Q&A: Chef Zack Mills talks oysters, seafood, and creating a menu that celebrates the Chesapeake at True Chesapeake Oyster Co.

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True Chesapeake Chef Zack Mills.

Step into the month-old Hampden restaurant True Chesapeake Oyster Co., and you can almost see and taste the Chesapeake Bay. Jay Fleming’s photos of lighthouses floating on the water grace the walls and the color palette contains various shades of blue. Its signature dish makes its way into the design as thousands of crushed oyster shells are featured in the wraparound bar and oyster cages hang near the entrance.

“There are so many vignettes around the restaurant that make me smile,” says Chef and Partner Zack Mills says of the first restaurant in Whitehall Mill, an 18th century mill undergoing restoration by Terra Nova ventures. “When you’re in a building that’s really beautiful, it’s more fun to come to work.”

With a decade of fine dining experience at the Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, including the now-closed Wit & Wisdom, Mills could have had his pick of spots for his next culinary adventure.  But the 150-seat restaurant’s design and historic appeal is part of what drew him to the project, in collaboration with partners Nick Schauman and Patrick Hudson, and General Manager and Beverage Director Chelsea Gregoire.

Zack sat down with Baltimore Fishbowl to discuss the restaurant’s menu and what makes True Chesapeake – Maryland’s first oyster farm-to-table restaurant — so unique.

Obviously there’s been a lot of talk about the oysters at True Chesapeake. What can you tell me about the rest of the menu?

We wanted to build a menu that paid homage to everything the Chesapeake Bay watershed produces, and that includes the many wonderful Maryland farms in the region. We wanted to make sure the menu was approachable and easy to navigate, so we broke out different sections for cooked oyster preparations and a section for blue crab. All our seafood is sustainably caught and/or raised. We also have a section for non-seafood eaters, so we can be inclusive of everybody.

I see you have rockfish on the menu, which of course is a Maryland favorite and a mix of seafood and meat and poultry.

No question. Rockfish is a staple, so is Monkfish — which is sustainably sourced and just delicious. I meant for the monkfish to appeal to meat-eaters, it’s the heartiest dish of the three fish dishes. If you’re more of a beef or pork eater, the fact that it’s poached in duck fat is going to catch your eye. And then we’re getting trout, which is coming out of the Carolinas, and sustainably farm-raised.

We wanted to have a good mix as far as wild-caught and sustainably farm-raised. If we’re going to be serving seafood, we want to make sure that the products are not being overfished.

All three meat options — the burger, fried chicken and the short rib — are coming from Liberty Delight Farms. The meats and eggs we’re getting from them are just amazing.

Tell me about the vegetarian items. I enjoyed the hummus at Baltimore Fishbowl’s Baltimost party.

I’m so glad! That’s on the bar menu, which at the moment is just three different dips. We wanted to offer something small to snack on while people enjoy Chelsea’s cocktails. The clam dip is actually Patrick Hudson’s grandmother’s recipe. We also do a smoked bluefish pâté, which is a recipe I came up with several years ago. And we do the hummus because I wanted to make sure there was a vegetarian option — and I wanted to make sure there was something interesting about it. We roast butternut squash and take all the traditional ingredients of hummus (like chickpeas, tahini and spices) and blend them together. It gives the dip this beautiful bright orange color and it adds a nice sweetness to the dish.

One of the most interesting small plates is the fish stick, breaded and served with capers, cornichons and mayo.  How did that come about?

The fish stick came about when Nick and Patrick and I were first exploring the idea of working together. We grabbed a beer together to brainstorm about the project, and at some point, we said, “We should make a giant fish stick.” It stuck in my head and when I went home, I started doodling on a piece of paper. So that was the first original dish that was created for this menu and it worked out!

There’s a bunch of different ways dishes pop into my head. One way is going through childhood memories — remembering the flavor profiles or the physicality of things I used to eat. That’s always a fun place to start. I loved fish sticks with tartar sauce. My adult self was excited about one really big fish stick, with all the flavors of tartar sauce stacked on top of it.

Tell me how the partnership with Patrick Hudson came about.

I decided to step away from Wit and Wisdom in June 2018 and was planning to take a month or two off. A mutual friend of ours said, “have you talked to Patrick Hudson?” I got coffee with him one morning. He mentioned this building and what his vision was for it. I was intrigued. I knew I really wanted to continue cooking in Baltimore. Then the next week, I came to the building and met with Kate Giese, our interior designer, and Patrick’s father. The second I stepped into the space I could see the potential. I loved the neighborhood. I immediately reached out to Patrick and said “OK, I’m very interested in this” and it went from there.

You could’ve worked at a number of places. What about True Chesapeake appealed to you?

Nick and Patrick and I had been friends for years and I know how they work. They do a lot of charity work, which resonates with me. At Wit and Wisdom, I was one of True Chesapeake’s first big accounts for oysters. I tried the oysters at an event and immediately I said, “I want them at Wit & Wisdom.”

They produce two kinds: the Huckleberry and Skinny Dipper. As a chef, I find they have this nice balance of saltiness and sweetness. 

What is significant about Patrick Hudson’s oyster farm – the fact that this is the first oyster to table restaurant? Was that part of the appeal?

Absolutely. I went down to the farm and saw the beauty of the surroundings, and how hard the oyster farmers truly work and how much Patrick and the rest of his team care. It’s inspiring. The energy that comes from the farm is directed into the oysters. We are now trying to harness that positive energy and put it into the restaurant.

The restaurant is billed as a restorative dining experience. What do you mean by that?

The word restorative came up a lot talking about the building, the menu and the farm. The oyster farm helps restore the bay and makes a healthier environment for different species and plants. We restored a 200-plus-year-old building. We used a lot of the brick and wood that was taken out and put it back in different ways. We’re cooking and serving really good food, which restores the mind and the body. It all kind of ties together. We restored multiple things by doing this. It’s a living concept, a full cycle.

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