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Celebrating Farm-to-Fork Chesapeake: Meet Culinary Ambassador of the Chesapeake Bay, John Shields

Mar 03, 2016 09:30AM ● By Cate Reynolds
By Rita Calvert // Photography by Stephen Buchanan

John Shields is a chef, television host, author, and my friend (I’m thrilled to say). He’s a wonderfully chatty guy who is quick to share his love of local Chesapeake ingredients. After leaving his stint in Berkeley, California, John created Gertrude’s, which has been thriving at the Baltimore Museum of Art since 1998. The popular restaurant was named after his grandmother, Gertrude Cleary, who taught him to cook as a child. Dubbed the “Culinary Ambassador of the Chesapeake Bay,” John has written three popular cookbooks and hosted two television series on the region’s cuisine. He now celebrates the 25th anniversary of his book, Chesapeake Bay Cooking with John Shields, in a compilation of all of his books with a smattering of some original recipes and libations.

John recounts some history: “Twenty five years ago, although it was gaining some ground out in California, here in the East, the idea of ‘eating local/eating in season/shopping local’ wasn’t really showing up on most folks’ radar, but honestly, for me, it was just the way we always ate at my house. Many of my relatives were farmers. Many still are in Baltimore and Harford Counties. I kinda grew up in a world where I just thought that’s the way you eat. You grow it and you eat it.”

John doesn’t sit still for long. With all of his busy(ness), he still finds the time to develop a cookbook fit for the future. His, New Chesapeake Kitchen, will be released in 2017. Using his recipes, John will give examples of the most valuable styles of cooking for the health of our Bay and its people. Basically, he told me, it goes back to our grandparents’ food and cooking style. His grandmother would roast a chicken for Sunday night supper and that bird would last for most of the week’s meals; being used sparingly, and then, finally, the carcass would enrich a “chock-full-of-vegetables” soup.

I asked John where our local food system is going; what is the culinary future in these parts? Animal proteins are the topic of much of our conversation for John speaks of crabs, oysters, and poultry, and the controversies surrounding them. For example, he believes that “Big Chicken” has done more harm to the Bay than anything else. John advocates more integrative small farms as the answer, with varied, rotating crops and a few animals to feed a region, not an entire country.

“My grandmother used to ‘put up’ all kinds of things when they came into season. She even had a root cellar in her row home. So we did have wonderful food all winter, but the anticipation for some of the spring delicacies, such as rhubarb, asparagus, and strawberries would mount as spring approached. The season for most of these foods didn’t last a long time. We couldn’t have everything whenever we wanted, so we built up a real appreciation for things when we did have them.

“This is the way folks always ate—with deep appreciation for foods at their best, fresh and in their season. I believe we’ve lost so much as global corporations and industrial agriculture have taken over. This hasn’t been an entirely good thing—for the environment, for our local economies, for our personal health, or simply for our enjoyment of good food.

“Things are changing. In fact, they have changed. When I opened Gertrude’s, a professional chef couldn’t buy much that was local. The big suppliers just didn’t have it, didn’t quite know what you meant when you asked for it. I was very fortunate that the 32nd Street/Waverly Farmers’ Market was open all year round and was just a few blocks away. I was able to make such good, lasting friendships, face-to-face, with many local producers and food artisans right here in my own neighborhood.

“It turns out there is lots of good news for our local food scene. As long as we are educated, stay mindful, and work toward sustainability in raising the food we eat, the picture is rosy. Look around at the young farmers, young people in schools starting urban gardens, farmers who love the animals they raise and extending it into artisanal products like sausage. Look at our oyster farmers! These practices also create new local revenue sources in the Chesapeake Bay region.”

The outlook is very positive for our local food system as long as we work together to understand, to “live,” the New Chesapeake Kitchen.

Captain John Smith, the Chesapeake’s first press agent, wrote, “Heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man’s habitation.” And Captain John was quite right. Welcome to what we natives call the “Land of Pleasant Living.”


Chesapeake Bay Seafood Stew

Serves 8 to 10

During the 18th century, French cuisine was the order of the day in Annapolis, Maryland, which at that time was considered the cosmopolitan city. Gourmets from all over the new republic made their way to this colonial city to sample the tastes of French fare, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. In fact, Jefferson, a devotee of fine cuisine, insisted that all his chefs at his Monticello estate be trained in French cookery in Annapolis.

This version of a Chesapeake Bay bouillabaisse, teeming with fresh clams and crabmeat in a saffron-scented tomato broth, is a dish typical of Annapolis. The Rouille, a classic French accompaniment to fish stew, is mayonnaise-like in texture and made from chilies, garlic, and olive oil. Pass around plenty of hot, crusty bread for dipping in the broth.

  • 1⁄4 cup olive oil
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 6 cloves garlic, unpeeled
  • 2 leeks, washed thoroughly, halved, and cut into pieces
  • 1⁄3 cup chopped fennel bulb, or 1 tablespoon fennel seed
  • 5 pounds ripe tomatoes, chopped
  • 2 small potatoes, peeled and diced
  • 2 cups dry white wine
  • 2 cups fish stock
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Grated zest of 1 orange
  • 3 or 4 threads of saffron
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 8 to 10 pieces of French bread, sliced on the diagonal
  • Melted butter and chopped garlic, for toast
  • 2 pounds bass, rockfish, bluefish, or other firm-fleshed fillets
  • 1 pound lump crabmeat, picked over
  • 2 pounds small hard-shell clams, well-scrubbed
  • Rouille (recipe follows)
  • Chopped parsley

Heat the oil in a heavy pot and sauté the onion, garlic, leeks, and fennel until slightly softened, about 8 to 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes, potatoes, wine, stock, thyme, oregano, and bay leaf. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for 30 minutes.

Puree the mixture in a blender or food processor. Pour through a fine sieve and return to the pot. Add the orange zest, saffron, salt, and pepper. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until somewhat reduced, about 20 to 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375°F.

Brush the bread slices with melted butter and top with garlic. Toast in the oven until browned. Cut the fish in chunks about 2 inches square. Add to the sauce and cook for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the fish is almost done.

Add the crabmeat and clams. Stir, then cover. Cook until the clams have opened. Reserve 1 cup of the liquid for making Rouille.

Prepare the Rouille. Place 1 piece of garlic bread in each bowl, then spoon in the fish and broth. Arrange the clams on top. Garnish with parsley. Serve the Rouille on the side.


Makes about 1 1/2 cups

  • 1 small potato, peeled
  • 1 cup broth from Chesapeake Bay Seafood Stew
  • 6 cloves garlic
  • 4 fresh or dried red chilies
  • 1 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • Salt, to taste

Quarter the potato and cook in the reserved broth. Drain, reserving the liquid. Finely chop the garlic and red chilies in a blender or a food processor. Add the potato, Tabasco, and oil. Process until the mixture forms a paste. Slowly add enough of the reserved liquid to give the mixture the consistency of mayonnaise. Season with salt.

Green Beans with Country Ham and Sautéed Peanuts

Serves 10 to 12

William Taylor, a.k.a. The Dinner Designer, liked to cook up a platterful of crisp green beans, generously coated with a tart and pungent Dijon butter sauce, then tossed with Smithfield ham and sautéed peanuts.

  • 2 pounds green beans
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) plus 6 tablespoons (3⁄4 stick) butter
  • Juice of 2 lemons
  • 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • Salt and freshly ground
  • black pepper
  • 2 cups julienned
  • Smithfield ham
  • 1 1/2 cups peanuts, coarsely chopped

Using scissors, snip off the ends of the beans on the diagonal, leaving the beans whole. Bring a saucepan filled with salted water to a boil. Add the beans and cook, checking constantly until done but still crisp, about 5 to 8 minutes. Drain immediately and place in a large deep bowl. Cut the stick of butter in chunks over the beans. Add the lemon juice and mustard. Season with salt and pepper. Add the ham and stir gently to mix all ingredients.

Sauté the peanuts in the remaining 6 tablespoons butter for just a few minutes, stirring constantly. Place the peanuts in a strainer to drain off any excess butter. Arrange the beans on an oval platter and spoon a long line of sautéed peanuts down the center. Serve immediately.

Chocolate Bourbon Pecan Pie

Makes one 9-inch pie // Serves 6 to 8

Accenting this rich pecan pie with chocolate gives a new twist to a Southern classic.

Pastry Dough for a Single-Crust Pie

  • 3 eggs, beaten
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup dark corn syrup
  • 6 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled
  • 1 tablespoon flour
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 3 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled
  • 1⁄4 cup bourbon whiskey
  • 1 1⁄2 cups pecan halves or pieces, lightly toasted
  • Sweetened whipped cream, for accompaniment

Prepare pastry dough and line a 9-inch pie pan.

Preheat the oven to 400°F.

Beat together the eggs and sugar in a large bowl. Mix in the corn syrup, butter, flour, vanilla, chocolate, and bourbon. Pour into the pie crust and arrange the pecans on top.

Bake 20 minutes, then reduce heat to 325°F and continue baking for 30 minutes, or until set and a knife inserted in center comes out clean. Serve warm with sweetened whipped cream.