Bay Journal

Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Bay Journal and Baltimore Sun.

Spike & Rona, on making food local, and reasonably priced

  • January 26, 2017
Bay Journal's Rona Kobell, left, discusses the challenges of making local, reasonably priced food with Baltimore chef and restaurateur Spike Gjerde. (Rona Kobell)

One night last week, an overflow crowd packed Artifact Coffee in Woodberry to hear me interview Spike Gjerde, then listen to him interview me.

Gjerde is a pioneer in the local and farm-to-table movement in Baltimore. With his partners, he owns Woodberry Kitchen, Parts and Labor, Artifact Coffee, and is opening a new restaurant in Washington, DC, called A Rake’s Progress. He and his team can also do things with root vegetables that I can only dream of doing. If I could, maybe my children would love carrots and beets.

I digress. This conversation was part of Origins, a speaker series organized by Dana Slater to help Baltimoreans better understand where their food comes from. I spoke at the first one, on oysters, and Dana asked me back for the second anniversary. The series is recorded and broadcast in Heritage Radio, so at some point (we don’t know when) it will be available for listening.

In 2015, Gjerde won the James Beard Award, the first Baltimore chef to do so. It was an emotional moment for both chef and city, given the unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray. 

I was curious why Gjerde bothers to do what he does at Woodberry, which is, in effect, to make a momentous challenge even more difficult. It’s hard to run a restaurant. It’s much harder to run one when you insist on sourcing as many ingredients as you can locally. When you get farmers and residents to grow their own peppers for your hot sauce instead of, say, buying Tabasco. Or when you find other sources of citrus because we don’t have local lemons. Or when you charge fine-dining prices but don’t offer things that fine-dining patrons often expect, like lobster or Dover Sole.

(And Gjerde has been successful not doing those things. He owned Spike and Charlie’s with his brother, which was one of the city’s most popular restaurants in its heyday; Joy America Café at the American Visionary Art Museum; and was a partner in the late, much-lamented Vespa. They were all good restaurants with local clienteles that used some local ingredients but did not make that a requirement for all foods.)

And yet, Woodberry thrives, and Gjerde has even increased his commitment to local sourcing. A big part of it is his frustration with the food system as we know it, how it rewards commodity agriculture at the expense of the small farmers. And yes, it makes food more expensive, and it makes life more difficult. But in the end, it’s worth it. And if you have ever had one of Woodberry Kitchen’s eggs, you might well agree. They don’t taste like any egg I have ever known. (Except now that I know his source, I can make them at home and re-create some of that flavor.)

Our challenge, Gjerde and I agree, is to make this delicious food available to everyone, at more reasonable prices, and in an easier way. How to do that is complicated, but it would help if more infrastructure helped local farmers. For example, easy access to organic feed, places to slaughter pasture-raised meat and the like. As the industry grows, maybe those parts will come along. Those delicious eggs? They cost $5 a carton. They’re worth it, I promise, but it might be more than some people wish to spend.

Gjerde has been a champion of farm-raised oysters, which were on the menu after the talk. He doesn’t see the public’ appetite for those abating. When I asked him if he thought people came to Woodberry for the oysters, he didn’t have a chance to answer. The crowd answered for him: Yes. And yes, they were delicious.

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About Rona Kobell

Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Bay Journal and Baltimore Sun.

Read more articles by Rona Kobell


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