Redefining Chesapeake

A trio of chefs reimagining from-here fare that shores up its future
By Whitney Pipkin, Photos by Hannah Hudson

This story originally appeared in our Summer 2016 Sustainability issue. We are re-sharing in honor of Chef Jeremiah Langhorne's James Beard Award for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic.

 Chef Spike Gjerde, Chef Jeremiah Langhorne, and Chef John Shields (Photo by Hannah Hudson)

Chef Spike Gjerde, Chef Jeremiah Langhorne, and Chef John Shields (Photo by Hannah Hudson)

John Shields doesn’t waste any time when he arrives at the eatery run by his longtime chef-friend and fellow Baltimorean, Spike Gjerde.

“I have to talk to you guys for my book,” he says to Gjerde and Jeremiah Langhorne, a Washington, DC, chef who trekked to Charm City on his day off to talk shop and sustainable sourcing with the other two.

“It’s about where we go next for the Chesapeake.”

Far from off-the-wall, the question is one these three chefs spend inordinate amounts of time mulling. They’ve each come to see their restaurants as tools for tackling some of the region’s most vexing environmental issues—and for promoting its rich resources.

Shields, 65, has been “slinging crab cakes” since childhood, starting as a volunteer serving business lunches at his grandmother Gertie’s church in Baltimore and going on to write The Chesapeake Bay Cookbook: Rediscovering the Pleasures of a Great Regional Cuisine 25 years ago. It includes recipes for braised muskrat, Maryland Beaten Biscuits and Lady Baltimore Cake, not to mention blue crabs.

His next book, The New Chesapeake Kitchen, due out next year, will be part cookbook, part call to action as he challenges readers to embrace fare that’s better for “the bay and the body.”

Shields first put the region’s best on the map in 1983 when he opened Gertie’s Chesapeake Bay Café in Berkeley, California, just as diners were beginning to tip their hats to from-here food.

“People were just opening up to American food as being valid and not second-class to European,” says Shields, who cooked in California alongside local-food pioneers like Alice Waters. “It reflects a sense of place and a sense of geography and a sense of history—and stories. It’s who we are.”

Years later, Shields moved back home to host a public television series on the Chesapeake and to cook the region’s specialties closer to the source at Gertrude’s inside the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Gjerde, 53, took a more circuitous route to the conclusion that this region can produce some of the world’s best food. Last year, the James Beard Foundation declared him the “Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic,” in part because his cooking so keenly represents the very essence of the area.

“Gjerde’s food reminds me what a great pantry he has in his backyard,” says Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema, who served on the award committee.

Gjerde moved to Baltimore’s suburbs as a kid, but “I didn’t connect with the traditions and foodways of this region the way John did.”

The Chesapeake Bay foodshed just happened to be where he put down roots after going away to school and returning to the city to start a restaurant.

“It turns out, I was very lucky.”

Langhorne, 31, feels the same way about the diverse growing region that surrounds the nation’s capital—and that’s why he chose to move here. When the District native left Charleston to open The Dabney last year, the question he got most was, “Why DC?”

After debunking stereotypes about the capital’s lack of food culture, he would tell them that the District is, in fact, “geographically one of the best places in the entire country to open a restaurant.”

For starters, it sits on the footprint of the largest estuary in the country, home to iconic and diverse seafood species—and a costly cleanup effort to keep them all here—from striped bass and soft-shell crabs to the more recent addition of farmed oysters.

West of the District, farmers have for generations cultivated or grazed animals on the fertile Piedmont soils in the shadow of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, where nearby forests also provide fodder for mushroom and ramp foragers. That thread of diversity runs throughout the Appalachian Valley, where food staples such as sorghum, heirloom beans and funky vinegars are experiencing a comeback.

There are chickens and cows and a preponderance of pigs being raised, increasingly on pastures, throughout the six states that make up the Chesapeake drainage basin. Add Pennsylvania’s dairy and cheese culture and Maryland’s legacy of grains—and that “bounty” certain chefs speak of starts to come into focus.

“You have everything that a chef could possibly want within a very close radius, and that is incredibly rare,” says Langhorne.

These chefs benefit from that bounty, sure, but they also feel a duty to protect and support it. Gjerde has been known to post how much money his restaurant gives to the producers of the butchered meats in his case at Parts & Labor, because making sure they have a future in their business is central to his.

“I want to use whatever resources I have to help get the food system that I want,” he says.

These chefs’ visions are big and sometimes hard to grasp without sitting down for several courses at their restaurants (which we recommend you do). So we asked them: What would a better Chesapeake cuisine look like if you had to represent it in one plate of food?

In response, their dishes showcase ingredients that reflect the area’s best resources without putting a strain on them. To stretch those resources, the lump crab cake becomes a crab soup that can feed eight rather than two. The proteins, as Thomas Jefferson once recommended, become more of a condiment as they cede the spotlight to good-for-the-soil grains and rooftop-grown microgreens. The sauces are rooted in old-school fermentation and plentiful-but-underused local ingredients such as walnut leaves.

The dishes are a window into the cuisine these chefs and others are chasing and elevating at the same time. Call it “Mid-Atlantic.” Call it “Chesapeake.” But call it something, because it’s ours.

Jeremiah Langhorne, 31
The Dabney

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“The eggs,” Langhorne starts a sentence, and then hurries toward the kitchen, where cooks are fanning the flames of an oversized hearth to life long before the start of a weeknight dinner service.

He returns with a carton of the multi-hued orbs, one of which has “Trixie” penciled onto the shell: “These guys take their eggs so seriously that they write the name of the hen on them.”

Though such novelties are central to Langhorne’s zealously local concept, he would never bring these eggs out to a table of Washington diners poring over the restaurant’s succinct, seasonal menu.

“Lots of times, we don’t tell people unless they ask,” he says of the painstaking steps his staff takes to source the best ingredients, reinterpreting long-lost recipes of the Mid-Atlantic region along the way.

Born in the District and raised near the Shenandoah Valley, Langhorne’s ascent to opening the restaurant with business partner Alex Zink in the District’s Blagden Alley is well documented for those who want to get into its weeds. Washington Post food writer Tim Carman followed Langhorne’s journey from the first farm visit to opening night this past winter.

But if anything’s proved that the concept is still a little foreign to Washingtonians, it’s their cynicism. Langhorne balks at the criticism he’s received from those who’ve seen one too many Portlandia episodes, who assume his efforts come from a place of pretention.

“Believe me,” he says, leaning forward, “these farmers are not about any form of arrogance. It’s literally people working their hardest to give you the best plate of food they can.”

That’s why Langhorne won’t give up on Mid-Atlantic or the farmers that are bringing its best products to market. Not to mention, one taste of his hearth-smoked seasonal mushrooms might be enough to convert any naysayers.

“I want more producers. I want a better foodshed,” he says. “I want a better place to live.”

The Dish: A spin on a summer panzanella, this dish features a fried duck egg over cooked greenery with flowers from whatever’s growing on The Dabney’s roof, in this case tatsoi and fennel pollen. Large croutons are cooked on the hearth so they remain chewy and a bacon vinaigrette melds with the rich yolk and charred green garlic.

Top Summer Ingredients:

-       Soft-shell crabs

-       Zucchini and squash (turns them into noodles with nasturtium butter, crab and black bass)

-       Pawpaw

Spike Gjerde, 53
Woodberry Kitchen, Parts & Labor, Artifact Coffee and A Rake's Progress

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Among the people working to rebuild a food system on the back of a Chesapeake region that deserves its due, Spike Gjerde is the fanatic. He’s the conflicted genius, tackling one problem after another with the Baltimore-based restaurant group he owns with his wife, Amy. More than a flagship alluding to a broader mission, the restaurants are a cog in the larger food machine he’s trying to improve, a way to funnel funding and ideas for new ingredients back to the farmers and fishers who form the foundation of it all.

At one moment, Gjerde is giddily dishing about his successful hunt for mustard seed or ancient stores of salt in West Virginia. In the next, he’s downcast, lost in his own thoughts as he recalls an item he hasn’t yet checked off his dream list of sourcing locally, such as citrus (though vinegar, he says, can often lend an equal bite to dishes).

“What we’ve lost is generations and sometimes millennia of knowledge,” says Gjerde, who combs historical sources for recipes worthy of revival.

His now-signature Snake Oil sauce is based on an heirloom fish pepper that was nearly lost to this area until he asked farmers to grow more of it. Gjerde committed to buying hundreds of pounds of mustard seed each year from farmer Heinz Thomet, and then figured out what to do with it.

Supporting local growers was a big part of Gjerde’s inspiration to open Woodberry Kitchen nine years ago, but it’s become about much more than that—about producing food that is good for the landscape from which it comes.

“That can be one of the weaknesses of, quote, ‘farm-to-table,’” Gjerde says. “If you don’t have a clear idea of why it’s important, then you’re willing to compromise at some point.”

The Dish: A pork-rib cap smoked slowly over the hearth at Parts & Labor served on a buckwheat sourdough crisp. Crab debuts as a sauce with seasonal vegetables from under the crisp, topped with ramps pickled in the spring.

Top Summer Ingredients:

-       Artichokes

-       Fish peppers

-       Stone fruit like apricots

John Shields, 65
Gertrude’s in the Baltimore Museum of Art

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John Shields’ Chesapeake Bay education began at his great uncle’s seafood packing plant on Tilghman Island, where he’d spend weekends and summers as a child immersed in the waterman’s way of life.

His grandmother Gertrude, or “Gertie,” became the namesake for his future restaurants when she taught him to cook the sort of dishes that should accompany such an upbringing in and around Maryland’s shoreline.

When he wound up in California ready for his own restaurant, Shields pulled from that past to open Gertie’s Chesapeake Bay Café, showing the other coast what a crab cake should taste like.

“I called up my fisherman and said, ‘I’m opening a Chesapeake Bay seafood restaurant in Berkeley. I need food,’” Shields remembers.

Several years later, after Maryland Public Television asked him to star in a Chesapeake-based cooking show, he moved closer to the source to open Gertrude’s in Baltimore with a renewed focus on from-here foods.

“It’s just how I grew up. It’s all I knew,” says Shields.

He has since realized that the way of life he knew as a child—when local rockfish, or striped bass, was cheap and plentiful rather than fine-dining fare—won’t be available for others without some effort.

So the $30 crab cake that takes “a second mortgage” to serve to a crowd sometimes becomes a Maryland crab soup these days.

“We’re stretching the precious protein so it takes a little stress off of the bay and off of our body,” Shields says. “It helps to rebuild the local food economy and it puts maybe a little more money into the pockets of the farmers who are growing grains and vegetables and fruits.”

The Dish: A filet of rockfish, or striped bass, served with crabmeat, vegetables and, in the summer, with a succotash of sweet corn and lima beans.

Top Summer Ingredients:

-       Rockfish

-       Sweet corn

-       Lima beans