Charm City Cook: Savoring a Taste of Maryland With Wit & Wisdom Chef Zack Mills
At the risk of sounding like a dork, I love food. And I love Baltimore. It’s my hometown. And my hometown is becoming a food town.
I’ve been writing this blog for a little over three years now. For the first bit of it, I mostly experimented with cooking projects, plowed through cookbooks, learned about ingredients, local farmers and food and beverage producers. I got my first flock of backyard chickens three years ago in an attempt to not only go local for eggs (for my burgeoning baking business and also just in order to eat delicious, fresh eggs) but also to “walk the walk” a bit more.
Then, over the last year or so, I’ve been going out to eat. A lot. Meeting chefs, understanding their approach to food, what makes them excited about their jobs. Working in a kitchen is a hard, often thankless, job. It seems glamorous, but most of the time, it’s not. You have to constantly stretch yourself, be creative, and for many chefs, often staying on top of the business side, too. It’s hard to do it all and remain excited and happy to go to work each day. But…so many of the chefs I’ve met have said that they love what they do so much, that it’s often not like work. They thrive on the hum, the pace, the people, the challenges. And many times, at the end of a busy night, you feel tired, but exhilarated. You did it.
So, when I meet them I just want to let them know they are appreciated. To me, there’s nothing better than having a great meal at a local restaurant and then getting the chance to talk with the chef about the food, how ho or she made it, what inspired him or her to make it. From the low brow to the fancy schmancy, I have learned to appreciate it all. It all matters.
Recently, I had the chance to sit down with Zack Mills, Executive Chef of Wit & Wisdom, one of the restaurants at The Four Seasons in Harbor East. A local Marylander, Chef Mills has created an amazing “Taste of Maryland” menu and I was very excited to be invited in to enjoy it. I was also happy to spend a little time with this talented and very unassuming guy. Chef Mills is from Davidsonville, Maryland and after attending the French Culinary Institute in NYC, worked and staged at various restaurants on the Maryland Eastern Shore and then in Washington, D.C., eventually landing at Bourbon Steak, a Michael Mina Group restaurant. He has also opened several Mina restaurants, including PABU here in Baltimore, The Handle Bar in Jackson Hole, Pub 1842 in Las Vegas. Chef Mills credits Mina Group veteran chefs Adam Sobel and Dave Varley with helping to refine his food. As well, he says that Chef Andrew Evans helped get him started and taught him so much early on.
Local Baltimore chefs are collaborating pretty often, on charity events, industry nights and co-hosting pop-up dinners. Many chefs keep in touch with each other, are connected via social media and eat at each other’s restaurants, hang out together, and more. They guest chef, they stage, they share, they cross-promote – it’s so smart. The chefs who don’t work collaboratively are really missing out. Within the Mina Group, the chefs also collaborate often and many are great friends. Chef Mills lit up with I asked about working with Chef Mina and Patric Yumul, Mina Group President. It was Chef Mina who originally suggested that Chef Mills create a Maryland-centric menu, featuring meat, seafood, vegetables all produced locally, which makes perfect sense since the area is filled with such amazing food producers. And while farm-to-table is no longer a new concept, the folks at Wit & Wisdom are doing it so well and Zack has very close, long-term relationships with many local farmers and food producers. That is so important.
I often ask chefs about where they like to eat on their day off. Chef Mills rattled off lots of places including Birrtoteca, Ouzo Bay and Shoo-fly to name a few. He also loves to do Sunday dinners with his family in Davidsonville and enjoys having his family come into the restaurant, as well. When he was first hired as executive chef at Wit & Wisdom, his dad decided to surprise him and come for dinner. He made reservations under a different name and then when they came in and were seated…SURPRISE, your parents are in your dining room! Chef Mills said he asked his dad not to do that again…
And now, that Taste of Maryland menu. We started off with an Eastern Sparkle – kumquat coriander syrup with brut – and an amuse-bouche of fried oyster over braised swiss chard. Honestly, that oyster really set the tone for the meal…we knew it was going to be amazing.
ATLANTIC DAY BOAT SCALLOP CRUDO
pomegranate, blood orange, puffed tapioca
LAMILL COFFEE-BRAISED PORK BELLY
poached egg , peperonata, crispy pig ears
MARYLAND BLUE CRAB CAKE
apple-parsnip purée, braised baby fennel, roasted wild mushrooms
MEADOW VIEW FARM LAMB LOIN
curried lentils, apple chips, confit baby carrots and turnips
black truffle, extra virgin olive oil, goat cheese
The five- course Taste of Maryland menu is $69 per guest, with the (very, very nicely paired) beverage option for an additional $30. (Thank you, Julie!)
After dinner, we sat at the bar and visited with lead bartender, Aaron Joseph and he made us a “Holiday Flip” – Basil Hayden’s bourbon, St. Elizabeth allspice dram, cane syrup, whole egg. HOLY schmoly. It was delicious.
Thank you, Zack for the interview, the lovely meal and for “going local,” hon.
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