Matthew Milani's business card identifies him as an owner and executive chef, but they are essentially the same thing. Running a restaurant is like preparing a dish, with every ingredient important.
That attention to detail is evident within his Ellicott City eatery, The Rumor Mill Fusion Bar & Restaurant, where the menu is constantly evolving, and where even the seat covers on the backs of his chairs were made in-house.
Milani has been nominated for "Restaurateur of the Year," one of the top awards bestowed by the Restaurant Association of Maryland. He is up against the heads of Galaxy 66 Bar & Grille and La Hacienda, both in Ocean City; Galway Bay Irish Pub in Annapolis; and Linwoods in Owings Mills.
"You can't just be strong in the kitchen or behind the bar or in customer service," said Milani, a 35-year-old Catonsville resident."When you own a restaurant, you have to do everything."
The "Restaurateur of the Year" will be chosen by Milani's industry peers. Five other Howard County restaurants are up for awards, some categories voted on solely by association members, others also including votes from the dining public. The winners will be announced April 16.
For Milani, the nomination alone has been his validation.
"When we first opened, I was hoping we would get 'Best New Restaurant' or were just nominated. And we weren't," he said. "There were a lot of great restaurants that were deserving of it. I'd worked before at a place that had won 'Best New Restaurant.' That really pushed me harder to make something of my restaurant."
The Rumor Mill sits in a corner of Tiber Alley, just off Main Street in historic Ellicott City, a two-story restaurant whose opening date, April 27, 2007, is posted inside above the front door. His wife, Lexi, is the manager.
Milani's training started as a youth, helping out at a family bar in Woodlawn, carrying kegs, helping bartenders with ice and bringing food to customers. He took a summer job at an Ocean City restaurant, doing everything from valet parking and working in the kitchen to bartending.
Soon he was working under vaunted Baltimore restaurateur Cindy Wolf. He was taken by the respect she was shown. "Everyone called her chef," Milani said. "That was the first time I heard that."
After attending culinary school in Pittsburgh, he traveled around the country helping owners open their restaurants. By 2004 he had returned to the area, working as an assistant general manager for Greystone Grill, and later becoming a manager at Cacao Lane in Ellicott City.
And then a restaurant in Tiber Alley closed. The space was available. The opportunity was there.
"This should be the goal of anyone that ever attends culinary school, that works in the industry and has a love affair with food, wine and liquor," Milani said.
Both the food and drink menus follow the idea of fusion, of combining tastes and showcasing flavors. About 40 percent of the menu changes every four weeks, Milani said.
"People want more taste, more flavors and they want to try new things," he said. "We have a lot of creativity in our kitchen."
He has creativity behind the bar, too. The restaurant offers more than 70 vodka infusions, giving different flavors to the drinks. The walls have more than 250 glasses belonging to members of a club, customers who come in and over time make their way, drink by drink, through the assortment.
On the walls in another room, meanwhile, are dozens of framed letters, thank-yous from organizations whose charities The Rumor Mill has supported since its opening.
"It just takes one speech, one letter, one battered woman, one mother or father of a premature baby," Milani said. "You realize how lucky you are. I was given 20, 30 second chances. We're in a position to give back."
Other county nominees
The other Howard County nominees are Daniel Wecker, executive chef and co-owner of the Elkridge Furnace Inn, who is up for "Chef of the Year"; the Frisco Tap House and Brewery in Columbia, nominated for "Craft Brew Program of the Year"; Houlihan's in Columbia, which is up for "Favorite Restaurant"; and AIDA Bistro & Wine Bar in Columbia and Bistro Blanc in Glenelg, both of which were nominated for "Wine and Beverage Program of the Year."
Owners pointed to various innovations and programs, but also to their staffs, saying the nominations represent the hard work put forth by their employees.
"Everybody thinks the chef has cooked every single item," Wecker said. "They wonder how I can be out greeting guests when food is still coming out of the kitchen."