When he says his passion for preparing and serving food is “ingrained in my DNA,” Aharon Denrich’s assertion is hard to dispute.
An executive chef, Denrich, 40, is the son of Stuart Denrich of Valu Foods, the now-defunct, multi-generationally-owned independent grocer. Meanwhile, the family of his mother, Leslie Smelkinson, owned and operated Baltimore’s fabled Smelkinson’s Dairy on Lombard Street.
“It’s who I am, it’s something that I’ve always wanted to do,” Denrich says about the food business. “I haven’t felt as passionate about anything else.”
Now, Denrich, who has spent more than two decades working in the food service industry, is using his culinary zeal and knowledge base to help others. He is the executive chef of City Seeds, a commercial kitchen and “culinary social enterprise” with the mission of providing professional culinary training to those with barriers to employment, such as learning disabilities or incarceration histories.
Based in East Baltimore, City Seeds provides catering and grab-and-go dining for local businesses and institutions. It operates out of an 8,500-square-foot kitchen at 1412 N. Wolfe St., where Denrich is responsible for menu planning, purchasing, training, mentoring and staff development.
City Seeds is one of 40 programs operated by Humanim, a nonprofit that provides career training, employment support and a range of human services to assist Baltimoreans with social and economic challenges.
The mission of City Seeds, according to its website, is to grow “the food innovation economy in Baltimore by offering food, resources and education for food entrepreneurs to scale their mission.”
About a year ago, Denrich heard that City Seeds was looking for an executive chef and was intrigued. “[City Seeds] gives [individuals] a positive career path,” he says, “so that once they leave here they have that step up into a commercial bakery or a high-end catering business, restaurant or kitchen.”
Denrich, who lives in Owings Mills with his wife, Lisa, and their four children, says the job “encompasses everything I’ve ever done into one job.”
Growing up in Pikesville and Owings Mills, Denrich recalls watching his parents whip up creative meals and pastries from scratch in the family kitchen. Menus were geared toward Eastern European and Mediterranean influences, and Denrich still uses his grandmother’s recipe for falafel.
When he was just 17, he landed a job as a short-order prep cook and dishwasher at Max’s on Broadway, now Max’s Taphouse, in Fells Point. A year later, Denrich entered the renowned Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and earned his culinary arts associate degree in an “intense” 21 months.
“I wanted to own my own restaurant and have three solid stars from a [major reviewer] by the time I was 23 years old,” he says. “I accomplished that with my first restaurant [Timber Creek Tavern and Restaurant in Kingsville, Md.] in just under a year … three weeks before my 24th birthday. It was insane, because we changed a biker bar into a casual fine dining restaurant.”
About two years later, Denrich and his father opened Mr. Charles Market and Cafe in Owings Mills, featuring such gourmet-to-go items as high-quality deli salads, sandwiches and fine wines.
Long before the concept of pop-up dining existed, Mr. Charles hosted one-night-only plated meals, with Denrich providing cooking instruction and wine tastings. Mr. Charles also became a popular spot for High Holiday and Passover orders.
“I used to make people cry when they had my brisket,” says Denrich, laughing. “[Customers] could buy mine and pass it off as theirs, and it was really funny because a lot of the same customers would come in and say they’re going to so-and-so’s for Rosh Hashanah and then say, ‘Yeah, she has the best brisket.’ And I’m, like, ‘OK, do you like her gefilte fish, too?’”
Regarding the latter, Denrich says, “I would use salmon, cod and rockfish. When we first started out, no one knew who we were, so we were making 20 to 50 pieces [of gefilte fish]. But by the end, it was about 500 to 800, and I was doing it all by myself because I’m nuts! And 50 gallons of my grandmother’s soup – handmade matzoh balls and kreplach. By the end, we were also selling 500 to 800 pounds of brisket for holidays.”
But by 2014, after he and his father sold the market, Denrich says he was burned out and eager to leave the food industry after going “10 years without a day off.” He bounced around a bit professionally until seeing a job listing for City Seeds.
It’s been an extremely good fit, says Deborah Haust, vice president of culinary enterprises at Humanim.
“[Denrich] truly cares about our entire team,” she says. “And that caring is going to get people from where they were when they walked in the door to where they’re going to be when they leave.”
Generally speaking, when investing in employees and trainees, businesses don’t want to lose them. But Denrich says the goal of City Seeds is to help people eventually move on and get other jobs.
“We’re here for them,” he says, “and we want to make sure that they succeed.”
For information, visit cityseeds.org.
Melissa Gerr is a Baltimore-based freelance writer and a producer and podcaster at WYPR Radio.