The Truth In The Art with Chef Zack Mills of True Chesapeake Oyster Company
S9:E53

The Truth In The Art with Chef Zack Mills of True Chesapeake Oyster Company

Rob Lee:

Welcome to the Truth in His Art. I am your host, Rob Lee. Thank you for joining me for my conversations bridging arts, culture, and community. Today, I've got a special, special guest making his second appearance just in time for culinary arts month. He is the cofounder of a restaurant group born of an oyster farm.

Rob Lee:

With his partners, Nick and Patrick, they created True Chester Peak Oyster Co, Maryland's 1st Oyster Farm with a Fine Dining Restaurant in Baltimore. Please welcome chef Zach Mills. Welcome to the podcast.

Zach Mills:

Thanks for having me back, man. It's really good to see it.

Rob Lee:

Good to see you as well. I mean, it's, you know, I think I like I've been to, you know, the restaurant more times. I've had more of your oysters, right, than any other place. And here's here's the thing. Here's the thing.

Rob Lee:

I gotta I gotta shout out another chef, a friend of ours, Chris, you know, Amendola or whatever. Right? Yep. He had to teach me how to eat an oyster.

Zach Mills:

Did he really?

Rob Lee:

Yes, he did.

Zach Mills:

Okay. Alright.

Rob Lee:

He would we were at the bar, and I was, like, I don't know how to do this. He was, like, alright. This is how you do it. Just really quick demo and I was like, you know what? I like chefs.

Rob Lee:

It's like I learned something today, so now I go to your place with this this Amendola knowledge. It's like, yeah. At least knock this back real quick.

Zach Mills:

Awesome. Well, that you know, that's that's kind of part of what our job is. Right? Not only are we supposed to feed people, but we should be, you know, the first ones in line to help people whether it's, you know, with a recipe that people are struggling with or, you know, if they haven't eaten oyster or haven't chopped an oyster or anything else. You don't know.

Zach Mills:

We are we are we are, we are educators, on top of kind of everything else that we do.

Rob Lee:

And it is everything else that you guys do. So, you know, it's it's been about 3 years since we last talked with Todd.

Zach Mills:

Yeah. It was like late middish pandemic Dyna craziness.

Rob Lee:

Yes. So, so before we get into, like, the deeper questions, you know, I do this a little different in the intro. I wanna give you the space to introduce yourself, and, you know, share 1 of your favorite food memories.

Zach Mills:

Cool. Well, my name's Zach Mills, the chef and 1 of the owners of True Chesapeake Oyster Company. And fondest food memories. Man, there's just so many. I'm lucky enough that I grew up in a very food centric family.

Zach Mills:

So, just holidays with just massive I mean, my my dad's 1 of 8, and then my mom is 1 of 4. So, I mean, just family everywhere all the time, food, cooking all the time. I'm fortunate enough that my, my grandmother on my father's side is first generation, Italian American. And, my fondest memories are are are, like, making fresh pasta when I was little and could still kinda, like, peer above the counter. And and she was 1 of those ones, like, she wouldn't spoon you if you if you had got in there and, you know, tried to grab something early.

Zach Mills:

So, but just, like, my memories of like, fresh food cooking, throughout my childhood and just surrounded by just loving family and and people talking about food, early on in my life really kind of, like, set the tone for for for what ended up becoming my career.

Rob Lee:

It's wonderful. It's, it's wonderful to be around sort of, like, you know, your family members, and you have these sort of memories that are there. And, you know, III think now, obviously, I'm sure you've had these conversations over the last few years with, you know, the bear being a TV show and all of that stuff, and I think of the the spoon episode, you know, to who throws the fork or what have you, I think of that, the holiday episode, and it clicks so well and it captures all of those family. There's like 1 person's really in there getting it, making everything, and then everyone else is doing all of their thousand things, and, you know, when I think of food, when I think of chefs, you know, it's not a solo journey, you know, it's definitely it's a it's a family component. And there was there was a fork in the road, like, there's been many as far as what creative thing I was gonna do, what artistic thing I was gonna do.

Rob Lee:

And chef was in there briefly. I I get joked about, like, there's a few folks around it, like, Rob's a food snob, so don't don't have acid. He he's a purist.

Zach Mills:

That's awesome. But you're absolutely right. It's just, you know, and it's it it's 1 of those things that it takes a village, just to kind of bring you up in this industry, not only from family support, but then, you know, who you came up through from from the people that taught you how to do this. And and, and, yeah, it starts early, and it's it's 1 of those things. And and, yeah, now you being in my restaurant, it's always 1 of those things.

Zach Mills:

I'm like, shit. I hope it likes everything. That's great. That's great. Yeah.

Zach Mills:

Yep. It's like it's like people who report on on on food and no food as well as, like, industry folk. Those are the people that, like, when they come into the restaurant, I sweat a little extra because I'm like, god. I hope everything's right. Like, I'm going around.

Zach Mills:

I'm, like, double checking. I'm tasting everything. I'm like, okay. I think we're good here. But it's definitely 1 of those things, like, especially anytime, you know, you are yet, you know, the the any good reporter who's done their homework or, yeah, just to chefs and other people, I just I get so extra nervous because it's like you're cooking for the people who know, and you're cooking for the people who care.

Zach Mills:

And and those are the people that you really, like it's proud to have them in in the restaurant. So

Rob Lee:

It it it's wonderful. It's it's it's so true, and I I try whenever I go to these places because of doing this and just having food opinions, and I really like the things that I like. And, you know, it's 1 of those things where I don't wanna I don't I don't I'm not I'm not gonna make a fuss. I don't need my ass kissed or anything along those lines, but it's just like, okay, I'm I'm here and I wanna support and, you know, I'm the master of I will go to a place that only does liquor and I'll come out with like a $200, $300 bill and just like, look man. I'm just trying this on the menu.

Rob Lee:

That's just what it is.

Zach Mills:

Absolutely. 100%. No. If I go to a place, I'm that guy who's like, alright. How do I pull off ordering damn near everything on this menu, even if it's, like, you know, me and 2 other people?

Zach Mills:

It's like, alright. We're we're we're going for it. Like, let's just you know, let's let's let's let's really give it a go here.

Rob Lee:

100%. So in in this this time, you know, over the last, you know, number of years, what have you, as you you mentioned earlier, This was 1 of the pandemic pods, if you will, you know, with episodes that we did. And I I know that the sort of, like, food and the service industry, that's been, you know, it's been an interesting, you know, 5 years for you all. So could you share some of the more recent developments or sort of how how things are going? Could you just give us sort of, like, what is the last 3 to 4 years been like for True Chesapeake?

Zach Mills:

Mayhem, if I had just sum it up in 1 word. You know, it was 1 of those things that we opened at such a crazy time being 4 months before everything really hit the fan. So to go from the first 2 and a half, 3 years of of opening this restaurant and just trying to survive and just doing whatever we can to, like, make it happen, not lose money hand over fist, and then to kind of you know, restaurants are still digging out to this day. There's no question about it. You know?

Zach Mills:

You know, the government was nice enough to do that restaurant revitalization thing, but I think, like, less than 20% of restaurants actually got it, and we did not. So we had to keep grinding. And, you know, to still 1st and foremost, to still be here and know that my restaurant will turn 5 years old in October is 1 of those things that, like, my partner, Seth, and I, like, really like, we give each other a hug every now and then. They're like, holy crap. We're still here.

Zach Mills:

So, and to start to see the light at the end of the tunnel as far as, you know, it seems to be coming around finally. And I think this year has been the year so far that at least from a business standpoint, you know, this April, May, June is always a huge 3 months in the restaurant industry because you've got your holidays like your Mother's Day and your Father's Day, but you've got your graduations, college, high school, all that stuff, Greekness. This was the 1st year that it kinda felt like it used to. Yeah. And, really, like, people are coming out in droves and and and celebrating and doing all the things.

Zach Mills:

And that's really just a really cool feeling to, like, be able to kind of feel the you know, most chefs know their flow, and I've been doing this for for a bunch of years before come before opening this restaurant. So and I've been doing it in Baltimore. So I kind of knew, alright. You know, come April 1, put our heads down. Get through to 4th July.

Zach Mills:

Then we'll slow down a little bit. We'll, you know, get the summer menu out. We'll have some fun, And then, you know, gear up until we get into the fall and then, you know, go nuts again, November, December, holiday parties, all that stuff. And that cycle was so off for so many years because, like, all of a sudden, summer was the busiest month because, like, people were outside and they didn't wanna eat inside and this and that. So, it's it's nice to kind of feel like we've got the flow again and just to see more guests in the restaurant and everything else.

Zach Mills:

So, you know, we're just blessed and thankful that, we're still here cooking food and making drinks and and and being in the hospitality industry for all these people. Hospitality industry for all these people.

Rob Lee:

Yeah. And,

Zach Mills:

we're thankful we got through it because a lot of, like, dear friends did not. And, you know, it's 1 of those things. Like, it wasn't for lack of talent. It wasn't for lack of effort. It wasn't for anything.

Zach Mills:

It was just this restaurant industry on the best of times is a stupid way to make money. It's just it is. It's and most of us know it, like, because we're all crazy people. We we we do it with this because we love it. But, you know, it never makes an owner a ton of money, especially if you're a 1 off little restaurant like myself.

Zach Mills:

And it's and it's always like these margins of 2, 3 percentage points here and there that you gotta move around to make you truly profitable. So, it it the fact that we're still here, we're just, yeah, we're just thankful. And, and and it it's it's rejuvenating to see kind of the industry coming back. And, I I was with our our our friend, Chris, a couple times doing charity events in the last couple months, and and we just kind of had these, you know, grins on our face. Like, alright.

Zach Mills:

We're we're doing it. Like, we're we're back to this. We're exhausted all the time. We're doing, you know, 3 charity events next week. We're doing a private dinner this.

Zach Mills:

We're doing that. You know, how's this? How's that? You know, getting back at that and talking shop with everybody. It's, you know, it it's it's a nice time to be be here.

Zach Mills:

It's it's exhausting, all the time, and it's just so much help more helpful when you look out to a dive full dining room with people, like, hanging out and eat your food. It's still 1 of those things to this day that, like, I almost have to pinch myself a little bit. I'm like, people come here to eat this? III put this on a plate. You wanna eat it?

Zach Mills:

That's pretty cool. So yeah. So it's that's that's kind of, like I think that sums up the last couple years of my life is just, you know, grinding and getting through it and, you know, starting to see that light that's like, okay. We we we're here. We're making it.

Zach Mills:

We're okay. And, you know, I can keep cooking in this beautiful place. And, you know, that that's something that, you know, we're we're every chef should be thankful for every day we're in a restaurant because the restaurant industry is such a finicky situation that, you know, every day I get to walk into a place I call my own and cook my own food. But I'm I'm just I'm blessed, and I'm I'm always gonna be thankful for that.

Rob Lee:

That's that's wonderful. I'm glad to hear that, because, you know, I got I got to use places. I like I like the places, and, you know, for for me, I'm I'm alright at cooking, actually. I have some some food going right now as we were talking. I got a little dinner going, a little meal prep going.

Rob Lee:

And, and, you know, when when I find a place that, you know, such as your place, such as many places that are in Baltimore, because, you know, Baltimore is 1 of those like sort of food cities out that get us enough credit for being a food city. 100%. And, you know, when I find a place that I like and it's not like I go here for this specific plate, specific item or specific meal, it's just like, oh, I can find something new that I like. I now have almost a passport to try different things. So it's like I have my default thing.

Rob Lee:

If all else fails, this is here, but then it's like, okay, I trust the chef, I trust how they go about their stuff, I trust sort of the the the culinary language there, the ethos, and I'm gonna try this other thing. And it's it's that that trust there, and that's the thing that I get from you and I get from Amendola. So I I really I really dig that, and I'm glad to see that there's that and hear that there's that light at the tunnel at the end of the tunnel. So so so does the next question. You know, I wanna hear a bit about, like, ingredients.

Rob Lee:

Right? Like, you know, True Trust being known for that commitment to the the local stuff. Well, I remember it was Snakeheads back, you know, a couple years back or have you. Remember that's the thing? 100%.

Rob Lee:

So how how does that that sort of process go, whether it be sort of partnerships, whether it be sort of like who are you gonna, like, get who are the suppliers? Who are the farmers? What's the process of, like, sourcing those those high quality ingredients?

Zach Mills:

Yeah. So it's it's 1 of those things that each season where I I think chefs such as myself and Chris and a lot of others in this town are kind of stalking the local farm availability lists, first and foremost. So and and we're always in constant communication with them. Like, what's next? You know, how many weeks out on this?

Zach Mills:

You know, like, right now, we're getting heads up that tomato season starting early, which is, like, the greatest thing to me ever because I I think an out of season tomato is a travesty against nature. But an in season, Maryland tomato is 1 of the greatest eggs that could grow in the ground. So that's how it starts for sure. And we we know, the 1 the the ones of us who have been in the industry long enough, you know, we've got kind of a seasonal ticker in our head, and we're like, alright. Well, we're, you know, we're hitting this day.

Zach Mills:

So alright. So, you know, ramp should be popping up right about now. We'll probably have, you know, a week or 2 window for that and, you know, make sure we buy all those up and and because before they go away. And, but, yeah, it's really just checking the lists, talking to our local farmers, figuring out what's gonna be available. There is kind of a 1, group on the West Coast that gets product in a little early, so I can kind of, like, cheat and, get my recipe testing done at least Sure.

Zach Mills:

Before the stuff kind of pops up through the local farms and everything else. But, you know, when it comes down to it, it's it's always for me, it's always produce driven, the menu. Regardless of being a seafood centric restaurant, regardless of the fact that we have our own oyster farm. For me, it's just what what produce is coming out and what's speaking to me right now, and what can I put together that's neat, different, or something that somebody hasn't had before? Or, you know, what's a classic combination of of of of things that I can put together in a different way and make it look pretty on a plate but still, you know, taste delicious?

Zach Mills:

And so it's really a combination of all those things. And usually with me, it always starts with the produce, and I sit there and just write down, you know, in a notebook, like, alright. Here's what I wanna work with in the next month, 2 months of my life. Here's produce that I wanna work with. Now where does it fit into the menu?

Zach Mills:

And what have what did I not highlight last year as much as I want to this year? And you know? Because there there's especially when you get into spring, which is such a fleeting time in this in this state that, you know, my spring menu came out, shoot, like a month ago, and summer menu is written now. And I've got about 3 weeks until that's gotta hit. So it's such a sprint through this time period that I really just need to, like, keep writing.

Zach Mills:

And, that's what I do. And I literally sit there. And and the thing is I'm writing dishes 1 to 2 seasons out ahead of time, and then I'll kind of tweak them based on what what produce is coming in, what what farmers are talking about, anything they're excited about, anything different that people haven't been using, which is kind of few and far between these days, but it does happen. And, yeah, it's really just, it's always gonna be what is growing in Maryland is always gonna kind of, like, charge my, creative, brain and make me kind of wanna move forward.

Rob Lee:

What thank you. And and I I have a follow-up question around menus. I'm I'm definitely gonna return to that after after this question because I you you mentioned something about sort of the III took it as the the testing component, right, of, like, alright, what's gonna make it? Tell me about that process. I'm very curious about that.

Rob Lee:

Is it 1 of those things where it's like, look, I've had a lot of ramps. Is this gonna finally make the menu? What are we doing here? The ramps aren't right, aren't quite right. Tell me about that process and when you're developing what ultimately is gonna get me on the menu or what have you.

Zach Mills:

Yeah. So I probably write twice as many dishes as ever gets a menu in a season. Sure. And it's really just, from that component, it's really just things that pop into my head. And I it's hard to explain when because, I mean, it it could be something as stupid as me, like, watching a nature show or something like that, and then all of a sudden, I just see, like, a color scheme or this or that, and that kinda shocks my brain.

Zach Mills:

But, or, you know, watching cooking shows. I'm still 1 of those nerds that, like, I watch top chef.

Rob Lee:

Oh, yeah.

Zach Mills:

My 1 of my mentors has been on Tournament of Champions for 2 years running. So I'm, like, I'm watching the TV and, like, throwing things at it. Like, I'm watching a football game when I'm watching him on there. But, like, I'm there we're fortunate enough these days that there's just there's a lot of cool, media out there both in in the social media world or on TV or podcast such as yourself, where people are talking about food. And that's just 1 of those cool things that, like, it can it it makes it it makes my job almost a little easier because, like, I'll hear about a technique.

Zach Mills:

It'll be like, gotta try that or just, you know, see something, do something neat or goofy on a quick fire on on, on Top Chef or something like that where I'm like, and then I'll pull my phone up and get my Evernote out. It happened to be like, alright. This, this, and this. And, so then when it comes to testing, it's like you've got all these great ideas. And I always have a little section of nobody will order this.

Zach Mills:

And and that's like the chefy section. So, like, I always get, like, I always have a list of things where I'm like, this would be cool. I don't think anyone's gonna order it, but I gotta get it out of my head. So, like, that's when the testing starts and I'll start, you know, tasting it or give it to my I'm fortunate enough that my my business partner, Patrick, who runs the business as well as the front helps me run the front of house. He's got, like, that pallet that, like, he doesn't like weird stuff.

Zach Mills:

So I'm always like, try this. He's like, what's in it? I'm like, it doesn't matter. Just just eat it, and you let me know what you're thinking. And that's kind of a nice way to, like, test things and be like, yo.

Zach Mills:

Okay. We can give this a go or this won't work or Yeah. And and, you know, I yeah. There's things in my head that I think I think are gonna turn out awesome, and then I played them like, wow. That doesn't work at all.

Zach Mills:

Like, I mean, I've I've definitely had dishes where, like, super technical and, like, oh, we're gonna Napoleon style this and it's gonna go straight up and then you try to do it. It's, like, hanging out like this and or like just like, you know, the consistency of a soup or a sauce or, a puree or just kind of how the plate looks visually compared to what it was in my head. And there's definitely things that never hit the menu simply because I tested it, and I'm like, oh, that's that just doesn't work. It just, like, it didn't work. Like, that this isn't good.

Zach Mills:

And, but then there's other things where I'm like, this probably won't work, and then I put it on a plate. Like, right now, I've got a, it's probably the last week of it, but I've got a a stinging nettle and ramp soup.

Rob Lee:

Yeah.

Zach Mills:

So I wanted to make a nettle soup, and I was like, no one's gonna order this, but it's neat. So I'm gonna do it anyway. And, and I actually did we got a review not too long ago, and the review simply said anybody that puts rampant Dental Soup on the menu is my kind of person, and I'm coming back just because of this. So that was really like I was like, alright. Sweet.

Zach Mills:

That's pretty cool. So, so, yeah, it's it's little things like that that, like, make it all worth it too. It's all the mad scientist part of this is the fun part. Like, chefs don't get to play with food nearly as much as people think we do because we're, like, doing everything else, making sure everybody shows up on time, make sure everybody's trained, making sure that, you know, payroll's done, like or foods are ordered, like, all this stuff. If there's so much admin to what we do, then, like, when I actually get to, like, play with food, people look around the corner.

Zach Mills:

They're like, look. He's smiling. But because I'm like, sit down. Like, this is awesome. Like, I'm just, you know, making a mess and and and having some fun and and and really that part of the thing and testing and chasing and and being your own biggest critic is really, like, the that's the fun part.

Zach Mills:

Like, the the the and even if something doesn't hit the menu, you know, I'll take a note and say, like, well, this didn't work because of this and this, this, and this. So next season, let's look back at your notes and say, okay. Well, why did this work, and what tweaks can we do? And then next thing you know, a dish evolves from there. And that's kind of the fun of it too is, like, you know, evolution of food.

Zach Mills:

I think a lot of chefs can say that, like, when we've been cooking for long enough, there's food from 5, 6, 7 years ago that I can go back through my Instagram and be like, oh, that was a neat plate. But what can I do differently, like, to, like, update it or evolve it into what I I am as a cook today? And, and a lot of those are kind of, you know that that's a lot of fun too. So

Rob Lee:

So there's there's 2. The 11I wanna make a comment. I am a food nerd as well. I watch a lot of cooking shows, and I have casual conversations in the day job. I was talking with a coworker about forbidden rice and I was like, man, I could do, like, you know, maybe a black rice, maybe with black beans, maybe with garbanzo, do this black and white thing.

Rob Lee:

She's like, what's forbidden rice? She's like, yo, that's black. And I was like, look, man, it's the colors, man. And the other thing I wanna comment on, it was more of a question. So recently I I have 1 thing that's a little further back and 1 thing that's more recent.

Rob Lee:

I so I have a smoker and I ended up smoking some some garlic, and I was like, I'm gonna make a mayo with this, I'm gonna make like a smoked garlic mayo, and I failed abysmally. It it was terrible. It did not work, and it reminded me of that time when I tried to make, I love beer batter fish. I tried to make like beer battered fish, and I was just like, alright, got the right fish, did all of that, did the research, did not work out. I'm terrible at frying food, and I remember my brother was there and he watched me fail, he's like, yo, I kinda threw all that away, didn't really work out.

Rob Lee:

So both of those are crime alley things for me if you follow your Batman. I need to return to those and maybe they'll be together somehow. Do you have a sort of crime alley dish for you that you're like, I really wanted this on there. It didn't work for whatever reason and, you know, it was maybe something you revisited and you got it or, you know, something that's still TBA?

Zach Mills:

That's a good question. Yeah. I did wow. What was that 1? Okay.

Zach Mills:

So I did. I'm a big soup guy, so I'm always making sure that there's, like, at least 1 neat soup on the menu. Yeah. I did a, like, spring garlic soup a couple years ago. It was actually 2 different spring soups I've done that They weren't epic failures, but they just weren't great.

Zach Mills:

And it was a spring garlic soup that just it turned out too brothy and but still too garlicky, and I was having real trouble balancing it. And, I wanna do, like, a grilled shrimp skewer on the thing, and it it it really, like, it looked neat. But then you tried to eat it, and you're like, nope. Nope. That doesn't work at all.

Zach Mills:

Like, that just doesn't even taste good. And then same deal. I did I did a soup that actually hit the menu, I don't know, 2, 3 years ago, and it was a play on potato leek soup, but it was potato ram.

Rob Lee:

And I

Zach Mills:

was like, this should work. Potato leak, potato ram, same deal. And, and I'm not gonna lie. I really dug it, and the guests did not. And it was 1 of those ones where, like, that's where the nettle ramp kinda started to form in because I was like, alright.

Zach Mills:

Well, I need to balance this a little better and this and that. And, and I was, you know, I I was kinda proud of that soup. So that was kind of a, a kick in the pants, when people didn't dig it. But it is what it is. Like, I'm cooking for for other people, not myself.

Zach Mills:

So, so, yeah, those are 2 2 ones that kind of stuck in the back of my head that then kind of combined into the 1 that actually worked this year. Yep. So that's kinda cool that it actually kind of, like, it it did evolve into something. And, you know, I'm sure there's way worse epic failures that I've probably blocked out of my head. I I spent 5 years as the head chef downtown at at with Wisdom, and I had a celebrity boss, Michael Mina.

Zach Mills:

And, and then his 2 corporate chefs who are are are dear friends and mentors of mine, 1 of whom is the 1 that goes on tournament champions these days. And my hardest thing was when they would show up each season and eat my food. And that was always terrifying because they already saw everything. Like, I had to get everything approved. I had to send Michael recipes.

Zach Mills:

I had to send them pictures. I had to send them costing before anything could hit the menu. And in order for my food to hit the menu, I had to make sure it was the best opt best gave him the best stuff, my my best stuff. And, you know, every now and then, he he or my my corporate chefs would come in and taste something and be like

Rob Lee:

That ain't it.

Zach Mills:

This ain't it. Here's like, alright. Here's what we do to this. And, you know, it it's a it was a great learning experience, but also a very humbling thing when, like, you know, these guys with Michelin Stars and James Beard Awards are like, yeah. You you you thought you had it, but you you don't have it.

Zach Mills:

And and, but at the same time, you know, it it it was always a great learning experience. But, yeah, it's, you know, this business always finds a way to humble you in some way, shape, or form, and the epic failures will always come out. And and I think the longer I do it, my batting average has definitely gone up, 100% gone up. I mean, when I was a young, you know, 30 something head chef, you know, I definitely I mean, my batting average is pretty low there for a minute, but, you know, eventually, you just that's all you can do. Failures is where the you know, what you learn from and what you come from, and it's just like cooking for a living in general.

Zach Mills:

I tell all the cooks. It's like, you don't learn from the easy services. You get better from the really hard services where you get your butt kicked. You know? It's just like that age old saying of, like, you know, the test of character is not when things are going easy.

Zach Mills:

It's when things are going poorly. So it's the same deal in cooking or anything else. It's like, you know, when it's got when when you don't got it, learn from it. And, you know, if I if we're being our own biggest critic, then, you know, we should be in pretty good shape because if I think something sucks, I'm not gonna send it out. If I so if my level is super high, then then we should be in good shape.

Zach Mills:

I mean, I've had dishes in the past where I put it on the menu. I'm 5050 about it, and then guests really dig it. And they're like, alright. Well, they dig it. So, you know, I'll still see what I can do to make me a little happier with it, but at the same time, like, sometimes there's things that I'm almost a little too hard on myself these days, and I think a lot of us are.

Rob Lee:

It's it's about the reps. It's, you know, using a batting average thing, you know, getting those swings in. And, you know, when I do the sort of education piece, I I do that now, and, you know, I come in with long a lot of experience in in doing this. I don't know if it's good per se, but I've been doing it for a long time. So it it's it's the reps.

Rob Lee:

That's the thing I always say. Like, I may have, like, a terrible interview. It's like, wow, I did not ask a good question there, but eventually, I'm gonna get 1 that just crushes it, but it it just keeps swinging, keep, you know, keep taking those at bats, if you will.

Zach Mills:

100%. So I got I got 2

Rob Lee:

more real questions. I definitely got those rapid fire ones I wanna hit you with, but the next 1 goes a little bit like this. So it kinda touched on going back to menu. So in in this sort of in in let's let's let's focus in in in True Chesapeake specifically. Is there a specific menu item?

Rob Lee:

It can be like, look, this is not even a full dish. This is a part of a dish. This is a component. This is a technique that I apply that's on a menu or a menu in in itself. But what sticks out if you were to say, this is true Chesapeake, this is Zach Mills right here?

Rob Lee:

What is that 1 item menu or or item on menu that that comes to mind for you?

Zach Mills:

Yeah. That's a that's a good question. I you know, the 1 thing that opening this restaurant, tying it to the fact that we started as an oyster farm that I was a huge fan of before I even came on board really helped me kind of, like, focus in early on on, like, okay. You know, we want something for everybody on the menu, but we are we were an oyster farm. We were born from an oyster farm.

Zach Mills:

We have an oyster farm. You know, we have the freshest oysters coming up multiple times a week. Half the time, they've only been out of water for a couple hours when we get them. So that really, to me, was what kind of focused me first on making sure that I'm telling the right story Sure. Of the restaurant.

Zach Mills:

And so I guess it's it's really I would say, it's it's a twofold, and 2 dishes that I put on the menu that I didn't necessarily think would become staples that ended up becoming staples. 1 was the French onion roasted oysters. So, like, super dumb idea. Like, I like French onion soup. I like oysters.

Zach Mills:

I think we can basically top the oysters with French onion soup. And, like, Gruyere cheese and, you know, the oysters and cheese are are a thing. So, and then we taste it, and I have really, like, good, French onion soup base in my back pocket. So I was like, alright. I'll just make my French onion soup because I know it's really good and then we'll do that.

Zach Mills:

And that turned out I've been you know, I I'm again, I'm my own biggest critic, but that 1 turned out to be pretty pretty darn good. And people dug it to the point where, like, I was then like, okay. Well, that's kind of a cold weather dish, but everyone's like, no. You're not allowed to take that off the menu, Adam. So that that was 1 of those things that, stuck out to me that is still to this day is on the menu, and and people really dig it and, you know, because we've got our, you know a lot of places do cheese and Old Bay on oysters.

Zach Mills:

A lot of places do Rockefeller and things that we do already, but I wanted to make sure that we had something that kind of speaks to my kind of French training coming up in addition to to to making sure that we're showcasing our oysters. And then, we do a steak tartare with a smoked oyster aioli where we're taking our oysters and we're smoking them and then, making AAA sauce for the for the steak tartare and then plating the steak tartare in an oyster shell that kind of showcase where where part of that steak is coming from coming from the ocean and then top it with caviar just because I wanted it to be a little fancy. But, like, those are kind of the 2 things that I think, you know, for me, I always want a little, like I guess, whimsy is the word. I'm not the I mean, look at me. I'm not a whimsical guy.

Zach Mills:

But, like, you know, like, I I like to, like, play with food. I like it. I I like some levity to the situation, and I like people to see, like, dumb ideas that, like, turned out okay on on plates. And and, you know, I think those 2 kind of hone in with, like, me just being like, alright. This should work.

Zach Mills:

Let's taste it. But you taste it, and you're like, oh, no. That works. Sorry. We're good.

Zach Mills:

So and then next thing you know, you know, all these years later, the steak truck car was a Valentine's Day special couple years ago, and then it just it it just ended up never leaving. And then, yeah, the French onion oyster was supposed to be a fall winter dish, and it's going on year 2 or 3 in the menu. And, 1 of my mentors was like, that's a great idea. I'm stealing that. And that was when whenever they say that, like and and that's the thing.

Zach Mills:

Like, frankly speaking, like, that's what my Instagram is for these days. Like, it's 2 fold. It is to get people in the restaurant, and it is that my mentors see it. And if they say something nice, it's made by death. So and that's 1 of the things where I'm like, alright.

Zach Mills:

Well, alright. I I did okay enough that, you know, 1 of these guys is like, alright. I'm I'm gonna try that now. So

Rob Lee:

As a person that's had, I think the last time I was at True Chesapeake, I I had obviously the catfish sandwich, which is the Instagram was what pulled us in. I was like, what is that? And then, I believe we had maybe the French onion lobster joint, and I think we toasted on it, like like, yes, I was like, this is delicious. Let's do it. So, yeah, it's it's lapsed.

Rob Lee:

It's a it's a hit. So, you know, the storytelling component you you touched on there and sort of this tradition of the the being being an oyster farm, having that background. So this sort of last question definitely pins everything together. So if you will, could you speak on sort of the balancing of, like, culinary trends? You know, we have sort of these seasonal things.

Rob Lee:

Everyone is trying sort of different things and not everything less, and, you know, sort of innovation and consistency while also, you know, ensuring, like, sort of the ethos is there. The the roots are there. 100%.

Zach Mills:

Yeah. It the balance is the hardest thing, I think, really. You know? My biggest 1 of my biggest worries at each season is that somebody's gonna read the menu and not get it. And, you know, you read a menu, and III like to think of each menu as a book.

Zach Mills:

And the book is the story of the restaurant, and each dish is a chapter in the book. So making sure that it isn't disjointed, that it just reads, and you're reading and you're like, yep. Get it? Get it? Alright.

Zach Mills:

Nope. I understand this dude. Like, we get where he where where the chef is coming from, and, you know, we understand the ethos of this restaurant. And that's the hardest part, and that really is where, like, I always when I'm when I'm writing a menu, I'm writing on the menu. Like, each season, okay.

Zach Mills:

Where's the seasonal stuff that absolutely has to go? Pencil, cross them off, and then start going through and being like, alright. At the same time, we do have to have something for everybody. Is there enough vegetarian food? Is there enough, is there enough seafood?

Zach Mills:

Is there enough, you know, gluten free? Is there enough, you know, you know, with the culinary trends going the way they are with, with, health and everything else and dietary restrictions and all that stuff, you know, you do have to think about these things. So it's it's definitely the hardest part is making sure it's balanced and making sure it's there's something for everybody, but it's still telling the story, and it makes sense, and it reads well, and, you know, I'm using the right amount of adjectives and sometimes not enough. You know? It it's just 1 of those things that I would say that's 1 of the hardest things for me, and I always try to, like, when I've got the menu to where I think where I want it, I'll actually print the thing out, and I will obsess for several days.

Zach Mills:

I'll just, like, I'll put it down, walk away, pick it back up a day later, reread through the whole thing, just be like, does this make sense? Is there enough things for everybody? Are our staples still there? Does anything need to go away for a little bit? And then, you know, and then I do, at the same time, still have partners and investors that, you know, I I need to make sure that they're okay with everything that I'm doing at the same time because, you know, that's that's part of the industry.

Zach Mills:

We're a business. We're a group of humans. I'm not gonna just, like, be like, well, screw you guys. I'm gonna do whatever I want. III wanna make sure that they're happy with with kind of the direction we're going in as well.

Zach Mills:

So it's really a balancing act of, like, am I happy with it? Are guests gonna be happy with it? Are chefs my chef friends walk in the door? Am I gonna be proud put this in front of them? Because that's a big 1.

Zach Mills:

And then just, you know, it it it it is is is the balance everywhere? Is the food balanced? Is the are the people that I need to make happy balance? It's all about balance. And, and it's really just a never ending goal to keep kind of 1 upping ourselves every season.

Zach Mills:

And, if I'm trying to get a little bit better every year, if I'm trying to make a dish a little bit better every year, then then I think I'm usually in a pretty good spot. It's a

Rob Lee:

great answer, and a and a great spot to kinda close on the real questions. So now I'm gonna go into, in these final moments, 2 things I wanna do. I wanna do these rapid fire questions, and then we'll close-up with shameless plugs. So rapid fire questions. Yep.

Rob Lee:

Don't overthink things, you know. So, the first 1 goes like this. If you're having a bad day, and I know that industry is a wild industry at times, who do you talk to? Who's who's the person you're like, yeah. I got it's sucked.

Zach Mills:

You know, that's a good question. I usually keep my family out of it, honestly. Because it well, it's just 1 of those things, like, you know, I I try to come be like I try to keep it to industry folk most of the time. It's 1 of those things that, like, it's nice to commiserate with people who who get it and know where you're at. And so talking to chefs is really a good thing to kind of, talk to each other and go through what's going on.

Zach Mills:

I have several just dear friends that, like, I know I can show up, at their bar, when they're open and just be like, yo. I'm I'm gonna have a bourbon and and can I, you know, can I bend your ear for a second? And, I think I think that's 1 of those things that, like, it's nice for us, and I think that's why the chef community is so tight. Yeah. Because we all kind of came up through the hardships.

Zach Mills:

We all came up through the grind, and especially the ones that have been doing this long enough. And there's such a core group of lovely humans all throughout this town that, you know, I could not see 1 of these people for a year, and we could pick up right where we left off, start talking about business, start talking shop, talking food. And, I think that's that's really that's kind of the thing around here, and that's the lovely thing about, not only the industry in general, but Baltimore's food scene is is that the fact that we all support each other. We all love each other. We're all fans of each other, and, we can all kind of, you know, complain and just, like, walk away for a minute and be like, you know, like, let me tell you some stuff's going on, and then most chefs will be like, I got something better.

Zach Mills:

Let me tell you a story. And, you know, it's just like a 1 up kind of situation. Be like, no. No. No.

Zach Mills:

No. No. I got you here. So and then you walk away feeling better. So I think that's 1 of those things that's really, lovely about about this town and and the food scene and just, like, you know, just after being a chef in this town for, what, 12 years now, you know, it's just lovely to have that support.

Rob Lee:

So here here's the next 1. Thank you. That's that's good. And I've I've encountered that from my little perspective sitting there and, you know, I'll have a chef pop over that I know. It's like, hey, man.

Rob Lee:

How's it going? I was like, here's the thing. Everything sucks, and here's why. What you running into? It gets real it gets real crazy.

Zach Mills:

100%. 100%.

Rob Lee:

So this this 1 is a little, is a is a spicier question, but kind of funny. I remember when Paw Paws and Ramps showed up on everyone's menu. A lot of people didn't know what the hell they were doing when they were using them. And and I think in an industry of uniqueness and parody, that's that's the way I kinda look at the culinary industry. What's the local ingredient that you think it's gonna show up on menus in the near future?

Rob Lee:

Because I don't see many pawpaws. I still see ramps. But I don't see many Paw Paws on on people's menus these days, and that was all the craze a couple years ago.

Zach Mills:

Yeah. I I actually I wanna I I would like to say that I was definitely 1 of those people on the Paw Paw bandwagon. I actually the fun thing was is so I've been in my home, for, a lot of years. And about 5 years ago, I had a bunch of pawpaw trees that were grown up enough to start dropping pawpaws in in in in the forest kind of behind my house. And I was like, oh, this is neat.

Zach Mills:

Like, there's pawpaws. And I just started bringing them to work. I mean, like, alright. What are we gonna do? And so that is definitely 1 of those ones that, I just checked the other day, and they're about that big right now.

Zach Mills:

So, you know, I mean, they usually come out, like, August ish. So, so I'll bet you you'll see Pawpaws on the menu this end of the summer more than you think. And I think that's 1 of those things that, like, I'm actually already thinking on because, like, it's such a, like I don't know. Like, it's like it's a it's a weird flavor. It's a weird texture, but some people dig it.

Zach Mills:

Some people don't like it at all. So it's like, alright. Well, you know, there's like yeah. I think I made a sorbet the 1st year and, you know, frankly speaking, I think nowadays I was kind of a cop out. But, like, I needed to do something.

Zach Mills:

They were getting overripe, but I, like, I needed to go. So I was like, alright. I got nothing. So, like, we're gonna make a sorbet, and and that'll be good. But now I'm already, like, thinking.

Zach Mills:

It's like, how do I, like, what do I do? And and I've got a couple ideas in my head, and, you know, and there's even, like, a savory element. Like, I kinda wanna, like I don't know. Like, if I can ceviche something at Pawpaw, that'd be kinda neat. But, like, then finding a way to balance that out because there is a very tropical flavor to it.

Zach Mills:

So, so that those are definitely things that are kind of running through my brain, at the moment. And then, you know, I I haven't seen any crazy ingredients in a couple years. What was the 1 that's been coming out every now and then? You it was the walking onion. It was a the the onions with these huge stems coming out.

Zach Mills:

You can eat the whole thing, the stem, the onion, and I still haven't got into that. I meant to get some last year, and it didn't happen. So I'm gonna have to double check or reach out to some people because I haven't even thought of that ingredient since we just had until we just had this conversation. So that's something I'll have to be like, I'm gonna have to Google again and be like, when does that come out and when where's that again? So and, you know, all chefs in Allium is a bit.

Zach Mills:

Like, we're just it's it's just a weird thing with us. It's like, I've got a tide blossom tattooed on the back of my leg. Like, you know, it's 1 of those things. Like, I think every chef has an Allium obsession in some way, shape, or form. So, you know, I'm cooking with garlic scapes right now.

Zach Mills:

A lot of people don't like them because they don't know what to do with them, and I really love them. So I cook with them a good bit. And, you you know, that just that's kind of that next ramp. It always goes ramp in the garlic scape. So to me, it's like a natural progression.

Zach Mills:

And, Yeah. I think besides that, you know, it's 1 of those things that every year, it's just certain chefs look forward to certain things. Like, for me, it's it's it's I can never wait until tomato and corn season hit. Like, it's just tomatoes and corn in Maryland. It's just, like, it's such a Maryland summer thing that, like, I can remember having all the way growing up.

Zach Mills:

And and the fact that we're farmers are growing this stuff better every year just like chefs are trying to get better at their job. So it's like all of a sudden, tomatoes come out. It's just like such a lovely thing. So, yeah, that's that's kind of where I'm at with that.

Rob Lee:

Well, I mean, if you really wanna impress upon your, your whimsy as you were describing with your whimsy your whimsy aesthetic, you know, you can have, like, a walking onion soup or something. It'd be amazing.

Zach Mills:

100%. 100%. And I remember being, like, alright. Well, maybe I'll, like because because I always try to have, like, an interesting mignonette on the menu because, obviously, we we wanna showcase our raw oysters, and I've never I was always taught to never just do anything. So, like, just putting a minyanet on the menu to me is, like, like, we're that's not what I do.

Zach Mills:

So, like, let's make sure that and I always try to make sure that there's, like, seasonal produce kind of involved in it. So so walking onion, Vineognon, yeah, is definitely something that's, like, in my in my brain now. So, that's definitely, again, like, right once I get out of service tonight, there there's, there's some research that's gonna be out.

Rob Lee:

Load Evernote. So here's the last 2, and I think they're both pretty quick. This this first 1, what was the last thing you ate? Shoot. I

Zach Mills:

forget to eat all the time.

Rob Lee:

What's your

Zach Mills:

What is the last thing I ate? Oh, I had, it's gonna make you sound like such a jerk. I had bonchon leftovers, last night. Cold cold bonchon wings. And, yeah, I was, I was in a lazy mode on my day off and and, and, Bonchon is a is a go to.

Zach Mills:

Yeah.

Rob Lee:

Yeah. Yeah. III joke on occasions, like, this is, like, so what did you eat? I was, like, I had 2 protein shakes. I'm a degenerate.

Rob Lee:

That's what it is.

Zach Mills:

No. And that's the thing. When you work with food so much, like, and chefs talk about this all the time. Like, we forget to eat. Like, we because we're walking around.

Zach Mills:

We're, like, you know, peering over cooks. We're tasting little things here and there. And the next thing you know, you're like, oh, crap. I didn't eat today. Right.

Zach Mills:

So it's it's at 1 point food, like, forget you forget food and stuff and then you you you see it as, like, AAA job, and, sometimes you forget. So and that's what, who was it? I was doing an event at MARTA, with Matt Edding, and, Baltimore banner was hosting it. And Jon Jon Williams asked me a similar question, but he was like, what's your, like, what's your guilty pleasure? I was like, I miss Boston market, and I have Boston Market frozen meals in my in my freezer at all times because, like, I I used to have a Boston Market that I could get food from it.

Zach Mills:

Now there are, like, most of them are closed, and I don't know where 1 is anymore. And so, like, that's something that I like, I I dearly miss and feel like that should come back. I feel like that should be a thing. Maybe I'll open a Boston

Rob Lee:

Market restaurant next. Look, I would go there. I would get the meal. It would be the the cornbread and meatloaf. There there's no games.

Rob Lee:

That that was the go to. Hit 1 and 2. 100%. 100%.

Zach Mills:

And, I mean, the mac and cheese was, like, watery, but it was delicious at the same time. Like, their potato puree was good. Like, gravy was good. Like, it just you know, they that was good food.

Rob Lee:

So here's the last 1. Since it's you know, this is for culinary arts month, and, you know, I'd be remiss if I didn't ask. You don't have to go too in-depth in it, but if there were was 1 tip that you would share with a home home cook, you know, like, how can I move from being like, you know, Cook minus 1, I've recently watched Godzilla minus 1, so I'm making that reference? But what would be being cook minus 1 to being just a 0 cook? What would be that 1 that 1 that the 1, tip you would share that helps someone just become a better home cook?

Rob Lee:

Is it, like, what's your eggs?

Zach Mills:

Yeah. That's a good question. You know, I would say the 1 thing that I find with, with Cooks is they're a little worried about seasoning. Like, I think, like, seasoning start to finish tends to be something, like, if you're making a soup or you're making a sauce or or anything. I think people get nervous about salt a little more than they should.

Zach Mills:

And that was something that dates back to culinary school. I had, nothing but old French dudes teaching me. And, they always were like, you know, the majority of the United States under seasons their food. And, you know, once we started, like, you know, working with that, when I started learning that, I was like, oh, alright. Yeah.

Zach Mills:

I think I was probably under seasoning too. So I think salt goes a long way. And then just finding balance in things, like playing with different bangers and, like, acids or something that like like, that's how I came up. I'm not a spice guy, really. I'm I'm more of a a fresh herb and acid human being.

Zach Mills:

Like, I like to cook with fresh herbs and and and different kind of acids. So, you know, lemon juice goes a long way with a 1000000 different things, and I keep lemons in my fridge at all times because of that. But also, like, playing with different vinegars. There's a lot of fun companies out there making really fun stuff these days. So, like, you know, a little bit of vinegar and darn near anything wakes it up.

Zach Mills:

So, like, just really playing with, like, a balance of salt and acid. So there was, what was that show in that book? Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. Yeah. On that, I I really dug up both the, the the the book and the and the documentary.

Zach Mills:

And, I think that's kind of those those kind of things are what I would say for a home cook to, like, really find those balances in flavors when they're playing with things and, and even recipes that they read. You know? You can you can see a great recipe, and from a home cook standpoint, you know, you're not gonna be able to read it like I read it where I'm like like, I get that, but, like, I'm gonna tweak it a little bit here or there, like, if I'm gonna make it my own or whatever what have you. But, like, still, like, taste something that you made and you're like, well, what's missing? And, like, just always be kind of thoughtful of that.

Zach Mills:

And most of the time, it's salt or it's acid or it's something along those lines that just doesn't it hasn't really balanced out the dish.

Rob Lee:

That's great. I completely agree on it because I can tell from firsthand experience, definitely with the vinegar piece, and cooking a lot more at home. And, you know, the the documentary as well, watch that, and, yeah, definitely all of it. And even I may have gotten a small little lesson in the kitchen from Chris, you know, as far as going through that whole process. So, yeah, 100%.

Rob Lee:

And, so that's kinda it for the podcast. So there are 2 things I wanna close out on. 1, I wanna thank you for for spending some time with me coming on and talking shop, if you will. And, and 2, I wanna invite and encourage you to share with the listeners the social media website, all of that good stuff where folks can check out you, True Chesapeake, all of that good stuff. The floor is yours.

Zach Mills:

Appreciate it. Well, first and foremost, just thank you. You know, this is, it's it's for to be back on at 2nd time, it's really a pleasure. And I'm just I'm just thankful, that you would even think of me, to do this. So thank you.

Zach Mills:

You're you're the man. Yeah. And this your podcast is awesome, and, it really, I remember looking back at my first 1 and and and and listening to it, and I hate listening or watching myself on TV or this or that. But I do it just to make sure I don't say anything stupid. And then but III remember listening to her.

Zach Mills:

I was like, wow. He's good. Like, just so thank you. Like, really, like, you're just, like, truly. And, let's see.

Zach Mills:

Selfless bugs. So, True Chesapeake Oyster Company. Our restaurant is in Camden, but we're down the hill. We're on the Jones Falls, so we're a little tucked away. But give us a give us a Google, and it'll tell you where we're at.

Zach Mills:

Our website is true chesapeake.com. Instagram at true chesapeake. Interest Instagram at chef Zach Mills. Zach with AKA lot of people spell my name with an h. And, Yeah.

Zach Mills:

I really think that's it. We've got a our patio is open. We are, for for your listeners who have not been to our restaurant, we are in the dead center of Baltimore City if you look at a map, and you cannot tell we are in the dead center of Baltimore City. You know, we're right on the Jones Falls. There's foliage.

Zach Mills:

There's wildlife. It's pretty neat. So we're we're super thankful for our spot, and, we hope everybody comes and checks it out.

Rob Lee:

And there you have it, folks. I wanna again thank chef Zach Mills from True Chesapeake Oyster Co for coming on to the podcast, and I'm Rob Lee saying that there's art, culture, and community in and around your neck of the woods. You've just got to look for it.

Creators and Guests

Rob Lee
Host
Rob Lee
The Truth In This Art is an interview series featuring artists, entrepreneurs and tastemakers in & around Baltimore.
Zachary Mills
Guest
Zachary Mills
Corporate Chef & Partner at Chef Shucker Farmer Inc