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Baltimore chefs put bay's bounty on the menu

Patrick Morrow, Ryleigh's Oyster chef
Patrick Morrow, Ryleigh's Oyster chef - Steve Ruark
When Ryleigh’s Oyster first opened more than five years ago, the raw bar in Baltimore's Federal Hill shucked about 500 oysters per week for its most adventurous eaters.

Today, with the oyster’s briny and Chesapeake Bay-friendly reputation luring more patrons to the bar, the place can breeze through as many as 5,000 of the bivalves in a week, Executive Chef Patrick Morrow says. More and more of those oysters are harvested from Baltimore’s backyard bay, thanks to a growing number of local oyster farms.

“People are becoming more aware that ‘farmed’ isn’t bad for the environment and that it’s actually helping the bay,” Morrow says, referring to an oyster’s ability to filter and clean up to 50 gallons of bay water each day.

It’s one of the many factoids that chefs like Morrow pick up when they have the chance to talk to oyster farmers and watermen face-to-face. Morrow and dozens of other Maryland chefs have had the chance to do just that via boat trips onto the Chesapeake Bay, hosted by Steve Vilnit, director of fisheries marketing for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. By taking some 300 Maryland and D.C. chefs out on the water this past summer alone, Vilnit is trying to convince more of them to take advantage of the Chesapeake Bay’s bounty. The trips will hopefully encourage more chefs to buy from small local fisherman and oyster companies, rather than big international suppliers. 

The trips, which often include tours of local crab houses and oyster companies, help connect chefs to the source of their seafood — the 5,500 commercial watermen operating in the bay. The outings add faces and flavors to their buying decisions, encouraging them to support the watermen they’ve met while sharing the stories with customers. 

Spike Gjerde, owner and chef of Hampden's Woodberry Kitchen, has joined Morrow on these outings, along with chefs from The Rockfish and West Kitchen & Tavern in Annapolis and Victoria Gastro Pub in Columbia. Many of the chefs continue to receive his emails after the trip, which update them on local, in-season seafood that they can use on their menus.

While Morrow was already buying crab meat from the Eastern Shore's J.M. Clayton Seafood Co. and oysters from Choptank Oyster Co., a trip to their facilities over the summer reminded him why those relationships are so important — and how hard it is to pick a few forkfuls of meat from a five-inch-wide Maryland blue crab to make the lump cakes served in his restaurant.

“It’s such a great product anyway, but you get an idea of how much effort goes into each pound of crabmeat,” said Morrow, who will be the executive chef at a second Ryleigh’s Oyster location opening in Hunt Valley in May.

Ryleigh’s also participates in Vilnit’s True Blue campaign, which certifies eateries serving Maryland crabmeat. It’s estimated that just 2 percent of crabmeat sales in the region use Maryland product, and those that do can now use a special label on their menus.

Before he took the job promoting local seafood, Vilnit used to do the opposite as Jessup seafood distributor for J.J.McDonnell & Co. Inc., selling products from across the world to restaurants here.

“In the past, seafood hasn’t been held to the local litmus test as much as other produce,” he said. “This is a wild animal that we’re basically hunting. It’s not something you can easily just point to and say, ‘This is the spot it comes from.’”

The Chesapeake Bay fishing trip was a reward for restaurants that donated the most to a weeklong dining event featuring local products, called From the Bay, For the Bay. This benefits the Oyster Recovery Partnership, which helps recycle used oyster shells from area restaurants to be planted in oyster sanctuaries as habitat for oysters in the larval stage.

Pitching Maryland seafood directly to chefs may be Vilnit’s sweet spot, helping him reach more diners as chefs spread the buy-local message to even more potential customers.

Perhaps no other Baltimore chef has embraced that role with as much fervor as Woodberry Kitchen's Spike Gjerde. Since its inception five years ago, Gjerde’s restaurant has been committed year-round to an almost entirely locally sourced menu, which includes plenty of products from Maryland’s backyard bay.

Sitting on a panel discussion in the fall about chefs as catalysts for change in the food movement, Gjerde riffed about the evolving role he and other restaurateurs play in promoting local seafood.

“A lot of people won’t try a certain fish until they see it on a restaurant menu. As leaders, we have to recognize our role, which is much more of an articulation of what food should be.”
Whitney Pipkin is a freelance journalist who covers food, agriculture, and the environment and lives in Alexandria, Va. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Grist and The Chesapeake Bay Journal. She writes about food at thinkabouteat.com.

Ryleigh's Oyster photograph by STEVE RUARK

Others by Whitney Pipkin

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