Chef Spotlight: Zack Mills

A native of Davidsonville, Md., Zack Mills graduated from The French Culinary Institute in 2007. Immediately following graduation, Mills began working in various kitchens in the Washington, D.C., area before landing his dream job as a sous chef at Bourbon Steak, a Michael Mina restaurant located in the Four Seasons Hotel Washington, D.C. In 2012, Mills joined the Mina Group as an executive sous chef working under the direction of Michael Mina. There, he oversaw the culinary operations for the James Beard award-winning chef’s East Coast restaurants along with several notable restaurant openings including PABU in Baltimore; The Handle Bar in Jackson Hole, WY.; and most recently Pub 1842 in Las Vegas.

Continuing under Mina’s mentorship, Mills accepted the executive chef position at Wit & Wisdom, Mina’s upscale American tavern located in the Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore. At Wit & Wisdom, Mills is responsible for overseeing daily breakfast, lunch and dinner services, as well as the hotel’s 24-hour room service.

Get to Know Chef Mills

Culinary contributor Amy Langrehr sat down with Chef Mills to chat about food, family and what’s great about Baltimore.

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. (Smiles.)

What food trend can you absolutely not stand?
ZM: I'm kind of OK with most of them, really. Like the avant-garde 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. 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?
ZM: 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. 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 for a date night?
ZM: The Bagby Group is great. Chris [Becker] and his team are doing great work. They work really hard. Parts & Labor is fantastic. Just fantastic. I liked it as soon as I sat down. Aldo's, I'm a big Sergio [Vitale] fan. For date night, I'd like to check out Bryan Voltaggio's place, AGGIO.

OK, obligatory question – 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.

Explore Zack’s Baltimore

Zack Mills’s Featured Places