Baltimore-born chef Andrew Weinzirl made his name with the farm-to-fork Maggie’s Farm in Lauraville. His newest gig is executive chef at The Choptank, Atlas Restaurant Group’s classic seafood house in Fells Point. Weinzirl’s first job in the industry was at a Ruby Tuesday’s in Westminster. “I was amazed that I could make eight dollars an hour,” he says with a laugh. “I took the job and immediately liked the intensity of it. In every place I’ve worked, I’ve always enjoyed the camaraderie in the kitchen. You become this family with these people you see more than any other family members.” We spoke with chef about his transition from smaller spots to The Choptank, where he likes to dine in Charm City, and whether the farm-to-table trend has gone too far.
What’s it been like for you to transition from smaller places like Maggie’s Farm, and more recently The Brewer’s Art, to The Choptank?
Making that leap to Atlas and working with [co-owners] Alex and Eric [Smith] and [partner] Billy [Tserkis] has been a great experience from the beginning. Billy and I put our heads together to find balance between the food I’d done before and what’s served at traditional Maryland crab house. When we were doing the tastings, I definitely had some ambitious goals on the menu. When we opened the first weekend with 1,000 covers on a Saturday, the stuff I couldn’t conceptualize before it happened had to be scaled down and leveled out.
So what went by the wayside?
The more chef-driven things the little garnishes at The Brewer’s Art or Maggie’s Farm. I had a lot more time to detail dishes and add garnishes. It was a little different owning a 50-seat restaurant or working at The Brewer’s Art with 150 seats.
What did you eat when you were growing up?
My family wasn’t big into food at all. We ate a lot of fast food and convenience food when I was growing up in Arundel and Carroll County. We had our spots that we went to as a family. They were mostly Italian-American spots for special occasions. We weren’t into fine dining.
How did you learn to cook?
I went to Baltimore International College and externed at Linwoods in Owings Mills. I worked with a great sous chef who took me under his wing, and that was it.
Where do you like to eat in Baltimore?
Right now, Azumi is my favorite restaurant in the city. Outside of that, I love Hersh’s and Orto—those are the places I gravitate to more. I know both of those chefs really well.
What are your thoughts on the farm-to-table trend as someone who was practicing it a decade ago? Has it gone too far?
At a certain point, restaurants were taking themselves way too seriously and it got to the point of satire with paragraph explanations about sourcing on menus, though it was all well-intentioned. There are a lot of great farms in Maryland and they work really hard to supply the restaurants. For the amount of restaurants trying to source sustainability, there’s not enough product to go around and chefs want it all the same time of year. There are only so many One Straw Farms and Moon Valley Farms. You have to supplement it somewhere. It’s great that it got people to pay attention to where their food is from.
Give us your elevator pitch for why people should patronize The Choptank?
The owners are people who grew up in this area and wanted to build a restaurant that was going to be an icon—not only for Fells Point, but for Baltimore. When people have friends and family here, they want people to come and taste Baltimore and elevated Maryland food that’s done right. That’s what this place is going to become.