On any given work day, Chef Harry Mills' presence is felt throughout the large kitchen that connects Lot No. 3, Purple Cafe and Wine Bar, and Heavy Restaurant Group's new event space Cast Iron Studios. Mills is known more fondly to his staff as "Coach." But his expertise and influence may lend to more kitchens in Seattle than the name entails. Before joining Heavy Restaurant Group as the Bellevue executive chef, Mills was a culinary instructor at the Art Institute building up the next generation of Seattle's great chefs. Today, he recounts his journey from his early days in a wine cellar to selecting wine pairings at Purple, and it hasn't all been the about wine.
Photo by Daniel Kezner
I'm exclusively in Bellevue now. This property, because of the way we built it out really requires an administrative style executive chef. A lot of people like that title but this is the first time I've ever been one and understood what that title means. It is literally keeping everything running and keeping it together. It's a lot less direct hands on and a lot more strategic and administrative type work. I try to see all the meal periods I can during my five days on.
Do you miss the hands on experience?
I do. I mean, a fantasy of every chef that is an executive chef working for someone else is: "What would I do with my own place?" Obviously, unless I had a financial windfall beyond comprehension, would I be able to own a place this large. I do enjoy working at places as big as this. Something I do miss is the ability to hand select product, to really work in a core group of guys and women who are extraordinary chefs. I'm fortunate here that I do have an amazing staff. It took me a long time to build but with the morale I have with my crew, the job is a lot easier.
How often do the chefs at Purple work with sommeliers when planning the menu?
Every single day. We put together our daily specials and front of the house management and back of the house management get together and put the specials out, taste wine, and ultimately find the best pairings. Fortunately for us, we're a wine driven restaurant and we have 90 different glass boards. Our sommeliers like to think of that as their toolkits for glass pairings. 99 percent of the time we find a very good pick, but only a quarter percent of the time is the first one [we select] the right one, which makes me pretty skeptical about restaurants that don't go through that process to pair wine. One of the things we really like to do here is to have the sommelier present us with a wine and [we] create a dish to perfectly match it.
What was your experience with wine before coming to work at Purple?
I knew a lot about wine. My father is a previous collector. He has since retired and he is not buying as much as he used to but at one point, he had 1400 bottles of wine in his cellar and I got to learn wine at a young age, and learn really fine wine at a young age. That helped me develop a real personal interest in wine. I kind of took that and studied and tasted. When the opportunity to work at Purple [Café and Wine Bar] came up, it was really exciting for me. That was when I decided to leave the Art Institute and go work for a beverage driven restaurant.
How did Cast Iron Studios come about?
[Bellevue] Barrio's closure was the first closure in our restaurant group and it was one of the most difficult days in my career. It's kind of like from the ashes comes maybe what we should've put there in the first place. At least that's what it feels to me. It is a very versatile space and we can couple it with our private dining room. It allows us to really do some larger parties. What we want to be able to do is deliver a better product here than the other large party venues in the market. We have well trained chefs, well trained sommeliers, and well trained staff providing experiences that seems like a good deal, if not a great deal. That's the goal. We're trying to get away from that banquet food is boring and vanilla and all that.
How did you make the transition from lobbying and politics to cooking?
I started out working for the firearms lobby and went on to working on the naturopathic and chiropractic physicians [lobby]. That should really give you the mercenary nature of lobby work. What I was feeling about it was that the issues were not really about zealotry or really being behind them. It was more about how do you craft an argument. A lot of us came from a debate background and a law background and it was really more about the game, or the fight. It was also very steeped in fundraising.
My mother's maiden name is Franceschini. [Her family is ]from northeast Italy and I really felt a connection to food and family and all that. Her family is originally from a city called Udine from Friuli-Venezia Giulia in Northeastern Italy. I've not yet been there but I feel a super connection to that place because some of the greatest Italian white wines come from there and we actually pour them here -- especially these orange ones, these crazy oxidized ones. You know, when you hang out with sommeliers, you can find some super geeky stuff to get into.
More and more, I just thought to myself, "Do I really need to take a traditional career path just because I went to UW?" Then they opened up Art Institute Culinary and I went to the inaugural class. That was back when Roland Henin was running the school. If that name sounds familiar it's because he was mentioned in every one of Thomas Keller's books. He was the mentor to Thomas Keller and he was the director of the school [at the time]. Their paradigm was very simply, we are going to produce students who are ideally suited for the local market. So our culinary experience was unlike what I've heard of anyone having. We went up to Penn Cove --- stood on the pylons out in the middle of Penn Cove and watched a string of mussels going down into the water -- and mushroom farms and stuff. The school wasn't quite built yet so we did tons of field trips. I wouldn't trade that experience for anything.
You also taught at the Art Institute. What was most valuable about your experience as a teacher?
My nickname here is "Coach" and that coaching nature was something that I felt a strong kinship that's less on the academia side and more on the side of building people's careers. Telling them they're being dreamers and telling them when they're being a realist. That sort of thing felt really good to me because I feel like I didn't send a lot of people astray. I dashed some people's dreams in culinary school but I still feel good about them not raising $450,000 to start a bed and breakfast and realizing that they don't want to wash any sheets, they don't know much about making breakfast and they don't really want to wake up at 6 a.m.
And then the ones that knew what was coming to be able to push them along and to try to let them know what was possible and lend them advice when sometimes it was advice that they don't want to hear. It's so engrossing to look at the success of students like Tiffany Boroughs, Taylor Cheney, and students that are around the city now who I know will all be considered some of the best chefs in the city when it gets to be their turn. That was amazing to me. That was the pay, far more than whatever they were paying me at Art Institute.
I lost interest in Art Institute as they tried to standardize more and more and take the individuality out of teaching process. Here's the text, show 'em the text, make them read the text. That felt hollow to me. It was a great sort of a launch pad for me to say it's time to get back into the industry and I feel like I did it at just the right time.
Do you think you'll ever go back to teaching?
I do hope at one point in my career to return to culinary education. When I get older and head toward retirement. That is only if culinary education catches up to the industry. They need to really re-tool from the CIA all the way down; they need to really re-tool what they're teaching in the industry. I think French Culinary is doing a great job in New York. They're bringing on consultants like Harold McGee and people that are experts of modern cuisine.
I truly think they need to reinvent what they think culinary education is for. For a long time, it was about pumping the egos of American Culinary Federation chefs and how to tie a cravat, whether your toque was on just the right way, whether you had garbage all over your outfit, or whether you had little plastic buttons. How many chefs now wear dishwasher shirts on the line and they have a $40 million empire? They literally made their entire career out of breaking all of the silly rules that they tried to teach in culinary school. I think the absolutism --- the feeling of how it feels absolute, that there are rules in cooking that are unbreakable --- is asinine to me. I think what's right and wrong about cuisine is, do people come to your restaurant, enjoy themselves, and return?