local loves: Spike Gjerde

Photo credit: Scott Suchman

"growing local" — if you've followed honeygrow's story, you've undoubtedly seen this phrase repeated numerous times. It is one of our missions—to promote, and participate in, the growth of local farmers + the local community as best we can. Upon entering Baltimore with our Charles Village + Harbor Point locations, we were immediately drawn to the multiple restaurants headed by local chef, Spike Gjerde (Woodberry Kitchen, Parts & Labor, Artifact Coffee, Grand Cru + our Nine East 33rd neighbors, Bird in Hand). Spike's mission has long been to provide a network of dining options that not only source locally, but also provide a valuable economic boost to those farms in order to help sustain their operations. We met with Chef Gjerde over coffee at the popular Artifact Coffee in Baltimore's Woodberry neighborhood to chat about the Baltimore food landscape, how it's changed in recent years + how he aims to create "meaningful and measurable change in our food system."

hg:  we read you were born in Iowa—why + how did you wind up in Baltimore?

spike:  I love when we get to start with Iowa… I was born in Iowa + my dad moved us out here when I was six, my brother was four. He was a lifetime Procter & Gamble company man, and moved us from Iowa to work in the Procter & Gamble plant that is now the Under Armour world headquarters. So that’s why I’m here, and never left.

hg:  from the launch of your very first restaurant alongside your brother, Spike + Charlie’s, your focus has been to feature local, seasonal ingredients (and that was in 1991!). What inspired you to pursue what was, at the time, the unconventional route to feed Baltimore? Why was remaining local so key to your vision?

spike:  I think it evolved over time, but it was something that, as a chef and learning to cook and run a restaurant, I was immediately attracted to in 1991—going to a farmer’s market, buying a bunch of stuff, bringing it back + cooking it. What I was kind of slow to pick up on was that you could build an approach to cooking around that. It took me a long time, years, to think that there was value in that. There were chefs that I looked up to and admired in those years who weren’t doing that. There was a lot more emphasis on ingredients from elsewhere—luxury ingredients like truffles and caviar—an awakening and appreciation for those things, which was awesome. At the time we had just found out what balsamic vinegar was and that was a big deal.

Over time, I realized that one of the things I was most satisfied by was transforming ingredients from farmers I knew into food for our guests. It was a very simple thing, but it was that attraction—to go into a farmer’s market. It’s maybe not (and maybe doesn’t need to be) the most thought out thing—but it just feels good. There’s that generalized sense of, “I like to talk to the farmer,” “the food is fresher.”

It got interesting after that because we started to understand with Woodberry Kitchen (opened in 2007) what that economic engagement can mean for an agricultural economy, like the one we have here.

Photo credit: Scott Suchman

hg:  how have you seen this attention to local ingredients grow throughout the years? Where do you hope this practice will eventually grow to?

spike:  for us… it’s funny, I’m almost coming full circle in a way. Over the last few years I’ve come to understand our engagement with the food system as being essentially economic. I have some hesitancy around using the word ‘sustainable,’ but I understand that the value we’re returning to growers is one of the most important things we do and one of the most important things anyone can do if they want to have local farmers as part of their world—and I do.

I see a lot of value in having people growing table food as opposed to commodities and feed. I’m hoping that if we are kind of intentional about our purchasing, and we’re mindful of where our dollars are going, specifically back to small scale farmers, they’ll be around. I think when we say “I like to support local farmers,” I don’t think that goes far enough.

"I think we have to support local farmers or they’re not going to be around. There is a consequence here and we might assume it’ll never change, but it will change. And they won’t be here and the food we eat will not be the same."

At the same time, as obsessed as I’ve been about that aspect of it, I (again somewhat belatedly) have come to appreciate what we’re cooking. As a chef, I’m always thinking about how things taste, and I’m finding finally that we’re creating cuisine that has an identity that is more defined by this place and by what our farmers are growing than anything I’m aware of, which is interesting. I think that’s where it’s going for me anyway.

hg:  prior to opening the acclaimed Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore’s Woodberry neighborhood, you had several other projects (Joy America Café, Vespa)—tell us a bit about the inspiration for those + how they helped further grow your culinary dream.

spike:  first of all, you have to learn the restaurant business somehow. It can be tough, and the work that I did with my brother, Charlie, was just learning the ropes, making all the mistakes + figuring it out. Joy America was interesting because that’s when I started to understand—that was Pan-Latin. I was really into these bright flavors, tropical fruits, avocados—things you don’t see here locally. That’s when I started to realize that I’m fulfilling this kind of conceit I had about this menu—and it wasn’t like we had piñatas hanging from the ceiling—that word “concept” is invoked a lot and I was troubled by that. I was troubled specifically by the fact that I was buying all this fruit, these mangos which are nice, but God knows where they came from. Who knows the consequences of how they were grown, handled + processed, who picked them and all that stuff? At the same time I was literally falling in love with the peaches I was getting from Dave Reid, realizing that this mango was one less peach I could buy from Reid’s Orchard.

It literally came down to me walking in, looking at mangos and saying “This isn’t what I’m about.” Realizing that I needed to do something that stripped away everything else. Something that didn’t have any other requirements except that we could purchase locally.

"Don’t give it a concept, don’t make it a theme—it’s just a relationship to where we are and these farmers."

hg:  what prompted the opening of Woodberry Kitchen? Why did you choose Woodberry as the location for this project rather than Canton, Fells Point or other more well known Baltimore neighborhoods?

spike:  I had wrapped up the partnership with my brother, as he memorably said he had gotten the “fine dining monkey” off his back. He was really into doing bars + has been doing really well. He actually just opened a really cool bar up the street, so I guess he’s back in the restaurant business a little bit. Amy (my wife) and I kind of wanted to take one last swing at it. I felt like in Baltimore I might have one more restaurant… it was literally down to that or move + find greener pastures. The mill in Woodberry was getting redeveloped and reenergized and there was one spot left. I knew the guys that were doing the work + they had been very supportive of me over the years. Specifically, Bill Struever was probably the one guy who was supportive. We somehow got it built + open and that was it.

hg:  do you see Woodberry (the neighborhood) becoming almost the new-Hampden—pulling in the sprawl from the other popular areas nearby?

spike:  yeah, in a way. I like to think that what happened with Woodberry gave people a sense that this would be a cool place to do something, down in this little valley with these cool, old buildings. I think Baltimore, in general, is finally seeing the kind of energy, with things happening, that anybody that’s been watching and/or participating for any length of time has always hoped for.

"I really think that Baltimore is having our moment, or a moment."

hg:  you’re also the “man behind the curtain” for Artifact Coffee—also located in Woodberry. How did you take your restaurant + fine dining experiences and focus them into a coffee shop (with its own delicious menu offerings)?

spike:  I caught the coffee bug prior to opening Woodberry. I was out in San Francisco, where I guess a lot of these epiphanies happen, and I had my first truly great macchiato and I came back fired up. We opened an Artifact Coffee in this little side room of Woodberry, as we were building out the restaurant, because we needed some way to support ourselves. We had no money—we were boot strapping it. We bought a really nice espresso machine. I fell in love with the coffee shop feel + energy, and the role a coffee shop plays in people’s lives. It’s not like a restaurant—it’s an everyday thing. Come talk about stuff; come every day if you want. Very few people I know would go to someplace like Woodberry every day.

That came first in a way, and as we focused on the sourcing and how it worked. It was really important for us to bring it to more people and do it in a way that didn’t repeat what happened at Woodberry. That’s one of the things I’m proudest of. The fact that the Artifact menu works as a coffee shop menu—soup, salad, sandwiches. The cost is, I think, generally in line with most coffee shops. We deliver this value + experience with the exact sourcing that Woodberry has, in this little tiny kitchen with people who are working just as hard and just as committed as the incredible team at Woodberry. It works + it was hard to make the price point and our food cost work. But it’s all there—to the extent that we do it at Woodberry, and I just love that. We could go back there now and look in the reach-ins and see zero labels, zero brands. It’s just totally dialed.

Photo credit: Scott Suchman

hg:  we’re huge fans of Parts & Labor, your butcher shop/restaurant hybrid operating in a converted auto shop in Charles Village. What was your inspiration here? How did you go about approaching something as “classic Baltimore” as pit-meats, but still add that high quality experience that you’re known for?

spike:  it came right out of Woodberry. We opened Woodberry with a commitment to local sourcing and our understanding of what that meant and how to do it grew from there. It started at zero. We had to understand first that we had to preserve (such as canning + pickling). For us to be committed to local sourcing, we had to do that. Second is we had to purchase whole animals from small scale animal producers instead of cuts. So we had to do our own butchery + it wasn’t because I was obsessed with doing our own butchery, it was because we had to figure that out because that’s the best way to return value to small scale animal producers. You can’t go to a guy that has ten hogs and say “I’ll just take the loins and the bellies and you deal with the rest.” So we just bought a pig + there was a chef at Woodberry, George Marsh, who was very interested in butchery and he kind of took it from there.

George and the whole butchery operation got three hogs and a steer a week at Woodberry, which is just crazy in a restaurant kitchen trying to do that work, so that became Parts & Labor. That’s how it happened, that’s why it happened.

We were kind of bottlenecked because we wanted to continue to do things like this, making pastrami at Woodberry, and we knew we couldn’t do anymore because Woodberry was overloaded. Parts & Labor gave us the capacity to work with local growers + producers of meat and poultry in a way that we could keep doing these things.

There is this network between all locations—the baking is still happening at Woodberry, but we’re working on a freestanding bakery that would do for locally grown + milled grains what Parts & Labor did for locally raised meats.

hg:  your latest project, Bird in Hand (an Artifact Coffee + Ivy Bookshop collaboration) is honeygrow’s neighbor in the new Nine East 33rd development by Johns Hopkins University. Tell us a little about this project + what you're bringing to the Charles Village neighborhood.

spike:  the conception of Bird in Hand is a community space—whatever that can mean. One of the coolest things here is readings + book events with the Ivy Bookshop. When we started thinking about Charles Village and being close to Hopkins we talked to them, and they were very interested in joining us. The first thing is that it’s a collaboration with the Ivy Bookshop, one of, if not the last great independent bookshops in the city of Baltimore (kind of have to choke on that, it’s tough). That’s the genesis.

We were talking to the folks at Hopkins and they were very interested in having what we were doing with our food + beverages, our sourcing and our sense of community there. We found a space that we liked, and of course we were in a new building instead of an old building so we had to wrap our heads around how to do things. We weren’t ever going to replicate a 150-year-old native mill building made from stone, but we used a lot of reclaimed materials. The space is great.

hg:  the Baltimore food scene seems to be undergoing a transformation or renaissance of sorts—thanks in large part to your contributions. How do you feel the culinary sections of Baltimore can continue to improve + what do you hope your legacy is on Baltimore (not only in a culinary sense but in a broader cultural sense)?

spike:  I’m hoping it’s a little bit beyond “locally sourced,” but it wouldn’t surprise me because I’ve repeated myself so much to the point of… If it was that, I’d be fine with it. But, it would be cool if what people are left talking about, based on what we’ve done + what others have done, is a sense of how deeply connected we can be (and should be) with where we are in the world. For me, that connection has been all about food. That’s what I care about. I can’t explain that part of it—I’ve known since I started thinking about what I was going to do to support myself that food is what it was going to be. We’ve talked about coming up with a mission statement, and one of the thoughts around that is creating…

"…meaningful and measurable change in our food system."

Those two words are important. “Meaningful” for me is something you can see, point to and talk about, where the results are “measureable.” Can we count the dollars that are going to growing this kind of grain or the fruit that was in that pastry? That’s what I want to happen. If we’re left with the kind of food system that supports that, all the way across the board, what honeygrow is doing, what we’re doing, that’s amazing.

I don’t think that it's a forgone conclusion that we end up with that system, that we end up with food, even in a place that is so perfectly suited. We’re very lucky to live where we live with regard to what can be grown here well—a broad range of produce that does well here in the mid-Atlantic. It is not a forgone conclusion, in my opinion, that it will continue to happen unless we’re smart about it. At the very least, if we could just keep this going, get more people engaged with it—that would be amazing.

hg:  we’ve spoken to the folks at Union Craft Brewing + The Charmery, and both indicated that the Baltimore food service industry consists of a closely intertwined group of colleagues working to improve Charm City in any way they can. What is your view on this “culinary alliance” + who are some stand out stars in your opinion?

spike:  I don’t want to be negative, Union is great, The Charmery/David—they’re awesome. I’m not talking about them, but I feel like we’ve lacked community. I think it’s held us back. Maybe it shows how important community is? I don’t know, there hasn’t been much cohesion or collaboration in Baltimore over the years and there are reasons for that.

"Something is happening, I’m just frustrated that it took this long."

The premise of the question is true and it’s supported by the fact that we have Union Craft and those guys are amazing—we do a lot of work with them. David at The Charmery, we love him + have done cool events with them. We’ve done chef pop-ups + did a savory ice cream sundae (not sure how well that went over but…). Dave Newman from Blue Pit BBQ came over to the first night of our Joint Venture series and sent us all a round of whiskey afterwards (which I kind of wish he hadn’t done…but that’s on me, not on him). So it’s happening.

We had this weird moment in Baltimore where restaurants were opening, and they were all big, “restaurant-y” restaurants. Now we kind of have the in-fill of the things that really matter, which is a great little ice cream shop that is sourcing from Trickling Springs—that’s what we needed. Union Craft and the farm breweries that are happening—we needed that. We need people making amazing vinegars like our friends at Keepwell. Then we need great, cool old stuff like Faidley’s, which is as great as it’s ever been—with fish, shellfish and (I’ll admit) the best crab cake I’ve ever had.

hg:  any upcoming projects (sans Bird in Hand) that you’re looking forward to?

spike:  we’re going to join you guys down in DC with a restaurant called A Rake's Progress, as well as a coffee shop, The Cup We All Race 4—both in Adams Morgan.

be sure to visit each of Spike Gjerde's network of locally-sourced Baltimore venues (Woodberry Kitchen, Artifact Coffee, Parts & Labor, Grand Cru, Bird in Hand), and follow along for updates on the forthcoming DC restaurant/bar/coffee shop, A Rake's Progress!

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