Years ago, I interviewed Chef Chris Scanga on a Tuesday morning in an empty dining room at Petit Louis. Sitting amidst stacks of chairs felt so weird and special at the same time. As I sat there, I thought, wow — who gets to do this? (Be cool, Ame, be cool.) That was 2015.
We talked for an hour that day, he was his reserved self. He is confident but pretty quiet about it. He works really, really hard. He had been Executive Chef at Louis (or Louie, as I call it) for a year or two at that point, and I had really only been to the restaurant for work lunches. I was the Alumni Director at Friends School for 10 years and it was my spot for a special place to take an alum or volunteer for a nice lunch. Older Friends alumni would often tell me wonderful stories about going to Morgan & Millard (aka “The Morg”) back in the day. It’s so funny to think about how places change through the years — and how back then, I was intimidated to go to Petit Louis for dinner. Now, it is absolutely my favorite place for dinner. It’s warm and comfortable, but feels special. I like that mix. Foreman Wolf is so good at what they do. They make their work look effortless. And, something that is important to note is that their handling of COVID rules and keeping guests safe has been incredible from my view as a diner. They took it very seriously and I think a lot of people noticed that and wanted to support them. I joked with Petit Louis Maître D’ Patrick Del Valle, “I want to sit in that parking lot forever, my friend.”
So, years later here I am interviewing Scanga (as many call him) again. We talked on the phone in April and then about a month later, he walked me through The Milton Inn space, mid-redo. That is my most favorite thing, seeing a project in progress. Then this summer, we reconnected again for one more layer of questions. This was a longer process than I’ve ever really done, but it was good to talk and then sit on the conversation and think through it a bit. I mean, it’s The Milton Inn. And it’s being run by people I really like. Baltimore is very excited about this project. The day I met Scanga at the restaurant, someone pulled over to ask me when it was opening. My answer: “Summer.” Seemed like a good guess. Apparently people stopped by all the time asking that same question during construction. Bated breath.
The Milton Inn is unlike any Foreman Wolf project before it. It’s the first time they have partnered with an employee on a restaurant. The partners in this venture are Tony Foreman, Chef Cindy Wolf and Chef Scanga. That, in itself, is huge. Then, it’s the first restaurant where they own the building they are in. It’s their first restaurant in Baltimore County. And it’s not just a restaurant. It’s an iconic restaurant. It’s The Milton Inn and there is pressure and there are expectations. Oh, and buying a 281-year old building when you’re knee deep in a pandemic and working so hard to keep all of your six other places running, taking care of your employees, your families. I cannot even imagine what that feels like.
For so many, the old Milton Inn was a special occasion place. They hosted many, many proposals, weddings, anniversaries and the list goes on and on. And, for some who live out near the restaurant, it was their version of how I feel about Petit Louis: you can go on a Tuesday for a quick bite or make it a super special night for your birthday. The old Milton Inn was just not a place I went very much. I’m not really a traditionalist or a fine dining person, my budget didn’t always allow it and for the way I eat, the food was too heavy. But now with Foreman Wolf taking over, I think a lot of people — like me, living in the city and fans of Charleston, Cinghiale, etc — will go, happily. It will be a destination. And, how nice that people who live in the area have a really great restaurant close to home now. Knowing that Scanga will be running the show, I know it will be approachable, consistently good and best of all, it will be special without feeling formal. That Foreman Wolf touch. It’s everything.
A few weeks ago, I attended a preview dinner at the restaurant. There were a few sort of “friends and family” nights for the front and back of the house to get some practice in. We were asked to give honest feedback on things that went well and things that didn’t. I had very little criticism, really very minor things. It was so smooth. My friend Kerry and I were giddy on the way in and giddy on the way out (see pic below). It was one of the best nights I’ve had in a very long time. I absolutely could not stop smiling. I’m ready to go back and sit at the bar and have a cocktail, frites and maybe that incredible steak tartare, my favorite dish of the night. Guinea fowl was a very close second. Here is the menu.
Here is my conversation with Scanga. I hope you enjoy it. The questions toward the end are not my usual chef interview questions…I decided to mix it up here.
What are you most excited about with this project?
CS: At Petit Louis, I inherited a lot. With The Milton Inn, it’s a fresh start, a clean slate. I have control over the kitchen and how everything will flow. I love learning new things and this has definitely been that. I mean, everything from the ins and outs of commercial real estate to the challenge of such an historic building, it’s all new. I’ve written a few business plans, but seeing every step of the project from the very start, that has been so great. Watching Tony work first-hand on the purchase was amazing. Yes, the whole thing was scary at times, opening a restaurant in the middle of a global pandemic, that’s huge. It’s pretty courageous to take something like this on. Not knowing what will happen next is so weird — and scary.
Can you describe the vibe/feel of the restaurant?
CS: Let’s just say, if you like Petit Louis you will like how The Milton Inn feels. It’ll be a place where you can celebrate a special occasion, but also a nice weeknight dinner. We want it to be comfortable, not stuffy at all. This is not fine dining. We wanted it to feel rustic and elegant at the same time. And, as we are just coming out of the pandemic, we want a broad range of people to be able to come here. We don’t want to price people out. At the same time, you can buy a really nice bottle of wine if you’d like.
Is the space very different?
CS: The layout is similar, but everything about the physical space is updated. It’ll look different, yes. [Katie Destafano designed the space.] We kept the bar and you can have a full dinner sitting there if you want. Also, we wanted the indoor and outdoor spaces to feel equally special and seamless. During COVID, we’ve definitely had a lot of practice in making the outdoor dining experience feel special at our restaurants.
Man, this business is hard. What keeps you engaged and motivated?
CS: I have a lot of get up and go. I am excited to get to work. I’m generally at work from 8:00am to 11:00pm. People say that’s crazy. But I have always had ownership on my mind. And that’s worth the work. I try to go home in between service and see my kids after school. We do homework, maybe some chores around the house and sometimes just hang out. My wife Carmen is a server at Charleston, so we’re both in the industry. We understand the life.
What do you love about what you do?
CS: I like making people happy. Seeing plates go out, making someone’s day. I like that I can make a positive impact on someone even in a small way. A dining experience is so much more than just eating for sustenance.
What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not cooking?
CS: Any time I get away from the kitchen, I try to spend time with my wife and two sons. They are all incredible. Playing with my boys or enjoying a nice dinner out or at home with my wife are my favorite things to do when not cooking at the restaurant.
If you had to listen to one album on loop, for the rest of your life, what would it be?
CS: I don’t think there is an album in existence that wouldn’t be absolute torture to listen to on loop for the rest of my life. I enjoy the music of the Grateful Dead, but a constant 24/7 loop of the same album? That is cruel and unusual. I think by the second week I’d be ready to pack it in…which reminds me, Ready to Die (Notorious B.I.G.) is a pretty solid album.
What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar?
CS: Grower Champagne
In a dive bar?
CS: Natty Boh or Vodka & Soda
Last text I sent:
CS: “Working on it. Give me 15 mins.”
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
CS: I could answer this in a few ways. The first thing that I think of is watching my sons discover and learn about things for the first time that excite/interest/surprise them. Another sort of perfectly happy moment is driving on an empty road on a beautiful day with the windows down. I got to do a lot of that last Spring when I was driving to work, but a lot of the country was not. It was a welcomed bit of freedom during a time when everyone was feeling pretty cooped up.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
CS: Other than raising two incredibly thoughtful, kind boys, my greatest achievement I suppose is the current venture that I am involved in with Milton. Just like every kid that picks up a guitar dreams of being a rock star, almost every kid that goes to culinary school dreams of restaurant ownership. I am very grateful to have such wonderful mentors, and now business partners in Tony and Chef Wolf that helped make this dream come true.
What is your most treasured possession?
CS: When my grandfather passed away, I inherited a beautiful model ship that was built by hand by my grandmother’s father. The detail is so intricate and amazing. It is about 3.5” long and with the mast and sails about 2.5” high, and is built perfectly to scale. It is built so well in fact, that it is supposedly sea worthy, if you had a tiny crew to man it.
My personal motto/mantra:
CS: Don’t quit, don’t die. There’s a lot that goes into that — self improvement, self care, eating well, exercise, staying motivated, working sustainably, etc. But the easy way to remind myself of all those things is just to tell myself, don’t quit, don’t die. When I was a kid, before I would go out anywhere with friends, my dad would always tell me, “Don’t be a dick.” That has stayed with me and is also a recurring mantra of mine. [Mine, too, Chef.]