About four years ago, chef Spike Gjerde stopped using olive oil. Baltimore, Maryland’s first-ever James Beard Award winner, Gjerde is about locallocallocal food, and the olive tree is most certainly not native to the mid-Atlantic.
But canola is. Gjerde sources his from Susquehanna Mills in Montoursville, Pennsylvania, where Josh Leidhecker presses the oil from canola crops tended by nearby farmers.
Today, Gjerde’s kitchens, which include Woodberry Kitchen, Artifact Coffee, Parts & Labor, and soon, a restaurant at Washington, D.C.’s Line hotel in Adams Morgan, use 50 percent animal fats and 50 percent vegetable oils; 90 percent of those vegetable oils is canola. Some may say Gjerde makes things hard for himself, but he has a bigger, realer plan than listing local farms on his menus in boldface type. “I am deeply frustrated with our collective lack of engagement with the real challenges we’re facing: the real threats to food and the consequences of how we source it,” he says. He's walking the walk in hopes of turning things around for farmers and for the environment.
“I can proselytize and do my little soapbox shtick as much as I want, but if we can’t start to measure some aspect of this, then I don’t know what we’ll have accomplished,” he says. “So I hope that we create measurable, meaningful change within this food system.”
He's starting with canola oil. Below, a love letter to the often-maligned cooking fat, as told by Spike Gjerde.
When I tell people we don’t use olive oil at Woodberry Kitchen, it raises the most eyebrows—even more than when I tell them we don’t use citrus. And I’m right there with them; olive oil is just so delicious and so incredibly useful.
When we opened, I had a five-page pantry order sheet and almost all of those items came from one company, just like in a lot of other restaurant kitchens. That list included olive oil. Then I met a guy here at the farmers market—a Greek guy whose family had an olive farm back in Greece—and I started sourcing oil from him. At first I bought it in big bags, like 1,000-liter totes, twice a year. There was very little waste and I liked the olive oil, but as Woodberry dialed everything else in, the oil stood out to us as something that was not consistent with our overall goal.
Like everything for us, it’s less about eschewing an ingredient than it is about going as deeply into the local food system as we can, returning as much value to the local food system as we can. On one level, you have ingredients that can be readily identified as local, like tomatoes if you live in an area where you can grow really nice tomatoes. But what about finding the answers to the more fundamental aspects of cooking within this system? A couple friends of mine who do a lot of fermenting talk about chasing sugar. I feel like we’re chasing a lot of the foundations of cooking within this food system now: sugar, acid, salt, and fat.
Everybody always talks about restaurant concepts: What’s the concept? It’s Peruvian, it’s hot chicken, it’s I don’t know. For us, Woodberry was more about a question: What’s the best way for us to feed ourselves while returning value to the growers who are intrinsic to that effort? Chefs tend to be confident in expressing strong preferences and I feel at odds with that. I just feel a lot of uncertainty about a lot of the claims that are made on behalf of our food system, so I’m a little more tentative about what we’re trying to do, knowing where we’ve started and where we’ve gotten to and where we have to get in order to amount to anything. If I’m speaking honestly, there’s a lot of self-doubt; I’m constantly questioning my ability to cook and to find the right answers. It’s all been a transition and continues to be one.
Anyway, I started looking to buy an oil press for Woodberry, but they were expensive, they were oversized for our needs. On top of that, the whole process is a little bit more complicated than just “insert seed here and get oil.” To get a more refined product, there’s a lot of science and a lot of technical know-how involved. Then I heard about Josh. No olives grow in Maryland or anywhere in the mid-Atlantic foodshed, but canola is grown around here, and Josh was milling it. We drove up there not knowing what to expect, and I got to see fields of canola in bloom, which was beautiful. My son was running through them—just an ocean of yellow. I got to talk to some growers. I got to experience canola as a crop that could be a part of a diverse agricultural system. I got to see Josh’s business in the middle of rural Pennsylvania as something that could add to our food economy.
One thing we’ve become accustomed to in this country—it’s a phrase you’ll see all the time, especially in cookbooks—is the concept of “neutral oil.” It took me a while to wrap my head around the fact that canola wasn’t just clear, colorless, tasteless oil. Josh is a huge advocate for his oils tasting like something. He’s won me over; I now believe that the flavor of canola oil, which can be a little bit nutty, slightly vegetal, sometimes a tiny bit fishy, is all a part of having a good oil that hasn’t been stripped of its flavor and nutrients. There’s a lot going on with canola, you know. It has vitamin A, vitamin B, and polysaturates.
It’s not a super refined oil, but it still does well in our fryer. We use it for sautéing, we use it in salad dressings, and we use it to make herb oils of various intensities. That’s where I feel like we’ve been able to bridge the gap between traditional uses of olive oil in cooking and canola oil; we can make thyme or tarragon or chive oil and it really tastes like the herb.
There’s no time to miss grapeseed oil or olive oil. I feel like we’re so connected with working with what we have and there’s so much to work with. And there’s so much happening; Josh wasn’t online when we started Woodberry, and a lot of these cheese makers around us who are making world-class cheese weren’t even a gleam in a cow’s eye. So no, I don’t miss olive oil—or anything, really—for one second. There’s so much here.
We’re closer now to answering those questions I had in the beginning. What are we really about? What are we actually trying to do here? What can we do here? There’s an assumption built in when people talk about local sourcing that those farms will always be there, and that’s not always the case. What I understand now about my food system is that there’s continuing economic and regulatory pressure for local farms—farms that are growing food in thoughtful ways—to go away. I want to support them so that they don’t disappear, because if we cede our ability to feed ourselves to huge corporations, then this kind of food—the quality food that we love, the taste, the regional traditions—will all be lost.
Now I think we’ve got a toehold on doing something at Woodberry that isn’t generally happening and, after eight years of doing it, I think it’s going to be around for a little while.
Julia Bainbridge is our Writer in Residence this month. Catch her other articles here.