Recently I was able to sit down with Executive Chef Andrew Miller the man with the culinary visions behind Merriment Social and new hot spot Third Coast Provisions. If you haven't heard about Third Coast Provisions it's a gorgeous restaurant that opened in December 2016. They focus primarily on seafood but do not expect to get the same old standard seafood dishes.
The Beginning of the End...
SF: Where did you go to school, why culinary and how did it lead you to Milwaukee?
AM: I attended The Culinary Institute of America, but I kinda knew early on I wanted to work in a restaurant. I started working at a place at 14 or 15 right outside of Chicago. I even worked in a restaurant for free for a while, worked my way up and started getting paid. And that really lead into getting more serious about cooking. I graduated from high school early so I could get started with culinary school. I continued working in restaurants the majority of the time I was in school and was able to land myself an internship in New Orleans. After I graduated I came back to Chicago but wasn't sure what I wanted to do. I worked in a couple restaurants and had a couple of odd jobs but really wasn't sure of my path. So I decided to go back to school for accounting at Northern IL Univ to get a better understanding of how the business side of the restaurant worked, graduated from there but again wasn't sure of my next move? Cameron (business partner) was already living in Milwaukee, he has been my best friend since the fifth grade, (we had always talked about opening a restaurant) so he suggested doing something here. I moved to Milwaukee and we came up with a business plan, the investor we had lined up fell through. But I was already here, so I starting working for some restaurants groups here. Because of that, I got involved in the chef community and about that time we started looking at locations. We were lucky enough to stumble upon the location where Merriment Social is now. We loved the space and we opened up Merriment, which basically leads us to where we are now.
SF: Why a seafood Resturant?
AM: There isn't a ton of options in Milwaukee for seafood period, so it was a very natural segway into our second restaurant. We have always talked about doing restaurants that are one-offs, very unique, very much their own in the character and what we serve and our approach service. We let space talk to us about what we want to open. After looking at the space and seeing what we were working with, it's a very Chicago or New York-eqs-space in term of how narrow it is. And so we really liked the feel and we thought we could do something a little more upscale as opposed to Merriment which is a very neighborhood place. We thought that doing seafood in a good comfortable atmosphere go hand-in-hand. We just started eating seafood all over the country testing a bunch of dishes and went with it.
SF: Where do you get your inspiration for the menu?
AM: All over the place. Anywhere from seeing different ingredients from where we have traveled. And thinking we could do something really cool with this ingredient. That's one of them and drawing on past experiences, from New Orleans, New York, and Chicago and have been fortunate enough to be eating in different places all my life, even as a young kid I lived in Atlanta and they have a ton of seafood down there. Cookbooks too, I read religiously every morning I was always reading something whether it's about cooking or not. I draw a lot of inspiration from those as well whether it's techniques or ingredients. I have built a very large, maybe too large of a collection of cookbooks, and continue to add. I think it's important from a knowledge perspective that you can draw from that, but the creative part is more of the fun aspect for me. It's fun to find very classic things and say how can we depart from this and make it ours. It's what we do at both our restaurants. We start with something that is a tried and true idea and take it in an unexpected place, I think that is what gives our restaurants their identity.
Milwaukee is the Best!
SF: What do you like best about Milwaukee?
AM: That's a tough question... I think the beer is starting to get really amazing, that scene is really turning my interest towards beer a lot more. With all the new breweries popping up not that there haven't been great breweries here all along but right now it's a renaissance for breweries. But in a more general sense the summertime, and everything that goes with that. We all know the winter time can be brutal, but I think during the summer the weather here is special, especially near the lake it's 75 and sunny and not too windy, I think the gorgeous weather and all the festivals. The Milwaukee lifestyle during the summer it just one of my favorite things.
SF: You have lived/traveled all over the country i.e. East Coast, West Coast the South what is different about the Midwest Vibe that draws you here over other places?
AM: I think the Midwest and South have the most in common in the hospitality aspect, but the people in the Midwest is what keeps me here. Experiencing people and places through travel in even Europe and other countries I think there is very causal but steadfast, hardworking sensibility about the Midwestern people, and I think that's why I feel most comfortable here. Plus, I grew up in the midwest. So I think that while I love the South, its a much slower pace of life and the East coast is very fast paced. I am a very fast paced individual by nature of the trade, a lot of things have to get done but in general the East Coast kinda lifestyle Is not for me and I prefer the Midwest. It's the best of both worlds, I think people are very pragmatic and have a busy getting things done kinda attitude but are also very friendly and conversational and willing to help.
The Magic of the Third Coast!
SF: Do you guys try to source locally?
AM: Yes, basically every restaurant I have worked at here has sourced locally and through that, I have met people and vendors, farmers and cheese makers and a lot of brewers, so, at this point, it's a natural thing. During the growing season, you will be hard pressed to find items that aren't grown in Wisconsin, Illinois, or Michigan, both of the menus are very midwestern. Having said that it's tougher during the winter but it has become ingrained in both of our kitchen staffs. They are getting lists from the local farmers and placing orders with them on a weekly basis. The menus are more so dictated by what they are growing and what's really good as opposed to, we want to use this type of thing and we get it from California or wherever.
SF: So the menus are ever changing depending on what's be grown here.
AM: Yes, absolutely
SF: What do you think is the big difference in seafood that you are getting from the Third Coast compared to what you are getting from the Coasts or the Gulf?
AM: Right now it goes back to local sources, right now fishing is not abundant this time of year, but when it is, it's very natural to pair midwest ingredients especially vegetables with the fish from the Great Lakes. I think the flavor, texture, and characteristics of those fish really lend themselves well to what's grow in the region. And not to say that is opposite for fish from the other coast, but I think it really resonates in a dish or plate when we can pair something that comes from the lake with things that are grown around it. That is the whole idea of Third Coast Provisions it's exploiting the natural resources that we have and really shows them off. As soon as we get into the fishing season we will see a variety of fish all locally sourced. For oysters, it's the one thing we cannot get from the Great Lakes. But apart from that, there is a very distinct characteristic of lake fish especially Great Lakes fish, like trout, walleye, bass, whitefish and smelt. I don't think you can get a better quality, really anywhere in the world, than you are from the Great Lakes fish among the species.
Let's talk Oak and Oyster!
SF: In the restaurant, there are two different vibes going on between the upper and lower levels, can you tell me about the inspiration behind that decision?
AM: One it starts from a logistics aspect having a raw bar especially raw seafood and being able to prepare it in an area separate from the main kitchen, it allows us to have a lot more control on how we keep and rotate, to ensure everything is fresh, especially all the raw items it's very important. With that said... it's a very large restaurant and we didn't want the entire thing to be all one identity. So we broke it up not only in the decor but also with the menu. We are coming out with a new menu for the lower level (Lower Level Oyster Bar called Oak & Oyster) pretty soon. That menu will be very comfort food driven on a seafood basis, so a lot of poor boys and whimsical snack appetizer type items. We wanted to have a place where people could go especially for happy hour (4pm-6pm) and eat tons of oysters in a very casual environment. Most of the time when you are eating oysters it's not very fancy, you're kinda rubbing elbows, drinking beer and shooting oysters, and that's the kind of vibe we are aiming for downstairs. Upstairs at 3CP it is a little more refined and upscale. It has a different emphasis on the way we are preparing food. I still like to treat it as comfort food but with a little more finesse going into each plate and each preparation and they are more involved and complicated dishes. As opposed to downstairs at Oak and Oyster where we are going for hearty, casual more down and dirty comfort food.
SF: Besides the bar being a main star decor-wise tell me about your main focus with on the bar/cocktail/wine menu and how it pairs with your food?
AM: I think they compliment each other pretty well. We certainly wanted to focus more on cocktails and wine than beer. Wine goes naturally with seafood, so having a very extensive and boutique wine list is key. With that our wine list has a large selection that pairs very well with a lot of dishes, so it's very flexible in that format. I think the cocktails are on par creatively with what we are doing in the kitchen, and its a great way to start dinner especially or end it. What we are doing is trying to mimic the bar program to match the menus both at 3CP and Oak and Oyster. In the oyster bar, we take the same approach as we do with food, where we are doing a little more of classic cocktails and putting a little twist on them but a little more casual. We are starting a barrel age program downstairs as well and we will have 4 or 5 rotating barrel aged cocktails going all the time. And I think it lends itself to the food we are doing down there. To answer your questions in the general sense, the program in each space should complement the kind of food you are doing. That is what we try to shoot for.
With a High Life...
SF: What is your best advice for someone who has never tried an oyster before especially a raw oyster, what would be a good starting off point?
AM: If you are intimidated by the texture it's not necessarily the easiest thing to get over, and I would suggest goes towards some type of cooked preparation, whether is a baked oyster or char-grilled, just so you can get the flavors of an oyster. The texture of a cooked oyster is a little more palatable for people over a raw oyster. If you're just going to go or it, I would go with some type of west coast oyster. West Coast oysters tend to have a good amount of sweetness and are a very balanced oyster. I think that when you get into the really nuanced oysters they can be very briny or very melony or very seaweedy and I think that is what throws people off the first time they have an oyster. So go for something like a Kumamoto or a Kusshis, a Northwest/Pacific oyster, they that are small and they tend to be very sweet and are a little bit briny or seaweedy but overall a very good beginner source.
SF: When you are sitting down to have oysters what are you pairing with that, wine beer, etc? What is your personal preference?
AM: My personal preference is honestly a High Life... It's a very pedestrian beer, obviously it doesn't have a lot of character but it's cold and fizzy; refreshing. I think that for me it's more of a memory thing... In New Orleans when I am eating oysters they're a bigger oyster and aren't very nuanced. You're putting some hot sauce on them and eating a dozen at a time. So typically you're not pairing a fine wine with those oysters, it's more High Life and hot sauce. That is probably my favorite way to eat oysters. But if I am going towards a connoisseur oyster, some of the more nuanced ones, then typically a really bone dry racy sparkling wine or a muscadet. But I am pretty classic when it comes to pairing so a nice white wine pairs well with most types of oysters.
As a personal note: I had a wonderful interview, the aesthetic, food, and cocktails are absolutely amazing. I fully recommend Thrid Coast Provisions and Oak & Oyster for your next night out. I want to thank Executive Chef Andrew Miller for taking time out of his busy schedule to chat with me and Third Coast Provisions for being so hospitable and the staff for taking such great care of me.