Get to Know John Shields
Culinary contributor Amy Langrehr sat down with John to discuss Baltimore’s culinary scene and how food has influenced his life and career.
Was food a big part of your upbringing? Did you cook when you were a kid?
JS: Yes, definitely. My grandmother, Gertie, was a great cook. Back then, of course, she made everything from scratch – she was a very hands-on cook. She cooked at St. Anne’s Church, serving what at the time was called a “businessman’s lunch.” So, I’d help her prep – husking corn, stringing beans. I loved it. What I remember most about dinner as a kid is that we ate together every night as a family and we all helped with dinner. There were bowls and bowls (tons of vegetables), and we passed them around and talked about our day. We ate pretty healthy food. For breakfast, it was pretty steadily eggs, then lunch at school was a hot meal like chicken and potatoes. And I always had an apple for my after-school snack. Always. People say to me that they always remember me as a kid eating an apple.
Lots of kids get to choose their birthday meal – anything they want…to a point, I suppose. What would be your “birthday meal” now and what was it as a kid?
JS: When I was little, I guess it went back and forth between roast pork, sauerkraut and mashed potatoes to fried chicken, applesauce and mashed potatoes. Now? Sounds weird since I see crab cakes every day of my life, but I’d probably like a crab cake, applesauce and a baked potato.
What do you do on your days off? How do you balance?
JS: Well, balance is hard. But I do my best. On my day off, I meet a friend at Towson Hot Bagels. It’s our coffee clatch, once a week. We catch up and it’s always so much fun. And then dinner on my day off is usually at home – usually a braise, stew, something slow. At home we eat a primarily plant-based diet, but we do eat meat from time to time.
What food trend can you really not stand?
JS: Just about all of them. [Laughs.] But really, if it has to be a trend, it already annoys me. I’m into real food. Cooking reality shows are not my favorite. So many of them degrade the food in some way. That said, I really enjoyed Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution – it was entertaining but also focused on public health, which is so important.
You are at Waverly Market every Saturday morning, bright and early. You know all of the farmers. Farm-to-table is a phrase that so many chefs are tired of these days. What do you think of it?
JS: Farm-to-table has been my mission for my entire career. We need to rebuild our economy and use the resources we have. I long for the day when we don’t have to call it farm-to-table anymore.
Do you have any time to watch any food TV? If so, are there any celebrity chefs you really enjoy?
JS: The classics – teaching shows. You know, people like Jacques and Julia. They teach and cook with love. It’s easy to watch and see why they do what they do. It’s just real. I have a funny story for you. In 2000, the big IACP [International Association of Culinary Professionals] conference was in Baltimore, and it coincided with Julia Child’s birthday. There was a fundraiser for her foundation at Gertrude’s, and Jacques Pepin attended. At a certain point, I was looking for my mother who had attended the event with me. She really had no idea who any of these “famous” people were – and that was great in and of itself. So, I walk out into the lobby of the BMA trying to find her to leave and there she is, sitting on a bench talking and laughing with none other than Jacques Pepin. Can you imagine? And she says to me, “I met this very nice man – and he spoke French!” Jacques is a wonderful man.
What do you love about Baltimore?
JS: Its quirkiness. And the people, of course. There are so many different neighborhoods and a real sense of community. My partner, John, is from Chicago and what strikes him about it is that the people here are just so nice and it’s easy to live here. Sure, we have our share of problems, but I love it and that’s why I stay.
What do you love about food?
JS: Its ability to bring people together. There’s a sense of conviviality and community. As a kid, we ate out very rarely. We didn’t have any money, and the ability to cook made life better for us. As I said, we all had jobs in getting dinner together. For my family, eating together every day gave us a great sense of responsibility. It was a time to check in and hear how everyone was doing. That’s so important.
What are some of your favorite restaurants in Baltimore?
JS: Well, as many people who work in restaurants understand, we don’t really get to go out too much. When I travel tends to be the time I get to go out to dinner. But locally, we really love Cafe Gia, Woodberry Kitchen and Birroteca, which is one of our favorite places to take out-of-towners. Oh and wow, The Helmand. To me, that was the first ethnic restaurant in town that raised the bar. It’s consistently so good, and it feels like a night out without being expensive. The food is so good there. And, I have to mention the place that we and our friends call, “The Club.” We are not country club people, so we go to Pappas’ in Parkville with a mixed bag of old friends and new – and we call it the Parkville Country Club, the PCC.
OK, obligatory question – when you cook at home, what do you like to make? Do you have a “go to” meal at home?
JS: Well, we don’t cook at home that much. One big treat is getting Chipotle and eating it in the man cave while we watch “Downton Abbey”!