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One such pastry chef is Isaiah Billington from Baltimore’s
highly decorated and esteemed Woodberry Kitchen, the area’s
defacto leader in everything farm fresh.
Occupying a converted warehouse, Woodberry Kitchen is a
spectacular restaurant. Open, modern, tons of exposed beams
and brick, WK perfectly balances old and new, without trying
too hard. The reviews are through the roof and tables are hard
to come by so we were fortunate Isaiah was able to make some
time and sit down with us for a talk.
Pastry & Baking NA: At what age did you find an
interest in cooking? Was it part of your upbringing?
Family business?
Isaiah Billington:
I didn’t know I loved to cook until I started
throwing fabulous dinner parties and cooking for large groups
of friends in college. Midwestern familial sensibilities and a
single mom with 5 kids meant food was a task to get out of
the way rather than something to be enjoyed and savored.
Accelerated society at its best.
I cook because I can see right in front of me whether
my work is good or not. Cooking tests your integrity
everyday – you can convince yourself that any mistake is a
brilliant accidental invention, like those apocryphal stories
about tarte tatin or potato chips.  Is it burnt, or is it deeply
caramelized?  It’s possible to lie to yourself all the way through
a service if you want to, but you won’t sleep at night.
Then one day I meet Spike Gjerde. What a man of
vision.  He saw the success of Woodberry Kitchen before
anybody else even knows it’s needed, much less possible. Now,
I can say when I’ve given everything I know how to give to the
restaurant, I’ve helped the company pump millions of dollars
into local agriculture.  Entire farms, networks of families and
practices exist from our support.  This is 2012, but Brillat-
Savarin was more right when he said “Tell me what you eat,
and I will tell you what you are.”  Today, people vote with their
dollars. Give yours to real food from real farms.  
Are you formally educated in pastry/baking or did you
go the apprenticeship route? Or both?
Formal education in cuisine is for the rich. This is a funny
industry with regard to the relationship between prestige
and remuneration.  The best restaurants have lines of people
out the door waiting to work for them.  They
don’t have to pay you well. So, if you’re going
to incur a bunch of debt by going to culinary
school that you’re going to have to work off
by getting a cushy job serving prime rib and
crab cakes at some country club (you look
great in that fourteen-inch hat, btw) why
bother? Why cook if you’re not going to add
to the discourse? That’s my excuse, anyway,
for not going to culinary school. The truth is,
I became a professional cook by accident, as
a side job while I was chasing a girl, and got
lucky in working for some really dynamite
people.
Provide timeline and names of outlets
you have worked at starting from the
beginning.
Holy Frijoles!
2005: drunken busboy
2005-2006: Pierpoint Restaurant, prep/line cook
2006-2007: Abacrombie, pastry assistant/pastry chef
2007-Current: Woodberry Kitchen, pastry chef
What it was like for you when you first went to work at
Woodberry Kitchen? Farm-to-table cuisine is quite a
different atmosphere.
We’ve all grown in our understanding of food since we
opened. Baltimore isn’t Napa Valley and it’s not the low
country. We don’t have an eleven-month growing season.  The
first winter was rough. We didn’t know half the farmers we
know now, and our unexpected popularity out the gate meant
we blazed through our preserved tomatoes and peppers in
weeks. I remember sharing a moment with Spike in the walk-
in that first December, when the hard reality of local sourcing
began to set in.
But people kept coming to Woodberry, and enjoying their
meals. Our belief crystallized that a restaurant had to earn
farm-to-table status not just through what it would do (go
to the farmer’s markets sometimes), but also through what it
wouldn’t (resort to Chilean asparagus when there’s nothing
green within 100 miles).
That was year 1. We’ll start year 5 in October. We don’t
use the designation ‘farm-to-table’ anymore.  It’s just the only
way we know how now.  Every time we’ve placed our faith in
our local farmers, we’ve been rewarded, and it gets better and
more diverse every year. There’s just no other way for someone
who loves good food and how it fits into people’s lives to cook. 
What are the most challenging aspects of being a
pastry chef in the world of farm-to-table?
Firstly, it’s just a lot of time. There are a lot of intentional
inefficiencies built into what we do. We make our own
noodles, bread, ice cream, peanut butter, cream cheese,
everything.  There’s no economy of scale anywhere.  And,
you’re not spending every waking moment in the kitchen to
put pretty artistic dots on plates, you’re just getting things
done. So, if you have an ego, which I do, you’ll get insecure
when a fancy pants chef sits down to try what you’ve crafted.
They usually love it, though.