The Rainmaker

The patron saint of Appalachian cuisine Chef Travis Milton opens his much-anticipated eponymous restaurant in St. Paul. Expectations are high, but this chef always delivers.

Travis Milton

Photos by Erin Adams

Travis Milton is tired. His trademark trucker cap shadows drooping eyes as he cranks out a plate of pepperoni roll appetizers on a busy Saturday afternoon, then visits a few tables in the dining room to chat with customers.

“We just did 140 boxed lunches and lunch service. I haven’t slept in 36 hours, and we still have to get through Mother’s Day brunch tomorrow,” Milton says, before a server pulls him away to meet a visitor who has some fresh ramps to sell. “It comes with the territory.” 

When the 37-year-old chef left Richmond in 2015 to open restaurants in the southwestern part of the state near his hometown of Castlewood, food folks took note. The return to his roots was heralded by food writers, chefs and others across the country like Milton who are championing the preservation of Appalachian foodways. 

The first of three restaurants planned, Milton’s, finally opened in St. Paul in February, after two years of various construction delays. Shovel & Pick and Simply Grand will come later, both to be located in the new Sessions Hotel in Bristol. 

Milton is master of the upscale take on a homestyle dish with an unexpected but perfect twist—collards with kimchi, or pig’s head terrine with charred onion dust and black garlic jus. But the food, he says, is about more than preserving the region’s culinary heritage—it’s a means to another end. People here, formerly fueled by coal-mining jobs, are struggling. And Milton feels called to feed them—with new jobs, training, and what he hopes will be a much-needed economic shot in the arm through increased tourism. 

Milton means to help build Appalachia’s food industry, but it’s not an easy mission.

Humble Beginnings

His roots are deep here. 

Milton’s great grandfather built and owned a motel called The Village in this tiny town on the banks of the Clinch River, and as a child, Milton cooked with his mother at the restaurant that was attached to it. 

Today, his restaurant, which anchors the bottom floor of the newly-opened Western Front Hotel in a historic building in St. Paul, bridges that history. The tables in his dining room were handmade by a childhood friend whose father or uncle (Milton isn’t certain which) helped Milton’s grandfather build his motel. And Milton’s prep cook’s aunt worked for his grandmother way back when. These kinds of local suppliers and rekindled childhood friendships (Castlewood is just a mile down the road) are exactly the sort of network that Milton hopes tourism—stoked by the national attention he has received in recent years—can nourish further.

It’s already happening. The tasteful blond wood and faux rustic décor in the hotel, named the Western Front in a nod to parts of the town’s rowdy past as home to brothels and saloons in the 1800s, are aimed squarely at attracting the flow of out-of-town visitors to Dominion’s nearby clean energy power plant. The restaurant and bar also pull in a growing number of area regulars. 

Milton is master of the upscale take on a homestyle dish with an unexpected but perfect twist—collards with kimchi, or pig’s head terrine with charred onion dust.

The menu at Milton’s is ambitious, though deceptively simple, and includes a wedge salad with chunks of blue cheese, pan roasted trout, thick-cut pork chop cooked to order, and “chicken fried steak” (actually it’s a NY Strip). Each main comes with a choice of two or three homey seasonal sides, such as collards, summer squash, greasy beans or cheddar grits. For larger groups, sides are served family style in large bowls for the table to share. The dishes are expertly seasoned and punctuated with unannounced flourishes like Milton’s homemade pickles, a sprinkling of bacon or edible flowers. 

“We are challenging people gently,” he says. For example, the menu doesn’t list kimchi as an ingredient in the collards, but when customers ask what makes them so good, servers explain what the spicy Korean pickle is. 

Pan roasted chicken thighs with Appalachian tomato gravy, chicken fried steak, wedge salad, cracklin’ cornbread, collard greens, broccoli rice casserole and squash casserole.

Leading the Way

For Milton, banging out the food is the easy part. Harder, is the task of training an enthusiastic, but unskilled local workforce for this level of service. 

Finding kitchen staff wasn’t difficult, plus Milton brought along his longtime sous chef Robert Pippin, who cooked with him at Comfort in Richmond for five years. (Pippin is also responsible for building a pantry of pickled, canned and fermented local produce.) 

Front of house is another matter. Milton’s dining room is full of friendly young hosts and servers who make eye contact, ask how you’re doing, and offer thoughtful recommendations. Many of the nine or so servers haven’t even eaten, much less worked, in a full-service restaurant before. 

“When we had our first wine tasting, I asked, ‘Okay, who’s had wine before?’” Milton says. “Nobody raised their hand. So, where do you start with that?” He trains and educates constantly, regularly cooking dishes from the menu right before service for the staff to taste.

On a busy Saturday night, bartender Philip Prince guides a couple seated at the bar in choosing one of the more adventurous appetizers: a cheesecake with goat cheese, spring peas, green strawberries, salt-roasted beets, pickled ramps and edible flowers. 

“Now, it’s got some strong flavors with the ramps,” says Prince, a seasoned former Wise County restaurant owner who knows the area clientele. “It’s real good but I don’t want you to be surprised by it.” Once the app is delivered, Milton pays a visit from the kitchen to chat with guests about the dish. 

Educating diners and staff is a challenge that he expected, and welcomes. Having taken the journey himself, he recognizes that all an aspiring restaurant worker needs is opportunity and guidance. He’s here for both, even if it means no sleep.

Milton’s chicken fried steak.

Building Momentum

A front desk clerk at the Western Front confirms that every weekend there are hotel guests visiting St. Paul just to eat Milton’s food. In Bristol, where he will open Shovel & Pick this fall, the chef expects to attract even more of the faithful—a welcome by-product of the buzz that has followed Milton since he wowed Richmond diners with his Appalachian-inspired dishes at Comfort and began promoting the region’s culinary heritage through organizations, including the Appalachian Food Summit, which he helped found.

Shovel & Pick “will be more fine dining,” he explains. More of what he calls “tweezery” food, which means high-end ingredients artfully arranged on each plate. No family style bowls here; Shovel & Pick is where Milton plans to elevate Appalachian food just as fellow chef Sean Brock did for the Lowcountry at his now-famous Husk in Charleston, South Carolina. (Brock also grew up in Virginia and played T-ball and PeeWee football with Milton.) 

Shovel & Pick will be much easier to open than Milton’s, the chef says, because the location will draw urban visitors from Roanoke; Asheville, North Carolina; Knoxville, Tennessee; or maybe even Lexington, Kentucky, and Cincinnati. Those diners will expect trendy food with unusual ingredients. 

He will also have a larger and more experienced workforce to draw from, for both servers and kitchen staff. Milton says that when he advertised for Shovel & Pick, he got resumes from more than 100 professional chefs in D.C., New York and even California. 

“These are great chefs who want to come back home and be near family,” he says. “They want to settle down, raise kids and start their own restaurants in a few years.” If it sounds like he’s recruiting apostles, that’s not accidental: “That’s exactly what I’m trying to do here.” 

Milton sees Bristol as the South’s new rising culinary destination, attracting visitors to a growing number of creative restaurants that employ friendly Virginians looking for career opportunities. The plan is to train staff in St. Paul, move them up to Bristol, and then send them forth into the world. 

After service one weekend night, Milton takes a break outside the kitchen. The hour is late, and a spare room waits for him upstairs inthe hotel. 

Sitting on the back stairs, he pulls hard on a cigarette. He’s fretting over a server who neglected to pass along special order instructions to the kitchen, and the plate was sent back. 

“It’s a work in progress,” he sighs. Tomorrow is another day.  

This article originally appeared in our August 2018 issue.

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