Annapolis in the 1990's was much different than it is today. Parole Plaza was a decrepit, underutilized lot dividing downtown from a string of chain outlets along Jennifer Road. Westfield Shoppingtown Annapolis (yes, it really was called that) didn't offer much more than an inconsequential food court. Inner West Street was characterized by jaded buildings resting just on the brink of discovery.
Despite the slow creep of gentrification throughout the 2000's, downtown Annapolis has never lost the gritty, hometown charm that is the area's defining characteristic. Locals still crowd the decades-old, traditional saloons lining City Dock.
Many of these well-loved spots still serve the same menu offered eighteen years ago, when Zack Mills got his first job as an oyster shucker, runner and jack of all trades at O'Brien's Oyster Bar and Restaurant, a spot that seems to be as old and unchanging as the essence of the city itself.
By the time he graduated from The Severn School in 1998, survived four years of college and met his future wife (she is also from Davidsonville, although they didn't get together until college), Mills knew he wanted to return to life in the kitchen, so he enrolled in culinary school in New York City.
At the International Culinary Institute, Mills trained under Dean-Instructors such as Jaques Pepin, Andre Soltner, Jaques Torres, Jose Andres, Cesare Casella and Alan Richman.
These men are iconic for being the first restaurant chefs brave enough to take the giant leap from long brutal hours in American kitchens to ownership of successful fine dining establishments, cookbooks, television shows, product lines and global celebrity. They are true empire-builders. It's no exaggeration to say that they are among the progenitors of the recent international obsession with cookery and consumption.
Mills intuitively knew he belonged at the institute, that he could be good enough to learn from the best.
After graduation and stages around New York City, Mills wanted to return home to his girlfriend and family. He found a position with Andrew Evans, owner and executive chef of Inn at Easton, a three-star Washington Post and Washingtonian Top-20 restaurant located on the Eastern Shore.
Evans is Australian, and his restaurant featured French technique with Pacific Rim flavors. Mills felt he was in the perfect place to use what he had learned in culinary school while at the same time building on his skills for the future.
While Mills embarked on his career, his girlfriend-now-wife started law school in D.C. With some help from Evans, Mills got an interview at the Four Seasons, where he learned celebrity chef Michael Mina would be opening the latest in his growing chain of high-end eateries.
Mills had been to SeaBlue, Mina's restaurant in Atlantic City. He owned Mina's cookbook and was a huge fan, so he was elated when he landed a spot on the opening team at Bourbon Steak as senior sous chef. After just three years at the Four Seasons, Mills was promoted to corporate sous chef, a position that allowed him to work closely with Mina.
In his job on the corporate team, Mills helped develop concepts and menus for new restaurants in the Mina Group's portfolio. He helped refine plating, presentation and service from inception to opening night.
The job required a lot of travel, so when Mina approached Mills about an opening at the Four Seasons in Baltimore, he jumped at the opportunity. Mills is currently executive chef at Wit & Wisdom, a hotel restaurant overlooking the Inner Harbor, billed as a waterfront tavern.
In reality, Wit & Wisdom is more than a tavern: it anchors the Four Seasons Hotel, serving not only as a dining room, but also as the hub for event catering and 24-hour room service.
It is also quite chic. On a recent visit I sat at the long boat-shaped wooden bar, enjoying the low lighting and modern yet comfortable decor from my perch betwixt a fashionable 20-something waiting for her date and a lovely older couple from Annapolis who like to motor their yacht in a routine course from AYC to St. Michaels, Rock Hall and Baltimore.
As afternoon turned to evening, a wave of professionals and hotel-conference colleagues came to enjoy happy hour specials. The bar didn't feel crowded, as guests slipped outside to linger along the spacious esplanade, artisan cocktails and craft beers in hand.
This is not to say that Wit & Wisdom is pretentious. Families with children dance through the restaurant en route to tourist glory during the day. The bar serves Natty Boh, of course. And looking out across the harbor to the football and baseball stadiums as it does, the restaurant has a healthy appreciation for sport enthusiasts.
To call Wit & Wisdom a tavern is to potentially overlook a fresh approach to familiar fare showcasing local ingredients prepared with small but innovative and tasty surprises.
"It's fun and exciting to make food with a sense of humor and thoughtfulness in it," says Mills. "I like to put dishes forth that make sense for the restaurant concept and for our hotel guests, but I also want to do Chef Mina justice."
This hometown Annapolitan has done just that. Semolina fried oysters are served "a la poulette" with a side of braised Swiss chard. The dish is creamy and buttery and truly delicious. Toasted peanut soup with sorghum marshmallows is punctuated by perfectly salted, seasoned and crispy-fried chicken cracklins'. Softshell crab is combined with artichoke, spinach and a dusting of Old Bay into a creamy filling, then stuffed into small cannelloni that are rich and decadent, but still homey and comforting.
Mills recently purchased a home in Southhaven, close to Annapolis. His parents still live in Crownsville. They have always been foodies and cooks. In their own way, they are also progenitors, or at least contributors, to a new wave of food enthusiasts.
This generation of empire builders is younger and indeed hungrier. With an increasing library of ingredients and techniques at hand, they are perhaps even more creative, capable and ambitious than previous generations of American restaurant industrialists. Even so, Zack Mills is content to simply be home for the holiday.
Speaking of the holiday, we all know there will be plenty of leftovers after the big meal on Thursday. Why not get creative with them? Here are a few ideas.
Zack Mills' Thanksgiving Leftovers Turkey Soup
Makes 8 portions
4 liters (1 gallon) chicken stock
1 turkey carcass
3 cups shredded turkey meat
3 cups assorted leftover roasted Thanksgiving vegetables (squash, green beans, etc.), cut to 1-inch pieces
1/2 cup diced white onion
1/4 cup peeled and diced celery
1/4 cup peeled and diced carrot
Turkey skin, whatever is leftover
Pre-heat oven to 250 degrees. Remove the skin from the turkey and place as flat as possible on a wire rack on a sheet tray. Bake skin until crispy (about 1 hour) and set aside as soup garnish.
Chop bones from the turkey and place in a stock pot with cold chicken stock, bring stock up to a boil and then drop down to a simmer and cook for at least 4 hours (the longer the better). Strain stock into a new pot.
Shred turkey meat and add along with other leftover vegetables and mirepoix (onion, celery and carrot) to the turkey broth and simmer until everything is warmed through and flavors have melded.
Ladle soup into serving bowls and garnish with crispy turkey skin.
Mimosa Cranberry Sauce
I am going to use this sauce on an oh-so-refined leftover turkey sandwich. If you have the ingredients on hand, this should be on your Thanksgiving table tomorrow!
4 cardamom pods
4 whole cloves
2 star anise
2 tablespoons grapeseed oil
1 quart fresh cranberries (about 1 pound)
1 ½ cups sugar
Zest of 3 oranges, grated on a Microplane grater
1 vanilla bean
1 cup Champagne
Juice of 1 orange
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Tie the cardamom, cloves and star anise together in a piece of cheesecloth or enclose in a tea ball; set aside.
Using a paring knife, split the vanilla bean lengthwise. Using the back of the knife, scrape seeds out.
Heat a medium sauce pot over high heat and add grapeseed oil. Add the cranberries and sugar.
Add the orange juice, champagne and orange zest and stir to combine. Add the vanilla bean seeds and the vanilla pods (these will impart flavor and be removed prior to serving) to the pot with cranberries. Add the tea ball with spices.
Cook until the liquid is reduced, the cranberries are soft and the mixture is very thick, about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the tea ball and the vanilla bean pod. Add butter and season lightly with salt. Add butter and season lightly with salt if needed for flavor.
Let the mixture cool slightly. At this point you can leave the berries whole or puree the sauce in a blender to make it smooth. For varied texture, puree half and leave the other half chunky.