John Shields

Chef, Gertrude's Restaurant in Baltimore, Maryland

By Yasmin Radbod

My sister's bridal shower was held at Gertrude's Restaurant, located at the Baltimore Museum of Art in Baltimore, Maryland. I had just returned from being abroad for a year, hungry for good vegan food, and assumed that the bridal shower would probably have few vegan options. I was quickly proved wrong, however, when the waitress informed me that the chef had prepared a complete three-course vegan option, available upon request. I dined on a delicious tart, sorbet, and other tasty delights served in a beautiful arrangement. I was very impressed and my sister put me in contact with the chef, John Shields. On the Gertrude's website, Shields is listed as the "chief cook and bottle washer," although he does much more than that! I had the wonderful pleasure of interviewing Mr. Shields for several hours, learning about his background as a chef, his values, and what drew him closer to veganism.

John Shields grew up near the current location of Gertrude's, and so he has seen the area change over several years and knows the neighborhood very well. In fact, his grandmother's name was Gertie; she was a great cook and cooked for several events at the nearby church when John was a child. She prepared businessmen's lunches in the 1960s and made money through these lunches. As a child, Shields helped his grandmother in the kitchen, and he always loved the community, excitement, rush, and instant gratification of cooking delicious food for people and seeing them enjoy eating it. "Grandma was the anchor of our whole family and I was the oldest grandson. She doted on me a bit," he said.

All markets were originally run by farmers themselves. Furthermore, as Mr. Shields informed me, Baltimore's farmer's market system was the first in the country to have an organized market system. Some of his relatives had food stalls and small gardens. Gertie made jam, preserves, and sauerkraut. She grew everything at her little duplex during World War II and the food she grew herself was almost all she ate. John said it was good to grow up in that model of connectedness. "We would start talking about asparagus and that gave you the anticipation for something coming in the next season, then we ate it in season and then it was gone; same with strawberries — a quick turnaround. [I loved the] instant gratification of cooking and delayed gratification of waiting for crops and seasons to change."

Gertie was German, and although Germanic food is heavier on animal protein, cheeses and such, she cooked lots of vegetable dishes that were fresh and locally produced, if not from her own garden, including potato salad that was sweet and sour with vinegar and sugar, coleslaw, macaroni salad, corn on the cob, baked beans, and more. She would cook hamburgers occasionally, but back then hamburgers were much thinner and meat was considered something that rich people ate. Shields also admitted that when he and his immediate family moved to the suburbs they all thought that Gertie was poor and behind the times because she did not eat canned and packaged food that was becoming popular! He thought it was interesting; even as a child he understood that Gertie's food tasted better despite being cheaper. "As a kid I was always more interested in vegetables with the exception of bacon. Between being German and Irish, bacon and eggs were just what we ate. Gertie, though, would make delicious braised cabbage and potato dumplings and stewed tomatoes."

Shields had been living in California after beginning his career as a chef, and in the '90s opened Gertie's Chesapeake Bay in Berkeley. He had a network of restaurants that he was involved with for supporting local markets. "At the time," John explained, "Berkeley was known as a gourmet ghetto and was leading a renewed interest or renaissance in regional American cooking. It was hugely successful and I wrote the first Chesapeake Bay cookbook 25 years ago; it was the first book published on that region." John was going back and forth between the Chesapeake and west coast and decided to move back to Baltimore in 1998. He was interested in opening a new restaurant but needed the right location. He did not want his restaurant to be in a tourist area per se, like the Baltimore Inner Harbor, but wanted a special space. He heard a space attached to the Baltimore Museum of Art was for sale and went with it.

As he puts it, this location "has some visibility but is off the beaten path."

John is not one hundred percent vegan, but "veganesque." He explained that, "In this business I have to try things. When I go abroad, I'm very interested in aquaculture from an environmental aspect. If I wasn't in this business, I would eat a totally vegan diet. About 3% of my intake is not vegan. I have been able to incorporate a vegan philosophy into my career and lifestyle and have studied diets from everywhere and am interested in macrobiotics as well...because it just makes sense to me, especially since it is based on supporting your locality."

Shields elaborated on the fact that as the head chef at Gertrude's, he feels he has to taste the non-veggie dishes on his menu and even develop most of those dishes. So, to him, trying the food is essential to make sure it tastes the way he envisioned. John has added many veggie options to Gertrude's menu, including a Middle Eastern Platter, Vegetarian Chili, O'Malley's Powerhouse, Johnny's Hummus Wrap, Yolanda's Black Bean Burger, I Can't Believe It's Not Crab, Moroccan Chickpea Couscous, Southeast Asian Vegetable Curry, and Blueberry Cobbler with Vegan Ice Cream.

John became seriously interested in veganism three years ago when he was visiting Ireland and experienced a heart attack because his cholesterol had gone up so rapidly during his one-month stay there, mainly due to eating a lot of dairy, lamb, and bacon. He knew he had to change his diet when he came home. "It puts you in a quandary as a chef [eating vegan and running a restaurant that is not all vegan] and I've thought about leaving the food business because I feel like I have to constantly compromise. It's harmful to our community [to eat animal products]. It's harmful to ourselves. The best I can do at this point is to have options on my menu for those who want to try [plant-based foods] and other choices for an omnivore diet. The portions are not so big — with increased portions of grains and vegetables and smaller portions of animal protein. I try to look at it as maybe I can help educate [many different types of people about a plant based diet]...It's weird to be a chef that people know and I don't eat meat. I try attraction rather than promotion [of veganism]. When someone you love does something new [like become vegan], others have to take a look at it. Most people get the concept of not wanting to harm creatures. There's so much to eat [that is vegan]! Look at a traditional Thanksgiving meal! Look at Gertie's Fourth of July! You don't have to hurt something to live."

Mr. Shields is currently working on a new, updated cookbook on Chesapeake Bay cooking that is focused on eating plant-based, environmentally friendly, and locally-produced foods that are healthy and delicious. He plans for it to be released in spring 2017. John was sweet enough to share these recipes with me. Bon appetit!

I Can't Believe It's Not Crab (Mock Crab Cakes)

(Serves 4)

  • 2 cups coarsely grated zucchini (let drain in a colander for 30 minutes)
  • 1 cup bread crumbs, plus additional for coating
  • 1 Tablespoon Ener-G Egg Replacer mixed well with 4
  • Tablespoons warm water
  • 1 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 Tablespoon vegan mayonnaise
  • Juice of ½ lemon
  • ¼ cup fresh parsley
  • 2 Tablespoons vegetable oil for frying

Mix the zucchini and bread crumbs together in a bowl. In another bowl, mix together the egg replacer, Old Bay, mustard, vegan mayonnaise, lemon juice, and parsley. Beat well. Combine both mixtures and fold together well. Form into cakes, dust in bread crumbs, and pan fry in hot oil until well browned on both sides. Drain briefly on paper towels and serve hot.

Total calories per serving: 205 Fat: 10 grams
Carbohydrates: 25 grams Protein: 5 grams
Sodium: 268 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

Moroccan-Style Chickpeas & Farmers' Market Veggies

(Serves 4)

Chermoula Sauce

  • 2 large ripe tomatoes, peeled, cored and seeded
  • ½ cup Kalamata olives, pitted
  • ⅔ cup chopped cilantro
  • 2 Tablespoons minced garlic
  • Zest of 1 lemon and juice of 2 lemons
  • 1 Tablespoon sweet paprika
  • ½ teaspoon salt, or to taste
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 4 dashes Tabasco sauce (optional)
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil

Combine all the sauce ingredients in a blender and process until smooth and creamy. Set aside.

Farmers' Market Veggies

  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, peeled and cut into slices (about ½-inch)
  • 1 small red bell pepper, seeded and cut into ½-inch strips
  • 1 small yellow bell pepper, seeded and cut into ½-inch strips
  • 2 Tablespoons chopped garlic
  • 1 cup diced mushrooms
  • 1 zucchini, halved and cut into ½-inch slices
  • 1 yellow squash, halved and cut into ½-inch slices
  • One 15-ounce can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • ½ cup toasted sliced almonds, for garnish
  • 2 Tablespoons chopped cilantro, for garnish

Heat the olive oil in large sauté pan. Add the onion, bell peppers, and garlic. Sauté over medium heat for about 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook for another 5 minutes. Add the zucchini, yellow squash, and chickpeas and continue cooking for about 10 minutes. Add the Chermoula Sauce and simmer for 5 minutes longer. Season with the salt and pepper. Divide the mixture onto plates and garnish with almonds and cilantro.

Total calories per serving: 442 Fat: 29 grams
Carbohydrates: 39 grams Protein: 13 grams
Sodium: 818 milligrams Fiber: 12 grams

Yasmin Radbod is a former Vegetarian Resource Group intern and a Fulbright recipient.