Chef Chris Becker is a Baltimore guy. He has worked his way up to the top to become corporate executive chef of the Bagby Restaurant Group, which is no small task. He has cooked in some of Baltimore’s best kitchens, like Linwood’s, Wine Market Bistro and The Brass Elephant. While he was at Wine Market Bistro, he was noted as one of the top “Chefs to Watch” by Baltimore Magazine. And we watched.
The thing that I’ve noticed most about Chris when I see him around town at food events, the farmers market or just out at one of the Bagby Group’s restaurants, is that he just loves what he does. His passion for food and service is clear. This is what he is meant to be doing. I had the chance to catch up with him over coffee at Cunningham’s Cafe in Towson.
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 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. 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? I guess days off are big?
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’re getting ready to have our first child, so that’s going to change things a lot. (Congratulations, again, Chef!)
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 working on planning for our new places. 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. I’m excited to be cooking at the South Beach Food & Wine Festival next month and cooking at the James Beard House last year was amazing.
Which chefs do you admire?
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 makes 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 Jung Kak.
Okay, obligatory. When you cook at home, what do you like to make?
CB: Really simple stuff, really. No over thinking. 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.