Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Woodberry Kitchen

Local, sustainable and unprocessed food are buzzwords we hear a lot about in food circles. There is no better example of a commitment to these words and this philosophy then Woodberry Kitchen. Woodberry Kitchen is a restaurant in Baltimore that serves local and sustainable food prepared in all sorts of unique and delicious ways. All of their food is purchased only from local farmers and supports the local food community. This past Sunday I traveled up to Baltimore in order to visit Woodberry Kitchen. I had a 4:15 appointment to meet with staff, what followed was phenomenal and blew me away in every aspect.

The building has served as an old flour mill, a cotton cloth manufacturer and a steel works mill. A fire diminished the entire area in 1996, the old mills were then turned into residences and shops. Woodberry Kitchen is located in one of these building. The whole front wall as you can see is glass with huge stone pillars and arches. The main restaurant is in a large room with a loft that allows for seating upstairs as well. There is an additional dining room that can be used for large parties or events as well as regular service.   The building still has all the rustic charm  I imagined it had as a mill. The people at Woodberry Kitchen have done an amazing job transforming this old mill into a rustic charming restaurant.

Below is a photo of the separate dining room; note the big banquet tables built into the wall.  These can be pulled down if there is a need to host large numbers of people.  The restaurant's philosophy carries into their furnishing, much of which is reclaimed from local thrift or warehouse sales. 

They open the restaurant for dinner at 5:00 but are working and setting up hours before hand. I arrived at the restaurant and 4:15. Amanda Nord, the manager who I had corresponded with earlier greeted me and my mom and welcomed us into the restaurant. At Woodberry kitchen they preserve and can all of their own food. They buy loads of fresh and local fruit and vegetables in the summer, work endless hours to preserve these and then use them in the winter when it is impossible to get many specific fruits and vegetables locally. Amanda told us that recently they had cheesecake with peaches on their menu in the middle of winter. These peaches come from a farm about 10 miles away-and provide a taste of summer during the cold months.  They stored all the canned goods on large, old shelves covered in chicken wire along a hallway leading to the kitchen. Not only did they can fruits and vegetables but they also make all their own sauces, hot sauces and jellies.

Amanda gave me a tour of the kitchen during the dinner preparation hours. People were rushing around and trying to get everything ready. Potato chips were being fried in the fryers and the bartenders were getting ready.  The bar was stocked with homemade and local ciders as well as many homemade bitters.  As we headed into the kitchen we had to push around all the people, it is impressive how much they accomplish in this relatively small space. They had big tubs of food "in process" including fish sauce and other sauces. Sauerkraut was fermenting and bread was being pushed around on big metal carts-all made there.  As we moved through the kitchen I realized how committed everybody was to the process. People were talking to each other about the food they were cooking and the preparations that still needed to be made. Everyone there was so passionate about Woodberry Kitchen's mission.

After Amanda lead us through the kitchen we entered the meat room. They had whole legs of meat and boxes and boxes of oysters, I am vegetarian and to most vegetarian this would be nauseating, to me it was not. All the meat at Woodberry kitchen was raised by trust worthy local farmers and had a good life. None of it was raised at Feed Lots. I knew looking at that meat that it had a good life and benefited the pasture around it and the animals to come.

At 4:20 they had a meeting they called the menu meeting. Because they plan their menu around what ingredients they have available they have the meeting daily. All the staff including the waiters, chefs, bar staff, host and manager gathered in the big room with the fold down tables. They came in drinking tea and water from ball jars and big jugs with straws. They were all in their work uniforms and looked ready to get the night going.  I felt like I was in a top secret and exciting meeting.

The point of this meeting was to gather before the night began and make sure everybody was on the same page about what was going on. They went through each section on the menu and talked about any changes they needed to make according to what was being served that night.The waiters would ask any questions they had about the food so they could answer any questions a customer might have. What really struck me was everyone was present including the wait staff who cared so deeply and were fully engaged in this conversation. One chef was talking about a change in the menu and how a particular sauce changed the balance of flavor and added contrasting textures. The waiters just nodded their head in agreement. Everyone had tasted the food and agreed. They were all such foodies and so passionate about their work. As they went through all the revised dishes the chefs also asked the waiters if they had received any feedback on the food. This feedback was then taken into account. Everyone's perspective mattered and they all knew what they were talking about.

One very funny story from the meeting: one of the chefs announced that there would be a burger on the menu that evening.  Apparently they had made burgers for their coffee shop called "Artifact Coffee" and they had forgotten to deliver all of them, so a few remained.  This was obviously some kind of joke because very few people liked the idea of "burger Sundays".  In fact, someone corrected the term and said, "burger Sunday" as if this would only be a one time thing.  Although I never tasted their burger I am sure it was amazing. After the meeting they took the revised menu and printed new versions. They wait staff and chefs left the room and they began to seat, cook and serve the many who had already gathered for dinner.

After this meeting we sat down at a table. The tables were beautiful and had candles on each one. I was with my sister, brother, mom and grandmother.  Each item we ordered was amazing. My grandmother, a huge oyster fan had 2 different kinds of oysters, a stingray oyster which was on the sweeter side and the Rappahannock oyster which was known to be saltier. They had a large selection of oysters. The came arranged on a a plate with four homemade sauces, pickles and relishes to put on top. I did not eat them but my grandmother informed me that they were outstanding oysters.  A side note; one of the chefs announced in the menu meeting that it was his last night cooking for Woodberry, he was opening his own oyster bar right down the street.  

We also ate sour cream and onion dip with homemade potato chips. The dip was outstanding and melted in your mouth. Not at all like the Lipton onion soup dip my mom told me about.  The potato chips that I had watched them fry were very crispy and tasted so much better than any store bought, oily, salty potato chip. The dip came in a little container with a sprinkle of mined green onions on top. 

They also brought us baskets of homemade wholewheat and sourdough bread. The bread was outstanding. There menu was long and everything looked delicious. We ended up getting: Rock fish, sausage and sauerkraut, Cabbage salad, deviled eggs and She Crab soup. 
When they brought out the rock fish it was beautifully placed on top of a stack of roasted vegetables. 
The sausage was placed around a pile of sauerkraut and on top was a fried Turkey tail. I never knew that existed-I guess you learn something new everyday! I was amazed at the simple ingredients yet the incredibly complex tastes.

The She crab soup was outstanding. The waiter brought out a bowl that had a mound of crab  in the middle.  He then poured a small pitcher of broth over the crab. There was clearly so much time and energy into making that soup. The broth had such complex flavors, with a hint of heat and was a delight to eat. 

We were all stuffed by the time dessert was offered, but we couldn't resist. We ordered two things: Butterscotch pudding and Coffee Ice cream with a toffee sauce and pecans. As always this was all homemade but with the dessert it was really evident. The butterscotch pudding melted in your mouth. Unlike most puddings it was not overly sweet. The cream on top balanced out the favor and added richness.
 This was the best dessert I think I have ever eaten. The coffee ice cream was also amazing. It was not leaded with sugar but tasted like coffee, with bits of coffee beans throughout. Imagine that coffee ice cream tasting like coffee! It really is not that common, often flavored ice cream is just sweet and not so flavor filled. 

To sum it up the meal we ate at Woodberry Kitchen was outstanding. The whole experience was amazing but more than anything the people were most impressive. Every one I met was passionate about what they did. They were also all extremely kind and knowledgeable. Every time I saw someone they said hi or waved and asked me how I liked what I had seen. They also work incredibly hard. The whole time we were there this one man worked by the fire. He was cooking, searing and baking and never took a break. He obviously poured his heart and soul into his work.  

Finally, the owners of Woodberry have opened two other local food experiences, with one more on the way.  Shoofly Diner is located not far from Woodberry and focuses on well prepared local diner food.  Their website is great fun, check it out:  Artifact coffee is a wonderful coffee shop around the corner from Woodberry.  We enjoyed drinks and treats there early in the day:  Finally, they are opening a butcher shop that also has food and drink in the very near future.  I love the name, "Parts and Labor".  Here is a link to a Baltimore Sun article about this endeavour,,0,4527942.story  In this article I find one of my favorite ways to sum up the work at Woodberry kitchen and the mission that the owners Spike and Amy subscribe to; a simple quote from Spike reflecting his mission, "feeding people in way that respects the planet."

I want to thank all the people at Woodberry Kitchen for their willingness to let me into their world for the evening. I was blown away by everything about Woodberry Kitchen. I highly recommend traveling to this special place in Baltimore, you won't be disappointed.