I first got to know Miller when he was putting out lush fried chicken and comfort food through the now defunct Roost in West Philly, which he ran out of a tiny prep kitchen. At first I just marveled at the intense and at times unexpected flavors. On coming back again and again, I wasn’t surprised to see that he was soon growing herbs in the small patch of sun his one window afforded, or to later learn that he had tapped Philadelphia Urban Creators, a group who plants gardens in vacant lots in West Philly, for super-local produce.
Thinking of that focus on sourcing, I ask him if something similar was being done for the restaurant.
“Those woods right over there,” he says, pointing to a mini forest in the distance preceded by a field. “That’s The Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife refuge,” Miller says.
“We have a girl on our staff who runs a Pine Barrens survival camp—I believe that’s it. She helps us out a lot. She’s really good with mushroom and local plant identification. We have everything you’d expect. It’s open to the public. We’re not talking staple menu items—we’ll just forage and work things into dishes. We get a ton of dandelion, purslane, mint, some ramps, onions and garlic. Nettles. Mushrooms. Chanterelles and hen of the woods grow around here. Sea beans are my favorite. Clams. We just walk into the bay right there, stick our feet in, we can probably pull out half a dozen clams if you wanted to.”
“Hell, yeah, let’s get some clams,” I say.
“Ugghh, gotta work,” he says with feigned annoyance and pops the truck into reverse. We pull forward, the gravel crunches below for a few seconds more before we hit the blacktop and we’re on our way back to Black-Eyed Susans on LBI.
Pulling up out back, the owners’ sun tanned, sandy haired kid comes stomping out on the restaurants truncated back deck to greet Miller. He’s one big, beaming exclamation. Almost as if he knows he can’t waste his unbounded energy, he launches a successive series of kicks at a short row of doubled up milk crates.
“Whoaa buddy, whoa,” Miller says.
“I’ll take one. I’ll take one,” the kid says.
“You’re out here kicking milk crates and I’m going to trust you with my sea beans?!” Miller says, putting the crate down long enough to tussle his hair.
“I’ll see ya downstairs later, buddy,” and we dip into the first floor kitchen quickly enough to drop off the sea beans before heading up to the slightly more expansive second floor deck and into an upstairs prep kitchen.
Miller retrieves two giant plastic bins holding his LBI sourdough—one of seemingly many projects he fits in before starting prep early in the day before helping to supervise service, if not jump on a station after 5pm, fives days a week at the start and back end of the season which runs to November (at the time of my last visit in late June, Miller was gearing up for the 7-day weeks of the busy season that commences with the July 4th holiday).
During his winter breaks since becoming the chef de cuisine at Black-Eyed Susans in March of 2012, Miller has indulged his love of snow boarding while working at a resort and has helmed the kitchen at The Lord Baltimore Hotel in Baltimore (October ’13 to May ’14).
Originally from Manahawkin, NJ, Miller got his start in restaurants as a dishwasher while working with his current chef, Chris Sanchez—who co-owns the seasonal Black-Eyed Susans with his wife and manager, Ashley Pellegrino.
This last break between seasons for Black-Eyed Susans held a revelatory moment that led to Miller’s biggest side project yet.
“I tried to take off this winter but I ended up teaching cooking classes at this place called Heirloom Kitchen. I also did R&D, messing around with all sorts of stuff. I started baking bread. I was reading up on bread makers and I stumbled on this old Japanese movie/documentary about these old school salt makers. I was just like holy shit. It was one of those light bulb moments where I was like, I live on the ocean, why don’t I see if I can make salt,” Miller says.
“I started boiling water. I saw that if you boiled it long enough you could start separating the salt. The salt sucks if you just keep boiling it out [though]—it doesn’t crystalize well. It cakes up and holds its mineral deposits. You need to be patient. It needs to be a slow evaporation process. The first part, you’re super quick. I boil it to a 50% reduction as fast as I can. As soon as I hit 50%, I do it as slow as I can,” Miller says.
So, it’s a quick run through that opening boil, Miller tells me as he separates portions of sourdough that will be baked for the days service. To each breadbasket bundle, he sprinkles an extra bit of flour atop before cutting off another equal size portion with machine like precision.
“I expedite with that opening boil. You cross a certain threshold—26% salinity or in that range—that’s when everything starts crystalizing. You keep it from going above 26% salinity. Seawater averages anywhere from 8-12% depending on temperature and time of year, yada yada yada. It’s in that range and reducing the volume by 50% that brings the salinity into the rough 20’s [percentage-wise] and I go slowly from there. You do it too quickly and everything comes out like table salt or Morton’s iodinized salt. Super fine, it cakes up. It’s not what I’m looking for. I want something that reacts like a kosher salt and is sort of crunchy on the palate like Maldon Salt. I’ve been messing around with [looking to improve upon] Maldon flake salt as well,” he says. “I think I’m going to try to do that as a separate product.”
Across the room, by another bin of sourdough, is a basic food dehydrator he uses to dry out the salt once it’s been extracted.
“If it’s not low and slow, the crystals get messed up,” he reinterates.
CONTINUE READING >