Editor's Note: A previous version of this story has been updated to include the correct location of Woodberry Kitchen and to clarify the Oyster Recovery Partnership’s Shell Recycling Alliance.
Many chefs and restaurateurs talk about using local products and supporting sustainability efforts, but few take it to the level of Baltimore restaurateur Spike Gjerde.
The chef of Woodberry Kitchen, a 4-year-old restaurant in Baltimore’s Clipper Mill neighborhood, showcases local flavor whenever possible, which even extends to the décor.
The work of local craftsmen can be found throughout the restaurant. Gutierrez Studios crafted the metalwork for the stairs and railings. Glass blower Anthony Corradetti made the candleholders and light fixtures. And Erik Rink of Artisan Interiors created the bar, tabletops and barista station from salvaged wood.
Gjerde has found many other ways to make the restaurant sustainable. For instance, many restaurants compost, but Gjerde finds a use for almost every piece of waste Woodberry Kitchen produces.
Ash from the wood-burning oven is given to small farmers. All-vegetable compost is ground and partially dried using what Gjerde says is the only liquid waste extractor in use by an independent restaurant in the country. That makes the compost lighter and less messy to transport, so it can easily be distributed as mulch, he said. Non-vegetable material, such as bones and cardboard, is used by gardeners for landscaping.
“We use it around the restaurant as well,” Gjerde said. “It’s a matter of trying to minimize landfill-bound waste and also find productive use for some of it.”
Aiding the local environment
The shells of oysters eaten in the restaurant are returned to Chesapeake Bay, where they help rebuild oyster beds.
That initiative is part of a project by the Oyster Recovery Partnership’s Shell Recycling Alliance, which takes the shells to a hatchery run by the University of Maryland. There spat, or microscopic baby oysters, are produced on the shells that the alliance then places in the Chesapeake to grow.
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In the restaurant’s bathrooms, Woodberry Kitchen supplies cloth towels for guests to dry their hands.
Gjerde said he considered recycled paper in the bathrooms — whose walls are papered with pages from his mother’s old Gourmet magazines — but found it wasn’t ideal from “the experience side.” He also said he wanted to steer away from typical laundry services, which use high levels of chemicals.
So the restaurant does its own laundry, using a detergent that breaks down easily and is considered environmentally friendly.
Keeping local cooking traditions alive
Gjerde also is trying to preserve and even resurrect some culinary traditions of the Chesapeake Bay area.
“With our commitment to using local products, we’ve become more aware that knowledge of the heritage of Chesapeake Bay cooking can really inform our own cooking,” he said.
He currently is studying what he calls “a tremendous tradition of Maryland ham.”
Fried chicken also has Maryland roots, he said, adding that people in the Chesapeake Bay area have been frying poultry since before the state of Kentucky was even established.
Gjerde is particularly excited about the revival of the fish pepper.
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Generally thought to have landed in the Caribbean via Africa — after the Portuguese brought it there centuries before — fish pepper made its way to Maryland and was used throughout the 19th century as a replacement for much more expensive black pepper.
“The pepper itself has a more intense heat than the jalapeño, but not as intense as a habanero,” Gjerde said. “It has less of a vegetal quality than a jalapeño, but not quite the tropical fruit flavor of a habanero.”
Gjerde acquired and began experimenting with the peppers last year, and then encouraged local farmers to grow them.
“They really exceeded our expectations,” he said. “We ended up with more than 3,000 pounds coming through the door over the summer.”
He ground most of that batch with salt into a pepper mash and is now fermenting them for three to four months in 30-gallon wooden barrels, capped with ash and rock salt. Afterward, he’ll pass them through a food mill, add vinegar and bottle them. He expects to have more than 400 gallons of fish pepper sauce when he’s done.
Gjerde also smoked and dried some of the peppers and uses them in place of chile powder in the restaurant. Some of the pepper mash also was ground into the sauerkraut the restaurant is working on.
“It’s kind of a Chesapeake kimchi flavor profile that we’ve stumbled across,” he said.
Gjerde added that a drop of the chile sauce on an oyster “takes you straight back 150 years. Those two things together are an incredible taste of the Chesapeake culture that we’re at the risk of losing.”