Food & Drink

Band of Brothers

Meet chefs Cyrus Keefer, Chris Amendola, Chad Gauss, Jonah Kim, and Chris Becker

Sometimes, local chefs connect in unusual ways. Last fall, en route
to Hampden’s The Food Market, chef/co-owner Chad Gauss was driving his
Mercedes-Benz when a Honda Pilot pulled past a stop sign on Keswick
Road, nearly careening into his car. The Honda stopped in the knick of
time, but Gauss was pretty angry, launching a few “F-bombs.” Then, he
realized that the car’s driver was none other than fellow culinary
colleague Chris Becker, chief operations officer for the Bagby
Restaurant Group. “I called him on my phone,” Gauss says, “And all in
one sentence, I’m like, ‘You almost hit my car, and do you have any
cauliflower I can use?’”

The car caper is an apt example of what
happens when two of the area’s up-and-coming toques come head to head—or
in this case hood to hood—in what could have escalated into a tense
situation. But never mind flipping the bird or honking the horn in an
act of road rage, Gauss turned the situation into a quest for sourcing a
vegetable. (To no avail, unfortunately, Becker didn’t have any.)

other cities (or at least TV cooking shows) where celebrated chefs may
put a proverbial sharpened cooking knife into each other’s backs, a new
posse of Baltimore chefs has made a conscious effort to become comrades,
not competitors, in the kitchen. They include, in addition to Becker
and Gauss, Jonah Kim of Pabu, Cyrus Keefer of Fork & Wrench, and
Chris Amendola of Fleet Street Kitchen, which is run by the Bagby Group.

definitely have a camaraderie together,” says Becker, whose résumé
includes stints at Wine Market Bistro and The Brass Elephant. “It’s the
first time since I’ve been in Baltimore that we all help each other out.
There’s obviously a competitive spirit since we’re all competing for
the same market, but the food scene is growing, and I think the
partnerships and the friendships have helped it grow.”

One of the
major ways in which the chefs have shown their solidarity is through
participation in promotional events such as restaurant anniversaries and
charity functions. Last summer’s first birthday celebration for The
Food Market was particularly memorable. During the evening, Keefer, Kim,
Becker, Patrick “Opie” Crooks (then of Roy’s, now the chef de cuisine
at Shoo-Fly Diner), Tim Dyson of Bluegrass Tavern, and others worked
together in the restaurant’s open kitchen to prepare hors d’oeuvres and
desserts for the party guests.

“That night never ended as a chef,”
says Keefer, excitement still evident in his voice many months later.
“It was awesome. Chris Becker did pork-belly steam buns. Tim did rabbit
fingers. I made bone-marrow croquettes. We were all on the line and
tasting each other’s food, realizing it was all great.”

then, the various members of the group have joined forces at other
get-togethers, including Wit & Wisdom’s second anniversary and a
fried-chicken “smackdown” at Pabu in December. “The community of chefs
here is tight and growing at the same time,” Pabu’s Kim says. “These
events have helped it evolve. We’re the trailblazers for Baltimore.”

chefs also show up for meals at each other’s restaurants. “Chad [Gauss]
came in to eat at Shoo-Fly the other day,” Crooks says. “I sent him out
a plate of some of my favorite appetizers, including hush doggies [mini
corndogs with honey mustard], chili-mac, and chicken nuggets made from
scratch that I knew he would order anyway.
“When the food came out,
he looked at me and said, ‘How did you know I wanted all of these
things, and couldn’t decide what I was going to order?’”

informal band of brothers comes from a variety of backgrounds. Some are
Charm City native sons (Gauss and Becker). Others have been around the
(chopping) block—Amendola worked at the prestigious Blue Hill at Stone
Barns in Pocantico Hills, NY, as well as kitchens in Orlando, FL,
Massachusetts, and Washington, D.C.; Keefer has worked in kitchens from
Tampa, FL, to the Delaware beaches; Kim’s résumé includes stops in Las
Vegas, New York, and Austin, TX.

It’s not unusual for chefs to
move from state to state or even within a city as they gain more skills
or seek other cooking goals and responsibilities. Their peripatetic
lifestyles probably explain their connection and loyalty to each other.

collaborative spirit makes sense to Dave Seel, the director of
marketing and public relations for the Bagby Group. “In the food
industry in the last 10 years, we’ve seen a focus on chef-driven
cuisine,” he says. “You have more people following chefs, and social
media is a big part of that. That shift . . . has allowed them to be in
the spotlight and have a shared sense of being there and being the
spokespeople for the culinary scene.”

It’s an informal mission the
chefs seem to embrace, allowing them to share a passion for
participating in Baltimore’s culinary renaissance.

Case in
point: In May 2013, both Keefer (who was then a chef at Birroteca) and
Gauss were invited to participate in a dinner highlighting the bounty of
the Chesapeake at the prestigious James Beard House in New York City.

Gauss prepared an Eastern Shore buffet comprised of whole shrimp, fried
Maryland drummy, and crispy skin rockfish, Keefer cooked up a sous-vide
lamb chop with artichoke purée. Still, the meal was a team effort.

we both found out we were participating, that was a turning point,”
Gauss says. “We were like, ‘We need to go there and play for Baltimore
rather than as individuals.’”

Though they vie for the same
demographic of diners, these chefs—whose styles range from traditional
Japanese to comfort cuisine—do not view themselves as restaurant rivals.
“There’s no real competition,” says Keefer, who worked at The Food
Market when he was between jobs. “We are all doing our own thing, and we
all want to do better.

You see a whole different craftsmanship if you go to Pabu or if you come to Fork & Wrench—and we love each other’s food.”

saying this, Keefer is sharing a plate of fried chicken and biscuits at
The Food Market with Gauss. “Other cities are cutthroat,” he continues.
“They feel that if someone comes in and they’re good, they’re like,
‘Oh, there goes my business.’ But that’s not how it works.”

who has been dubbed the class clown by the group, agrees. “We all play
different roles. I don’t want to be the next Charlie Trotter [an
esteemed Chicago chef who unfortunately died last year]. I’m as
Baltimore as it gets.”

He’s proud of his local roots and career
path, but also appreciative of what the other chefs have done. “Someone
like Jonah [Kim] is more like world class,” he says. “He’s a rock star.”
(Like “royalty,” adds Keefer.)

The chefs are particularly
referring to Kim’s role at the Las Vegas restaurant DJT, which earned a
prized Michelin star several years ago.

The chefs—many of whom
share photos on Instagram—have also come to lean on each other for
particular areas of expertise (and occasional acts of generosity).

having worked at Thackeray Farms in South Carolina and at the famed
Stone Barns, for example, is an expert in searching for foods in the
wild. “He understands foraging,” Gauss says. “Now, if someone brings me a
foraged mushroom, just to cover myself, I send him a picture of it
before I use it.”

Kim and Keefer also have a common interest.
“Cyrus is really big into Asian flavors,” Kim says. “We’ve shared
sources and ideas, and I love that he has Asian influences on his menu.”

food and supplies get passed around. When Becker, who oversees the
cooking staffs at all the Bagby restaurants, found himself with a large
surplus of tomatoes, he heaped nearly 200 pounds of the summer-ripe
beauties on Pabu as well as Wit & Wisdom, also located at the Four
Seasons Hotel Baltimore. And Gauss happily lent Kim his food truck to
park at the Baltimore Museum of Industry when the Pabu chef catered the
wedding of a restaurant co-worker last fall. “I did fried chicken,
numerous salads, some sushi, and ribs,” Kim says. “And Elan Kotz
[Gauss’s business partner at The Food Market] helped out.”

In the
band of brothers, there are sisters, too. “I think we probably all drink
too much and swear more than people are comfortable with,” says Jesse
Sandlin, chef at Oliver Speck’s Eats & Drinks, located around the
corner from Fleet Street Kitchen. “We’re all kindred spirits, and we
understand the daily grind. I consider myself especially friendly with
Chad and Cyrus. Chad and I have even talked about doing a dinner

Given the constraints of a chef’s schedule, it’s not
surprising that bonds form. “It’s easier to be friends with chefs.
They’re the only people you can call at 11:30 at night or 6:30 in the
morning,” says Gauss. Adds Keefer, “We speak the same language. We talk
about the same stuff, like all the new cookbooks that are out. In fact, I
can tell you about all the cookbooks that are out right now that are
worth paging through.”

Gauss can’t help teasing his friend. “If chefs had baseball cards, you’d have every one,” he jests.

idea of a chefs’ friendship circle came about in 2005 when Waterfront
Kitchen’s consulting chef Jerry Pellegrino (“He’s like the Papa Bear
overseeing all of us,” quips Kim) founded the Secret Chefs Society—a
monthly supper club for area chefs, including Woodberry Kitchen’s Spike
Gjerde and Rey Eugenio of Ouzo Bay.

Each chef was expected to
prepare a dish using the same list of basic ingredients. From the first
dinner, Pellegrino saw the potential. “We started prepping at around 11
p.m. after a cocktail at the bar and finished dinner sometime after 5
a.m.,” he says. “What I remember was how the same ingredients produced
five incredibly unique and amazing dishes.

“It was then we all
realized that we could learn so much from cooking and drinking with each
other. I’m happy to see the younger chefs in the city start to do
things together again. It’s imperative to building a better food culture
in Baltimore.”

For some chefs, a culinary friendship is no
different than any other friendship. “The definition of this ‘band’ [of
brothers] to me is people who are willing to support each other no
matter how ridiculous the request is,” Gauss says. “I could probably say
to Cy [Keefer], ‘Hey, come cook hotdogs with me at my kid’s baseball
league,’ and he’d be out there with me grilling the buns.”

As the saying goes, that’s what friends are for.

What music do you listen to while cooking?

Sometimes silence is golden.

  1. Classic hip-hop, rap. I like it upbeat in the kitchen. —Chad Gauss
  2. Something that’s a little softer when I’m working behind the line—Keane, Fleetwood Mac. —Cyrus Keefer, pictured, center
  3. I try not to listen to music in the kitchen. But if I do, it’s Empire of the Sun. It’s super poppy. —Patrick “Opie” Crooks
  4. Depends on what and where I am cooking—anything from Bill Withers and Marvin Gaye to Tool. —Chris Becker
  5. Honestly,
    the music I like to listen to most when cooking is classical music. In a
    high- stress environment, it’s nice to listen to something relaxing.
    —Chris Amendola
  6. Whatever I have on my iPod. If it’s prep, I want
    something upbeat like Mastodon. I’m all over the place. Other times, it
    could be the Zac Brown Band. —Jesse Sandlin
  7. We don’t listen to any music. It’s a focus thing. If we did, it would be ’80s music. —Jonah Kim

What’s your favorite cookbook?

Joy of Cooking is no longer the coolest cookbook on the shelves!

  1. My Little Amish Cookbook. My grandmother gave it to me. It’s down to earth. The recipes are easily adaptable. —Chad Gauss
  2. Eric Ripert’s A Return to Cooking. There is soul in the book about his coming back to cooking. —Cyrus Keefer
  3. Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey by John Currence. It’s real, down to earth. —Patrick “Opie” Crooks
  4. I go through phases. Now, probably The River Cottage Meat Book [by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall] and Daniel Humm’s I Love New York. Another all-time favorite is probably Thomas Keller’s Under Pressure. —Chris Becker
  5. It’s either The French Laundry Cookbook
    [by Thomas Keller] because, when I was just starting out, I read that
    book 100 times it was so inspiring to me, and the other is On Food and Cooking [by Harold McGee]. To me, it’s still one of the greatest books ever written for a chef. —Chris Amendola
  6. Right now, John Currence’s Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey and Edward Lee’s Smoke and Pickles. —Jesse Sandlin
  7. Michael Bra’s Essential Cuisine. It’s amazing. It was a prized cookbook going through my career. —Jonah Kim

What do you like to cook at home?

We’re not the only fans of the crockpot!

  1. One-pot dinners and breakfast for my kids (ages 11, 5, 2). —Chad Gauss
  2. I braise. I like the one-pot wonders, everything in the same pot. We let it cook ’til we’re hungry. —Cyrus Keefer
  3. A simple roast chicken. —Patrick “Opie” Crooks
  4. Super simple dishes like whole roasted black bass and roast chicken. However, my wife would tell you nothing. —Chris Becker
  5. I
    don’t tend to cook much at home. I will order a pizza or eat a bowl of
    cereal or a good ol’ PB&J with a glass of milk. . . . It all changes
    if I am dating someone or trying to impress someone. —Chris Amendola
  6. I don’t cook a lot at home. I do cook breakfast, and I just got a juicer. —Jesse Sandlin
  7. Pasta. I worked in an Italian restaurant before Baltimore. —Jonah Kim

Who’s your bff?

One of them has a curly tail!

  1. My wife, Wendi, and my work wife Elan [Kotz, his restaurant partner]. —Chad Gauss
  2. My wife, Angela. —Cyrus Keefer
  3. Asher Baskett. He lives in Nashville, TN. We’ve been friends since high school, 10 years. —Patrick “Opie” Crooks
  4. My wife, Alison. —Chris Becker
  5. It would probably be between my brother or a guy I grew up with, Christian. —Chris Amendola
  6. Obviously, my pig Ollie. —Jesse Sandlin
  7. My wife, Carly. —Jonah Kim

An Inside Look at Cunningham Farms

Restaurateurs David and
Jane Smith take their locavore mission seriously at their Cockeysville
property. The working farm provides produce, eggs, lamb, and pork to
their restaurants—Cunningham’s, Fleet Street Kitchen, Ten Ten, and Bagby
Pizza Co.