to purchase from local growers. And the only thing that ever separated me and what we did at Woodberry is that I stuck with it. And the only thing that allowed me to stick with it is I came over time to understand why it was important. That’s it.
Farm to table came along … and became a trend and everybody put a pitchfork up in the corner of their restaurant … but we were first. … Over time, talking to writers, reading what I could read, talking to folks… I started to understand why this was important. And I started to ask a little more from the food I was serving our guests.
As chefs, for a long time, for years and years, we talked about how delicious food is. And among ourselves we talked about how cheap it needs to be. That was the sum total of our conversation about our food as chefs. And I was one of those guys for a long time. It took me a long time to understand that I could do it and why it was important.
Chefs are forever going to talk about making delicious food, how to make it delicious. I’m a chef and I can’t get away from that. I love serving delicious food to our guests. The other thing was how cheap could it be, how many pennies could we shave off what we were paying, and we would always talk about food cost. It’s an obsession and it’s how you’re able to make money and I get that.
But, I started to ask different questions about our food. After asking “is it delicious?” and “can we make the economic thing work?” I started asking “is it nutritious?” It’s astonishing to me that chefs don’t have much of a sense or care about how nutritious the food is they are feeding their guests. This started to mean a lot to me. The best example about that is we are moving our baking entirely to locally grown whole grains. That’s something taking us so far outside the norm of restaurants and the baking in this country but I can’t imagine doing it any other way. There are so many good reasons to do that, but health when it comes to grains, whole grains are the way to go. So, we’re trying to make our food healthier.
I think the most important question, what I truly started demanding of the food we served our guests, had to do with something that was entirely economic. I started understanding the role Woodberry is playing within our food system as an economic role. I’ve only come recently to understand that I stopped thinking like a chef, and started thinking about how much value can we return to others.
What I felt we needed to demand of our food is that farmers need good pay. If something we were putting on the table wasn’t paying farmers, it wasn’t good enough for us. And that is the definition of what good food is that I never heard before. And I never heard it in the context of a restaurant, or from a chef. That’s what took Woodberry from being a farm to table restaurant that could have ended up like any farm to table restaurant to what it is today.
In 2014 we returned 2.5 million dollars to our local agricultural alone. In 2015 we hit a couple speed bumps and returned 2.1 million to local agriculture. This isn’t total spending. This is the amount that went back to farmers. We measure it and talk about it because it’s important. Without these dollars, the small-scale farmers, the ones that grow produce, grains, all the meat and poultry, eggs, all the dairy, all the cheese, the salt, all of it, if those purchases are not returning value to growers, I won’t serve it. And that became our definition of what good food is.
One of the frustrations for me as I’ve talked about food with people about what they eat, people can’t speak or think clearly about food. (Spike Gjerde says to the audience: “you’re not them”). But, they’re out there. It’s hard to sit there and say to them: there’s nothing about that chicken sandwich you bought for lunch that’s good – not the bread, not the chicken itself, not the way it was cooked, not the way it got there, none of that. And, I think we’re making some amazing headway around these issues. I’m almost ready to close the circle and start thinking like a chef again. I don’t think I can do it unless I feel clear that everything we’re doing is returning value to growers. And ultimately we want to make meaningful, measureable change in our food system with the dollars we return to our agricultural economy.
I want to see small scale farmers that think about the things we’re thinking about in terms of our environment, our society, work, health. I want to see those guys stick around, get paid for what they do, get rewarded for what they do. …
We started out as one restaurant, we are going to add four… One of the things I’m proudest of is our coffee shops, which have soup, salads, cereal, it’s the same food we serve at Woodberry. Every last thing is from a little farm. …
We’re doing this in Baltimore. And I hope that someday, people can look to us to see how local food can happen, what it can mean to a community of eaters and farmers and growers that supply them, that people can look at Baltimore and say: it already happened there. …
I changed the menu to say: “We source from local farms.” Period! And I put in big letters, I just had to do it, I was fired up. That’s what our menu says now. I should have said it a long time ago, because the message needs to get out there. We’ve got to talk about this and push really, really hard if this is going to happen.
I’ve been told over and over again that what I do is not realistic for most people. I’ve heard it so often I almost started to believe it. … But, it’s happening in Baltimore. It may not be realistic, but it’s happening. And, we are going to go from 2.5 to past 3 million as we do things like this (picks up large can of tomatoes).
I got some tomatoes canned this year. … I would get these beautiful tomatoes and take them to universities and places and they looked at me like I brought uranium into their kitchens. They were like literally: “get that out of here.” They said they needed it canned, and at a certain price point, so we did it. … So, we got Maryland grown tomatoes in these cans with a lot of information, there’s too little transparency in our food system. So, farm of origin, harvest date, yield off of acres… and we paid our farmers five times the going rate of commodity tomatoes. And got em’ in a can. So now I’m a part-time chef, part-time tomato salesman!
I am here to tell you that amazing things can happen when you decide why it’s important. That’s one of the things that’s been lacking. For me, it’s the environment, it’s social, it’s cultural, it’s about soil and soil fertility, it’s about biodiversity, there’s a million good reasons to be doing this. I can’t choose just one. …
We love what we have here. Had I foreseen what we wanted to do… I couldn’t have picked a better place [than the Chesapeake Bay region] to try to do this with food. To work with great people in the restaurant and on the farms around us, in a region that has the Chesapeake for fish and shellfish, that has incredible farmland and growers that work the land. There’s no limit. I would love for us to be able to show the world what’s possible here. … Thank you guys for your attention.