Last fall I attended a happy hour at Cuba Libre hosted by DC Food Bloggers. While the opportunity to hobnob with fellow bloggers and eat Cuban food was a big draw for me, the real treat of the evening was chef and restaurateur John Shields. You may remember Shields from one of his two PBS series, Chesapeake Bay Cooking with John Shields or Coastal Cooking with John Shields. Perhaps you’ve eaten at his restaurant in Baltimore, Gertrude’s Chesapeake Kitchen, or own one of his cookbooks celebrating the food of the Chesapeake region.
Shields was invited to the happy hour to celebrate the publication of his latest cookbook, The New Chesapeake Kitchen. A celebration of the region’s past, present, its people and the food, Shields passion for the region comes through in the recipes and anecdotes featured throughout the book.
Despite having grown up in Takoma Park, Md., just over the Washington, DC line, I had not realized the extent of what constituted Chesapeake cuisine until Shields’ brief presentation. His talk peaked my interest just enough to pursue an interview with him. Luckily, he was gracious and granted me one in late October of last year. Our hour-long conversation included his first forays in a professional kitchen to how public policy shaped contemporary farming to his beloved Chesapeake. And while it’s been slow-going transcribing and shoring up the text, I am excited to finally have this published as a five-part series. I hope you find Shields as charming, smart and entertaining as I did.
Buen Provecho Amigos: John, you published the 25th anniversary of your landmark cookbook, Chesapeake Bay Cooking with John Shields, three years ago and you recently published The New Chesapeake Kitchen. What inspired you to revisit Chesapeake cuisine and write a new cookbook?
John Shields: It’s kind of interesting. I’ve been writing about the Chesapeake probably since the early 80s. I’ve done about four books on the Chesapeake and I’m getting older. When you do something like that for a long time, you start to have some thoughts, and my thoughts were, “Where are we going?” We’re in the 21st century. So, I thought it was important to take a snapshot—take a look and see just where we are right now in this evolution—the continuing evolution of Chesapeake cuisine because so much has changed. Most of the traditional recipes that you think about came from the 17th century, the 18th century, the 19th century and the early 20th century, and so much has changed in the Bay and around the Bay. What is grown here? What isn’t grown here anymore? Who lives here? Who doesn’t live here anymore? What’s in the Bay that didn’t used to be in the Bay. And what is not in the Bay that used to be in the Bay. So, things have really changed a lot and I thought, “well we need to take another look,” and then try to envision a Chesapeake kitchen for the 21st century and how that all relates to each other. I think that the way we plan our menus in our kitchen affects absolutely everything. It affects the environment. It affects species and species populations. It directly affects our body and it affects the economic welfare of the entire region, right?
Buen Provecho Amigos: Yes, it does.
Shields: So, I call it Bay-body-friendly food—trying to envision ways to put our menus together or food together that maybe takes a little stress off of the Bay and is good for our local food economy, and it is good for our bodies, and for our health because that totally impacts our region.
Buen Provecho Amigos: Let me ask you about planning a menu for your current restaurant, Gertrude’s Chesapeake Kitchen. Do you plan the menu first or do you take stock of what’s available for the season?
Shields: Well, I try to take stock of the season. We’ll change the menu four times a year, depending on what we have going on. We also have a pretty comprehensive daily special menu, something that you can play with constantly. We get, maybe, a farmer who has just a handful of one item, Jerusalem artichokes. Maybe he’s got one bag. Well, you don’t want to put it on your regular menu, but you can get a beautiful special for that day out of that particular product. That’s why I love having a daily menu as well because you can play with things so quickly.
Buen Provecho Amigos: How far in advance do you plan your menu?
Shields: Not that far because you have to react pretty quickly to what is there. We don’t work with a lot of big distributors. We work with farmers or we work with small nonprofits that actually try to do the distribution for a number of small farmers. I don’t want to start planning a menu of daily specials this week or next week. I wait until the beginning of the day, so we can see what’s going on in there. It’s to make the activity a playful thing. I think food should be fun and playful.
Buen Provecho Amigos: How has the restaurant kitchen changed since you first started in the restaurant business. How has the education of the chef evolved?
Shields: Yeah, I guess it’s evolved a lot. I mean, I started cooking about 45 years ago. And when I did that, it was a crazy time. There are a lot of mean people in the kitchen. Yeah, it was a militaristic time.
Buen Provecho Amigos: It was in the seventies.
Shields: Early to mid-seventies. So, it’s a very militaristic kind of environment. There really were no cooking schools per se at that time.
Buen Provecho Amigos: There were no cooking schools other than I guess. . .
Shields: CIA [Culinary Institute of America]
Buen Provecho Amigos: Yeah, that’s still the biggie and then France. . .
Shields: And if you were in France [you could attend culinary school], but in the United States, it wasn’t even looked at as an honorable profession for a man—it was not. And it wasn’t even a possibility for a woman. I mean, they didn’t have women in the kitchens unless it was a small mom and pop operation. And then the mom or the grandma would helm the kitchen.
Buen Provecho Amigos: M.F.K. Fisher talks about this in her first book, Serve It Forth. She talks about this in one of her books about how in the cooking world—in the professional restaurant world—it was all men, but you know at home . . .
Shields: It was all women and all the men talked about how they learned from their mother or their grandmother. It’s the weirdest thing. It really is weird.
Buen Provecho Amigos: It was. And if you think about it, you know, like with any other industry, what were the socio-economic impacts for the genders?
Shields: Yes, and you have to also look at the time. And what were the social norms of that time and to work a 60 or 90-hour week in a restaurant for a woman who otherwise was expected to be tending to a family. You know what I mean?
Buen Provecho Amigos: Yeah. There was definitely a shift there and I understand how that arose. But it’s fascinating. You don’t think about it that often.
Shields: Yeah, I do because obviously I’m involved in the business and I find it fascinating. And still to this day, I would prefer to have so many more female chefs in the kitchen than we have. We have a few but any time that you put out a help wanted [ad], I would say out of 10 applicants nine are men. More often than not it’s ten out of ten.
Buen Provecho Amigos: And you know, it’s probably still true today that even though social norms have changed there’s still—even if you’re in a marriage—an expectation that the preference is for a woman wanting to be more involved in their children’s lives. So perhaps it’s the long hours that still frighten women away. It’s not conducive toward a work-life balance.
Shields: Having a woman in the [professional] kitchen changes the dynamics of the kitchen. I find it makes it a better place to be because it takes away a lot of that machismo, as I said before that militaristic approach to a kitchen and humanizes it. And that’s what it should be. So anyway, we have a pretty nice balance in my kitchen, and I love it.
Buen Provecho Amigos: You had some good mentors.
Shields: I did, I did. I was fortunate in my career. I ended up places where some chefs gave me leeway. I learned by doing. So, I like to do the same thing for my staff.
Thank you for allowing me to share my conversation with John Shields with you. Please check back on Thurs., May 2, for part two of our conversation where we delve into Shields’ first professional culinary experiences.