Joey's executive chef dishes on cooking at the James Beard House, battling on Iron Chef | Restaurants
Getting invited to cook at the James Beard House is a big deal. Getting invited to cook again is an even bigger deal. This Saturday, November 20, Chris Mills, executive chef of Joey Restaurants, heads back to the House to cook for the second time, a prestigious invitation by the James Beard Foundation with criteria that examine the chef's reputation, demonstrated excellence in their discipline and financial stability, amongst other factors.
Besides the guest chef dinners at the New York City institution, the Foundation— named after the late James Beard, legendary chef and food writer— engages people with food through workshops, readings and conferences, and provides scholarships to aspiring food professionals. The Foundation also organizes the esteemed James Beard Foundation Awards, which honor chefs, restaurateurs, cookbook authors, food journalists and others leading the food and beverage industry.
Chris Mills, 41, has long prepared for the challenge. Chef Mills has been working in the restaurant industry since he was 14, holding various front of the house positions before moving to the kitchen at the age of 20. He started as an apprentice at The Fairmont Chateau in Whistler, then cooked at the Metropolitan Hotel in Vancouver B.C. where he worked his way up from first-cook saucier to its executive chef within seven years. That experience led him to Joey Restaurants, where he leads 20 locations: 17 in Canada and 3 in United States, all in Washington state— on Lake Union, in Southcenter and downtown Bellevue.
Cooking under pressure is all too familiar for Mills. In 1999, chef Mills battled chef Morimoto on "Iron Chef Japan." In 2001, Mills competed against 21 chefs from around the world at the Bocuse d'Or in Lyon, France— a biennial world chef championship founded by famed French chef Paul Bocuse— where he placed fifth. In 2006, Mills was invited to cook for the first time at the James Beard House. Now, four years later, he returns to the celebrated kitchen with his team of eight: his assistant chef, 2 regional chefs (including Seattle regional chef, Casey Miles), 2 restaurant chefs and 2 apprentices, along with 8 regional managers and 2 sommeliers to serve. But before the frenzy, here, chef Mills dishes on how he's preparing for the main event.
How are the Joey Restaurants in Canada and Washington state similar or different?
We have a good core menu: really good steak, seafood and entrées, then there are the regional differences. We’re known for interesting flavors and we offer things that you may not normally try. We have a certain trust factor that we try to work with all our guests, so if you've been to a Joey restaurant once or twice, you're almost willing to go on a limb to try something you've never tried before. Our concept is the same for all: globally inspired food, casual surroundings and fantastic service. In the Seattle market, we offer more seafood— Dungeness crab, tuna and halibut when they're in season. The aesthetics are the same, but we try to fit in the neighborhood. At the Joey on Lake Union, we really try to play up the view.
Why Lake Union, Bellevue and Southcenter for Joey Restaurants?
Looking at the markets, I think they're interesting. The Joey on Lake Union was our first (in Washington and United States) and it was just natural to be on the water; we love that experiential part of dining. Bellevue is a great center and it's still developing. And Southcenter is similar; it's one of the biggest malls around. So, we have something that's waterfront, something in downtown and another in a more rural environment.
You've been involved in the restaurant industry starting at the age of 14 working in various positions from the front to back of the house. How did that experience shape where you are now?
The food called me. I fell in love with the industry, the people, the energy and the youth of it. I started as a host and then ran the floor. I was also a bar porter and went to a serving school to get that side of it. Behind the scenes, I've always cooked for myself starting at a young age. I cook mainly because I love food and I love the knowledge to give to customers. It's a lifelong career.
So, you learned to cook hands-on?
Completely hands-on. I found an apprenticeship program that worked for me and a great chef to guide me. I was an apprentice at The Fairmont in Whistler and did it all: pastry, garde manger (in charge of salads and cold foods), restaurant, buffets, production and others. The experience of being hands-on was amazing and the variety at a young age was the key to opening up my horizons.
As the executive chef of twenty Joey locations, how do you oversee each one?
As a chef, you have to have good systems and those systems allow us to do that. I bring the chefs together for various trainings or events like the James Beard dinner. I also go regularly to the restaurants to see what's going on.
How did you choose who's going with you to New York?
Four years ago when I was invited for the first time, I took 21 chefs with me— a chef from every restaurant. It was the most chefs the James Beard House has ever had at one time in their kitchen. The process this year was competition-style, because I only had a limited number of spots. We had a cook-off at each level within the company.
Your menu for the James Beard House is called "Gatherings from the Pacific Rim." What inspired you for this menu?
James Beard loves a theme. (Portland, Oregon-born James Beard spoke quite fondly of the Pacific Northwest's bounty.) While coming up with the idea, I thought this may be my last trip there and wondered what would be worthy of it. I thought about my career and what I've been doing— I've been in the world of finding great recipes around the Pacific Rim: going to Japan for Iron Chef; cooking at a school in northern Thailand; I've been up and down the West Coast; I've picked mushrooms in Vancouver and fished in Alaska. So, it's the idea of collecting recipes, gathering ingredients and bringing people together. (In preparation, chef Mills harvested many of the ingredients himself, including the matsutake mushrooms foraged on a hillside near Whistler, the lavender he grew in his rooftop garden and spring salmon which he caught off British Columbia’s coast.)
What's it like cooking at the James Beard House?
It's an absolute honor just to be invited. It has life and a lot of heritage, and the building is untouched from when James Beard was there. It's a storied space with the people and the chefs that have been through there before. It's pretty humbling.
Logistics-wise, you own the House for the day; it's your restaurant. You provide the food and all the ingredients. And the House runs the facility and looks after all the service staff and the management of it.
How do you compare the rush battling chef Morimoto on “Iron Chef Japan” versus cooking at the James Beard House?
With "Iron Chef," you're only doing a couple of dishes. With James Beard, you're cooking for about a hundred people. You can't prepare for "Iron Chef"— you just show up; you've got your knives and recipes in your mind and you have one hour to cook. With James Beard, you almost have too much time. I've been mulling about it for months. There are a lot more options to change things which make it tough.
Besides street cred what else do you get from cooking at the James Beard House?
The menu served at the James Beard House is below. Can't go to New York? Some of the items are available at the Joey Restaurants or you can attempt to recreate the dishes at home by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org for recipes.
"Gatherings from the Pacific Rim," a menu by chef Chris Mills for the James Beard House:
Peaches and cream chicken corndog
Pacific tuna with vegetable salad and yuzu dressing
Citrus-cured Queen Charlotte salmon with Dungeness crab flan and cornbread
Alaskan black cod and pork-chive dumpling in matsutake mushroom broth
Fall apple tasting with salad, cider and sorbet
Licorice lacquered duck breast with summer cherry conserve and hazelnut-crusted duck roll
45-day-aged beef rib eye with Yukon gold potato, braised oxtail and black trumpet mushroom lasagna with sweet and sour onion jus and vegetables
Vietnamese banana cake with tropical fruit salad and toasted coconut ice cream
The peaches and cream chicken corndog, chicken tacos and Vietnamese banana cake are available at Joey on Lake Union, Southcenter and Bellevue.
Joey on Lake Union, 901 Fairview Avenue N, Seattle, (206) 749-5639.
Joey Southcenter, 758 Southcenter Mall, Tukwila, (206) 835-6397.
Joey Bellevue, 800 Bellevue Way NE, Bellevue, (425) 637-1177.