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.)
Unlike 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.
“We 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.”
Since 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?’”
This 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.
The 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.
While 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.
“When 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.”
While 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.”
Gauss, 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).
Amendola, 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.”
Even 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 together.”
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.
The 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.