Chewing the Fat: Q & A with Chef Zack Mills of Wit & Wisdom
Wit & Wisdom Chef Zack Mills is a pretty even-keeled guy. There he is on the line on a busy Friday night: headset, directing traffic, plating dishes — he concentrates on the job at hand, which is turning out gorgeous, delicious food. And when you look over, you know he’s got this. Quiet, precise, focused. Then he looks up, smiles warmly. All of this in the middle of a bustling dining room. It’s like theater.
A Maryland native from Davidsonville, Zack attended Severn School, West Virginia University and then, the French Culinary Institute. He’s been a chef with the Mina Group for six years. He started out at Bourbon Steak DC, then became a Mina Corporate Chef, traveling from city to city visiting Chef Michael Mina’s various outposts. He came home to Baltimore to open PABU in 2012 and later became executive chef at Wit & Wisdom, Chef Mina’s restaurant in the Four Seasons Baltimore in July of 2013.
In the past year, I’ve dined at Wit & Wisdom several times. I even have a favorite valet at the hotel now – and for a girl from a tiny country town who now lives in Hampden, that’s a little odd. (Amadou, he is my guy and I drive a Volkswagen!) I joke that I can’t even believe sometimes that Baltimore has a Four Seasons Hotel, much less that I feel completely at home at Wit & Wisdom. Yes, it’s a little fancy, but really…it’s more comfortable. Kinda like Petit Louis, it feels like a special night out, but relaxed at the same time. Or at least that’s how I feel there.
Since opening three years ago, both service and food have consistently improved at Wit & Wisdom. And Zack has worked hard to offer more and more locally sourced products, working with local farms very closely. This is important to me. Not in an over-the-top Portlandia way, I just think there are so many talented, hard-working people creating delicious spirits, wine and beers, raising heritage pork and more. The whole farm to table thing, it’s just the way food works now…no longer a trend. It’s just expected at this level. Not that everyone is doing it, but that’s a story for another day.
A few weeks after our interview, Chef Mina came to Wit & Wisdom for two nights of a beautiful tasting menu of some of his classic dishes. It was so fun to watch Zack and Chef work service together. And the meal was one for the books. The caviar parfait needs to go on the menu, Chef!
Was food a big part of your upbringing? Did you cook when you were a kid?
ZM: Yes, very much. A big part of my childhood. My paternal great-grandparents were from Italy and Sicily. When my parents got married, my great-grandmother and grandmother taught my mom to cook. And, my mom eventually became an incredible cook. My whole life – to this day – we have Sunday supper at my parents’ house. It’s everyone, like 12-14 people – a big deal in my family. And, yeah, my mom is in charge for sure. She might ask me to taste things and check flavors and stuff, but she definitely runs the show. I love it. I’d say the first thing I really mastered on my own was pasta – and I still try to make it at home when I can.
Lots of kids get to choose the meal on their birthday…anything they want (to a point, I suppose…) What would be your ‘birthday meal’ now? What did you ask for when you were a kid?
ZM: Well, my birthday meal changed over the years, but my first choice was always my mom’s lasagna. It’s so good. After that, probably roasted pork loin with mushroom sauce. To this day, I will ask my mom to make me her lasagna.
Tell me about your latest menu. Anything in particular you’re really excited about the way it came out?
ZM: Definitely the raviolo – which you had last time you were in. (I did, so good.) That was in my head for a long time and it came out so well. Also, some of the simpler things like Osso Bucco. I’m so proud of my chefs, each sous owns a dish. And yeah, in a restaurant group, menu development can be a little complicated but I see the current menu as a road map. It’s really fun to see it all come together.
What food trend can you absolutely not stand?
ZM: I’m kind of okay with most of them, really. Like the avant grade stuff, molecular gastronomy…they’re really interesting. But then I also like old school techniques like braises, but then that’s the way I like to cook.
How do you balance home and work? I guess days off are big.
ZM: Most Sundays, I try to cut out early or work a half day. (Half day = 8 hrs or so…) But my life right now is so focused on work. My wife is incredibly understanding. I’m also always reading, learning. Life is a constant learning process. This work life is all I know, so it’s what I do.
Do you have time to watch any food tv? If so, are there any celebrity chefs you really enjoy?
PBS mostly. But then I also like Knife Fight (cooking competition hosted by Top Chef alum Ilan Hall on Esquire TV) because it’s set in a restaurant after service. Everyone in the audience is drinking and heckling the chefs. That’s real chef life. We’re not fancy people and Knife Fight shows the gritty side of cooking. It’s the best cooking competition show on television. (I love it, too…totally raucous.) As for celebrity chefs, I think it’s fun to watch chefs like Scott Conant, Todd English, Tyler Florence – seeing them cook and plate. It’s legit, not just TV. My primary mentors are Mina Group chefs – mainly Dave Varley and Adam Sobel – and in general, I respect and admire most chefs. I don’t really hate on anyone.
What do you love about food?
ZM: It’s my life, really. Regardless of anything, food is common ground for almost everyone. It makes me happy. It makes everyone happy really. Family is a big part of my love of food. My dad says his best food memory was his first fine dining experience at Jean-Louis Palladin’s restaurant in the Watergate Hotel. He remembers it vividly – even now.
What are some of your favorite restaurants in the City? Where would you take your wife Zandi for a date night?
ZM: The Bagby Group is great. Chris (Becker) and his team are doing great work. They work really hard. Part & Labor is fantastic. Just fantastic. I liked it as soon as I sat down. Aldo’s, Chazz – I’m a big Sergio (Vitale) fan. For date night, I’d like to check out Aggio, especially since the (Executive Chef) Dan Izzo was my roommate in culinary school. Such a great guy, he’s worked for Batali at Lupa and Del Posto – super talented guy.
Okay…obligatory…when you cook at home, what do you like to make? Do you have a favorite ‘go to’ meal at home?
ZM: Pasta for sure. Sometimes I just make favorites (like mom’s lasagna), other times it’s fun to experiment. I guess it depends on how late I get home. Sometimes I don’t want to do anything too complicated or trash the kitchen. But if I’m off, I’m usually up for making pasta.