The Locavore

By Jane Marion

Photography by Scott Suchman

Illustrations by JORDAN AMY LEE

The Tastemakers

The Tastemakers: Spike Gjerde

The most influential movers and shakers on Charm City's Hospitality scene.

By Jane Marion

n 1991, with more chutzpah than experience, Spike Gjerde and his brother, Charlie, became Baltimore’s hot shots, opening their eponymous Spike & Charlie’s in Mt. Vernon. To source the products, Gjerde would visit local farmers markets and fill his car with Maryland-grown fruit and “bags and bags bursting with greens,” he says. It was an act unheard of at a time when most chefs relied almost exclusively on corporate food purveyors. The restaurant, and others after it—Jr., Vespa, Atlantic, Joy America Café—often met as much struggle as they did success. And though he didn’t realize it then, Gjerde had something of a vision while working at Joy America, located inside the American Visionary Art Museum.

“I was holding a mango in the walk-in refrigerator,” he recalls. “I knew nothing about the point of origin, who grew it, or under what conditions. And I held that in contrast to this amazing peach that I had just eaten from Dave Reid’s orchard in Gettysburg.”

That epiphany would become a reality in 2006, when developer Bill Struever approached Gjerde and his then-wife, Amy, about opening a restaurant in a 19th-century machine shop in Woodberry. They agreed, boldly going where no restaurateurs had gone before—not only by opening in a middle-of-nowhere neighborhood, but with a daring new menu mission. “The vision was to buy what we could from local farmers and wipe away everything else,” Gjerde says.

With the opening of Woodberry Kitchen, farm-to-table dining became a part of the local lexicon. Woodberry was a revelation, putting money back into the pockets of local farmers, while also educating the public about the value of local sourcing. Where so many restaurants give lip service to sourcing seasonally or locally, Gjerde really lived it and was the first to pledge his absolute commitment to sourcing every ingredient from either Baltimore or the region. Of course, it was more than just a clever concept—the food was delicious too, allowing diners to truly understand the terroir of this great agricultural landscape. By 2015, Gjerde was named Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic by the James Beard Foundation.

One lesser-known part of Woodberry’s legacy is how many one-time staffers now run locally minded businesses of their own, inspired by the chef’s clarion calling. Those include Dylan Salmon of Dylan’s Oyster Cellar, George Marsh of Heritage Smokehouse, and Russell Trimmer of Motzi Bread. “Woodberry was a lab, a training and a testing ground,” says Gjerde, “where we challenged ourselves and each other.”

And yet, for all its groundbreaking success, the concept was no longer viable in the new economy. Even so, you can’t keep a visionary down. The still-boyish Gjerde, now 61, closed the restaurant, then reopened it as a rustic 28-ish-seat rendition now known as Woodberry Tavern, with a catering venue in what was once the main dining room. The chef, who keeps his Beard medal in his knife box, has stayed the course, still focusing on products from our region and honoring Maryland’s culinary heritage with dishes like fried chicken and oyster pie.

With this new iteration, Gjerde is just happy to be back at it—and still serving food for thought. “The seed that was planted at Joy America still thrives here,” he says. “We don’t need giant corporations to feed us. That’s the point of Woodberry, trying to answer that question about how we feed ourselves, and how we live within a community that includes growers and makers. It always starts with an ingredient. You need to know what’s in front of you.”

The Torchbearers

David & Tonya

The Showmen

Alex & Eric Smith

The Sober Ambassador

Ashish Alfred

The Community Activists

Mera Kitchen

The Crab Queen

Nancy Devine

The Team Players

Steve Chu &
Ephrem Abebe

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