The Charm City Cook Amy Langrehr sits down with one of the partners of True Chesapeake Oyster Co., the much-anticipated new restaurant scheduled to open next week.
I’ve known Patrick Hudson of True Chesapeake Oyster Company for a while now. When we sat down for this interview, Patrick reminded me that I was the first person to write about True Chesapeake six years ago when he launched the oyster business. I vividly remember the first time I tasted True Chesapeake’s Skinny Dipper oysters, Patrick suggested that I try them on their own without mignonette or cocktail sauce. They were plump and had a subtle saltiness and tasted very crisp and clean – they really didn’t need a thing. Not more salt, not sauce, nothing. I loved them right away.
Fast forward to now, I’m living at historic Whitehall Mill, the same place where Patrick and partners Nick Schaumann, Zack Mills (former executive chef at Wit & Wisdom) and Chelsea Gregoire (who will serve as general manager and lead the bar program) are about to open the first True Chesapeake Oyster Company restaurant. They’ve kept the historic space true to its roots – with the tall windows and exposed old brick and plaster. And, the old industrial smokestack – which you can see from the JFX – is right in the oyster bar. It’s a beautiful space with tons of natural light.
I sat down with Patrick to learn more about opening a new restaurant, what we can expect once it opens next week and how he became an oyster farmer in the first place.
Why did you decide to take on a huge project like a big restaurant in an historic location?
When I started selling to restaurants, I liked the energy they had. The people in them, the pace, the creativity. Opening a restaurant felt like a natural progression for us, too. And, to be on Clipper Mill Road near places like Woodberry Kitchen and La Cuchara that we’ve always liked and admired just felt right. There’s so much history here along the Jones Falls. They made sails for ships heading out onto the bay in Whitehall Mill. A project like this is not easy, but we were up for the challenge.
Describe the vibe you’re hoping to create at the restaurant.
Well, physically, there are three areas inside: an informal bar, a formal bar and a dining room. There’s the oyster bar where you can wear flip flops and watch the game or meet up with friends for happy hour, there’s a cool bar for a date night and a space for a nice dinner with friends or family.. There’s a bar out on the patio, too. We want everyone to feel comfortable here. As for the design aesthetic, my sister Kate (who is an interior designer) created it – and she was excited from the get-go. We have a wrap-around bar made of oyster shells and we kept as much of the original brick and plaster as possible and there’s an open kitchen, which is something Zack really wanted. It looks amazing.
Tell me a little bit about your menu.
The food will be simple but really well done. For us, it’s all about the freshest ingredients. Of course, we will have tons of seafood (raw and roasted oysters and Oysters Rockefeller, etc.) plus pork and poultry, but we will also focus on vegetables. Zack is really into vegan and vegetarian dishes and he will explore that more here. He has a roasted squash entree on the opening menu that we tasted yesterday and it’s so good. Throughout the year, you’ll see Maryland corn and tomatoes and tons of seasonal vegetables from Moon Valley Farm, Chesapeake Farm to Table and more. And there will be oyster shooters, of course, and great wines and bubbles and craft cocktails for sure. We’ll also have a kids menu with affordable and straightforward items that will encourage families to come. We’re also planning to serve brunch both days on the weekends, most likely starting in November.
What’s the dynamic with you and your True Chesapeake team?
Everyone brings something we need. My focus has always been about bringing the farm and the restaurant together. But everyone plays a role and they’re all important to each other. That’s the bottom line. My title is managing partner and I’m responsible for a little bit of everything. Like, early on, raising the money, working with investors, negotiating deals, it’s a lot. Now, my role is to keep the train running, figuring out where our focus needs to be. Nick Schauman is cruise director and partner. He’s so good at engaging people. He was a bartender at Frazier’s for a long time and he cooked at places like Woodberry Kitchen. Then he went out on his own shucking oysters all over town and eventually opened two locations of The Local Oyster. He will train all of the shuckers on staff. Then, there’s Zack who is executive chef and partner. He has the polished background and the experience opening and running restaurants with (celebrity chef) Michael Mina, of course. He has incredible organizational skills, and knows how to design an efficient kitchen, hire for front and back of house…all of it. Our general manager and beverage director, Chelsea Gregoire, is definitely accomplished in her role (she was named Best Bartender by Baltimore Magazine, an Eater Young Gun, BBJ 40 Under 40 and more). She has an incredibly positive attitude and a genuinely hospitable spirit. This is her calling and she’s really good at it. Our team is balanced – and strong.
How did you decide to get into the oyster business in the first place??
I grew up spending a lot of time around water. My dad is a bay pilot and I have very vivid memories of running along the Magothy River at my grandparents’ house watching him work. When I was a kid, he’d always bring home seafood – crabs, clams, oysters, fish and more. I always hoped I’d end up working in some industry connected to the Chesapeake Bay. I wanted an “out of office” job, which is unique and sometimes hard to find. About three years after college, I learned about farmed oysters. When I first started, I thought I’d market and sell oysters for farmers. I realized pretty quickly that I didn’t want to sell someone else’s product without having the feeling of ownership and control over the quality of the product. So, I decided to do it myself. I moved all of my stuff to Ridge, Maryland along the St. Jerome Creek and I pretty much worked on my own from 2011 to 2015. I hired my two main guys, farm manager, Ethan Davis and nursery manager, Ryan Brown in 2015, then I started to focus on sales and distribution. Working with companies like Whole Foods and Landry’s (out of Houston) is really intricate, complicated. But it’s so important. And having Ethan and Ryan on board lets me focus on that.
What’s the hardest part of oyster farming?
The weather for sure. I mean, you’re getting stung by jellyfish in the oyster cages as you’re pulling them up out of the water. I’d have guys I’d hire literally walk off the job, like, no way am I doing this. Then there’s horsefly season. They’re like birds. Relentless. The physical labor is really hard. My farm manager, Ethan, is a third-generation waterman, and he’s made for this work – his hands are like baseball gloves. And he gets up every morning thriving, fixing things, tinkering. He’s just so good at it, it comes naturally to him.
What do you love about Baltimore?
The fact that we have the traditional and unapologetic stuff here like crabs and beer – it’s simple. Hampden and other neighborhoods are proud to just be how they are – I love that. And there’s so much development happening in the city. It’s an exciting time here. And Baltimore is so different from DC. It’s just Baltimore, no pretensions.
What are some of your favorite restaurants in the city?
Well, I don’t actually get to go out that much. I still spend a lot of time running between the farm and my place in Hampden. So, for me, restaurants uptown tend to be the places I go when I have time. Woodberry Kitchen is at the top of the list. Spike (Gjerde, founder of Woodberry Kitchen) was an early adopter to Maryland farmed oysters. He really gave us encouragement and helped us sell oysters to other local restaurants. I can say with absolute certainty that Chesapeake Bay oyster farming would not be where it is today without him. Also, La Cuchara and The Food Market were early on buyers, too. Chad Gauss has always had Chesapeake Bay oysters on his menu at The Food Market and has been so supportive and I like his restaurants a lot. And, I have to say Petit Louis is probably my personal favorite. When you walk in and are greeted by (maître d’) Patrick Del Valle, you just know you’ll be taken care of — they have definitely set the bar on level of service.
What are you most excited about with the new restaurant?
Having the space filled with people and seeing them enjoying it, and seeing it all come to fruition and giving our team the opportunity to thrive. Also, seeing my sister Kate’s vision come to life will honestly be an emotional moment for sure. Having my parents see their kids do this together will be a great moment, too.
True Chesapeake Oyster Co., in historic Whitehall Mill, 3300 Clipper Mill Road, will open to the public on Wednesday, October 9.
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