Unlike the cadre of celebrity chefs that make-up the Food Network line-up, Shields did not attend culinary school. His training began as boy cooking alongside his beloved grandmother, Gertie. Later, as a young man, he found himself in a restaurant kitchen pitching in as needed. With his first restaurant, Gertie’s in Berkeley, Calif., Shields pays tribute to the woman who introduced him to cooking and his beloved Chesapeake Bay.
Buen Provecho Amigos: So where was the first place that you cooked?
Shields: The first place I cooked, it was right down the street here at a church called St. Ann’s Church with my grandmother, Gertie, who this restaurant is named after. She did with a number of other women a businessmen’s lunch at the church once a month. It was a big operation. A lot of people came, and they made money for the church. By the time I was this high—five or six-years-old—they had me down there prepping, helping in the kitchen and I loved it. I loved the excitement. I loved all the camaraderie. I loved watching the people out in the dining room or the auditorium and seeing their faces as they ate. It was a kind of immediate gratification. I never expected to do it as a profession. It was just something that I did with my grandmother and I enjoyed it.
Buen Provecho Amigos: But that’s how you learn the appreciation of dining, cooking and food.
Shields: Absolutely, and hospitality, and, you know it’s just like having a party. It was like putting on a party to me. So anyways—fast forward—I went to school and I was working in finance. I hated it and I went up to New England—this was in the early seventies— to visit some friends up on Cape Cod and I thought, “you know what, I’m moving up here.” So, I came back, I quit the job. I played the piano at that time. I thought I’d go up there and be a rock star. I went up to New England and the rock star thing didn’t happen. But a friend of mine who cooked for a long time up there broke his ankle, and he called me and said, “you got to go to work tonight. Just get up there; you’re going to work in the kitchen.” And so, I went up and this lovely chef took my hand and just had me peeling things, like I did at St. Ann’s. I’ve been doing it for 40 years.
Buen Provecho Amigos: So, you got on the job training.
Shields: Yes . . .on the job training.
Buen Provecho Amigos: Is that still an acceptable way to enter the profession these days?
Shields: It is. For me it was the greatest thing. I mean, I was fortunate over the years. I’ve worked at some very nice places. I had learned some beautiful things that I couldn’t have learned anywhere else. It was a kind of an evolution. I cooked there for a while, then it was in New York City, and then I was in Berkeley, California for 20 years.
Buen Provecho Amigos: I remember you opened a restaurant there, is that correct?
Shields: There’s a celebrity chef named Jonathan Waxman and he’s in LA now. And he was at this tiny little French restaurant. So, I got hired there; it was in Berkeley.
Buen Provecho Amigos: What was the French restaurant?
Shields: Á la Carte. And then he left, like, shortly after I got there. Á la Carte was a tiny restaurant. I mean it was like 12 tables or ten tables. So, the owner, who also did a little bit of cooking, um, she said, “I guess you’re the chef now.” This kid from Parkville, Md., who you know . . .
Buen Provecho Amigos: . . . has a finance degree. . .
Shields: Who doesn’t know a lot. I mean, I was a pretty good cook, but I only knew what I knew. And so, I took over this small French restaurant that had all the wine makers from Napa who would come and throw parties for their new releases. The wine sommelier from the Ritz in Paris would be there, and Frank Prial [wine columnist] from the New York Times would be there and it’s like oh my God. I just went and got every book on French cooking. I had all the Julia Child; Jacques Pepin cookbooks and the really cool thing was we changed the menu every single day.
Buen Provecho Amigos: Was that the norm before you got there, or did you start that?
Shields: No, that’s what they were doing.
Shields: So, you would have three appetizers, two entrees—one that would always be some kind of seafood and one would be either a meat, poultry or a game—and then two or three desserts. And so, you would start like at 5:00 in the morning at the fish market in Oakland, but then go to a little market—Monterey Market—where all the farmers were just coming into things and you’re picking things and making menus and then you bring everything back. It was just me, and then, maybe sometimes, I had my assistant for part of the day and then you had to make everything from soup, appetizer, a salad, the two entrees and two desserts. And then I had to actually sit and write it out in French, so we could take it up to the copy place and then I had to cook for dinner the whole night. So anyway, if it was like the best culinary exercise any kid could get. And for some reason I was able to do it. I mean, I have a natural affinity for French food. I got pretty good at it. And so, then you know, we had a lot of write-ups all-over Northern California and then I opened a bigger restaurant and it was called Gertie’s. And so that’s when I thought, “You know, I think regional American food is valid” and a lot of other chefs in Berkeley and San Francisco were doing the same thing. So, they were opening regional American.
Buen Provecho Amigos: Which is now known as farm-to-table.
Buen Provecho Amigos: Was it known as farm-to-table then?
Shields: No, no we didn’t think of that. I mean the nice thing about being in Northern California, I was up with Alice Waters, Jonathan Waxman and Bruce Aidells. The whole area was called “The Gourmet Ghetto” in those days. So, we just knew the people that grew the stuff. We didn’t think about it as farm-to-table. It’s just what we did, and it was fun.
Buen Provecho Amigos: But it was still somehow revolutionary for the rest of the country.
Shields: It was kind of revolutionary.
Buen Provecho Amigos: Because, Alice Waters of Chez Panisse is widely recognized as the Godmother of farm-to-table.
Shields: The high temple of American local food.
Buen Provecho Amigos: Yeah, so, you know, I think it really got the rest of the country thinking in that way. It spiraled.
Shields: Yeah that time from the mid ‘70s through the ‘80s in Berkeley and the Bay area changed American cooking, it just changed it. It was the coolest thing to be there and be part of that. I didn’t plan it and the interesting thing too, if you think about it, of all the more famous chefs from that era and the country, none of us went to cooking school. None of us had background in food. Everybody was an academic of some sort or a musician or all kinds of things, but they just have this entrepreneurship.
Buen Provecho Amigos: I think it speaks to what cooking really is. It’s an expression of creativity. It’s also a very thoughtful and social activity. It’s the difference between self-nourishment and something that becomes a creative outlet. So, at Gertie’s I remember you talking at Cuba Libre [a restaurant in Washington, DC], that the focus was Chesapeake cuisine at Gertie’s in California. How was that received?
Shields: They loved it. I mean, we got hundreds and hundreds of calls. Even before we opened people were so excited and wanted to know if we had Old Bay. And then I realized that most people in the Bay Area weren’t natives to the Bay Area. Most came from the East Coast and worked at medical universities and academic institutions. Most of them grew up either in New England to the Mid-Atlantic or they were government people and they worked in DC. A lot of people were familiar with Chesapeake and said “Oh that’s cool. We’re going to be able to have crab cakes,” or “We’ll be able to have, you know, oysters or the clams.” So anyway, the restaurant worked quite well. People loved it and it went on even after I left. I sold it and it had a really long run in Berkeley.
Buen Provecho Amigos: So, doing Chesapeake cuisine in California where a lot of the food is locally sourced, I would imagine most of the menu was easily duplicated but things like blue crabs. . .
Shields: Yeah, that I had to bring in. So, I had to bring in the blue crab. I had to bring in the rockfish. In the beginning, I had to bring in the oysters, but oysters were so popular in Northern California that most of the seafood wholesalers were bringing them in already from the East Coast. So, I could just get the oysters from them.
Buen Provecho Amigos: So, there were oysters on the list, but they’re a different variety.
Shields: There are different varieties. Yeah, totally different varieties and there are wonderful. We had all types of oysters, at Gertie’s, I think the things that I brought in were things that were really iconic from here that you couldn’t get there but everything else that you needed you could get there, and it was all local and we work with the growers.
Look for part three of my interview with John Shields on Monday, May 6, when we get into a discussion of the expansive region that encompasses Chesapeake Cuisine and how an invasive species is now a part of the food supply chain. I will also share a recipe from Shield’s latest cookbook, The New Chesapeake Kitchen.