Chef Spotlight: Chris Becker

A Baltimore native, Chef Chris Becker oversees daily operations for all of the Bagby Restaurant Group, which includes Bagby Pizza Company, TEN TEN American Bistro, Fleet Street Kitchen, Cunningham’s and Cunningham’s Café & Bakery.

A graduate of the Baltimore Culinary Institute, Chris spent time in the kitchens of Baltimore restaurants the Brass Elephant and Linwoods before joining the Wine Market in Locust Point. It was there he was honored as one of the top “Chefs to Watch” by Baltimore magazine and identified as one of “Ten Professionals Under 30 to Watch” by the Baltimore Sun. Under Becker’s leadership as CEO beginning in 2014, Bagby’s operations continue to grow. He’s also been instrumental in the growth and development of Cunningham Farms, the group’s Cockeysville property that provides all of its restaurants with responsibly grown and sourced produce, eggs, pork and lamb.

Becker also contributes to the Baltimore charitable community, including serving as a board member for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

Get to Know Chef Becker

Culinary contributor Amy Langrehr sat down with Chef Becker to chat about food, family and what’s great about Baltimore.

Was food a big part of your upbringing? Did you cook when you were a kid?
CB: Yes, definitely. Cooking has been a constant in my life, something I've always wanted to do. My mom was a real "do it yourself" person. Like, for example, she made all her own baby food. She cooked and did catering jobs when my sisters and I were growing up. She was a single mom, she went to grad school, but still cooked for us a lot. We always tried to have dinner together as a family and learned a lot from her. I get my love of learning from her. When I was at home on my own when she was in school, I'd cook dinner for myself and that was always fun – and usually pretty good. I also tested recipes on my mom, and then around 12 or 13, I really got into cooking more seriously and read tons of cookbooks. I'm also a really good eater. (Smiles.)

Lots of kids get to choose their birthday meal. What would be your birthday meal now? And what was it as a kid?
CB: As a kid, it was never just one thing. I'm not one to eat the same thing over and over. Sometimes my dad would take me to Jerry D's for lobster – that was a treat. Now, my wife, Alie, makes me a carrot cake. It's so good. I also love [Bagby's Corporate Pastry Chef] Angie Lee's chocolate bar dessert. I also like going out for my birthday and just enjoying a great fine dining experience. For the last two years, we've gone to Fleet Street Kitchen. It's always so good.

What food trend can you not stand?
CB: I guess over-manipulation of food when it's not needed. Things like molecular gastronomy can be a crutch for some chefs. Basic fundamentals and cooking techniques are important. Avant-garde is fun, but you need to know when to stop.

How do you balance work and home?
CB: I'm usually off on Sundays and away from the restaurants. Alie works a lot, too, so we try to spend our days off together. We like being busy, but try to live a pretty balanced, healthy lifestyle. And now we've just had our first child, Mila, so that has changed everything.

How often are you in the kitchen cooking at work?
CB: Not as much as I'd like. Right now, I'm spending most of my time getting our newer places going. But I also am always meeting with and collaborating with our team of chefs on menus, testing recipes, etc. Plus, I'm always reading and researching, which is something I've always done.

Which chefs do you admire?
CB: Locally, Zack Mills at Wit & Wisdom. He's a great guy, a class act. And, Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen is so passionate about food – you can see that in everything he does. You know, we're all competitors, but we also like to collaborate and help each other. When I was younger, I first admired Paul Kahan of Blackbird. I visited the restaurant when I visited my sister in Chicago, and it was pretty amazing. He straddled the line between pushing people to try something new and giving them what they want. On the menu a dish might seem esoteric, but on the plate it was just great food. I also admire Danny Meyer, a great chef and businessman.

What do you like about Baltimore?
CB: I like that it's not a huge city, it still has a community feel. A lot of people who live here grew up here. I've lived here most of my life, and it's a genuine place. No one takes themselves too seriously here. I'm really proud, too, that all of our Bagby Group executive chefs are from Baltimore. This city has a growing food scene, and it's only going to continue to improve over the next five years. It's really exciting to be a part of it.

What do you love about food?
CB: When I'm cooking, prepping, etc. – that's where my passion is. You can almost get lost in it. I've always loved being on the line. It's rewarding to make your guests happy, too. Immediate gratification and getting feedback make you feel good.

What are some of your favorite restaurants in Baltimore?
CB: We don't really get out too much, but we do love places like Salt, Wit & Wisdom, Woodberry Kitchen and Jong Kak.

OK, obligatory question – when you cook at home, what do you like to make?
CB: Really simple stuff, really. No overthinking. Alie often works at Waverly Market with Michele Tsucalas of Michele's Granola, so she'll shop for in-season vegetables, proteins and more. We used to experiment a lot at home, but now we keep it simple. Maybe a great piece of fish with a sauce, gnocchi – we try to mix it up, but always something simple.