(Staff Photo by Jen Rynda,…)
What with all the current cooking shows and trends in taste, you needn’t be an actual foodie to know what a sous-chef, a maitre d’, and even a sommelier are. But a restaurateur?
Without the “n”?
Matthew Milani knows. He is one — not only as owner of The Rumor Mill Fusion Bar and Restaurant on Main Street in Ellicott City, but now the one, Maryland’s Restaurateur of the Year.
He was chosen from among 2,000 in the state by a jury of his peers in the Restaurant Association of Maryland (RAM), joining such well-established “Stars of the Industry” as Leighton Moore of Seacrets and Billy Carder of BJ’s on the Water, both in Ocean City, and Eddie Dopkin of Miss Shirley’s in Baltimore. Only 36 — 35 when he won — Milani is one of the award’s youngest recipients, says Laura Kimmel, RAM’s director of membership.
In this particular competition, anyone can submit a nomination. Then a committee from the organization narrows the field to five, and members of the organization take a final vote.
“At first I thought being nominated was a thank-you” for supporting RAM’s charitable efforts, Milani recalls.
And when actually selected for the award, which happened about the same time last April as his establishment’s fifth anniversary, “That phrasing, restaurateur of the year, means a lot to me personally because here … I have to do so much, from executive chef to general manager of the place,” he said in a Howard County Times interview. But most of all, he’s thankful to his staff: “We’re a team, from hostess to manager — they deserved it.”
It’s not only teamwork, but his one-big-family mindset, according to Kelly Purtell, who began at Rumor Mill a year and a half ago as a hostess and has since moved up to server’s assistant and coordinator between front and back of the house. “I think he’s an amazing boss, incredibly personable, and you realize what he’s doing is his passion.”
It’s probably his drive to make it work that got him the award, she judges.
What does he think he did to deserve it? Milani defines a restaurateur as a hands-on owner, someone with enough experience in both the back (kitchen) and front of the house and bar to understand all the employees’ jobs … plus handling the office by managing, ordering, doing invoices … plus (in his case, at least) even building maintenance.
He also suggests that his community nonprofit endeavors amounting to some three dozen fundraisers a year may have played a part. He focuses most on children’s and health charities such as St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, March of Dimes and Catonsville-based Believe in Tomorrow, as well as RAM’s own endeavors such as its high school restaurant and food service mentoring program ProStart.
“From a young age, owning a restaurant is all I ever wanted to do,” says the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute graduate. “All my certifications (including degrees in culinary arts, pastry and hotel and restaurant management and a sommelier certificate), even attending bartender school, led here.”
While he worked as manager at Main Street fixture Cacao Lane, neighboring Sidestreets closed and its building became available. Allen Parsons, landlord of both spaces, was aware of his varied culinary background, says Milani, and asked for his opinion on fix-ups. Finally he suggested, “Why don’t you take it?”
(It was due to all the rumors swirling about the place being bought or leased by others, even as Milani signed a letter of intent, that the new restaurant got its name.)
Ever since, Parsons, owner of Matthews 1600 in Catonsville, has been a great supporter, Milani says.
He was inspired and helped along the way by so many, including Chef Cindy Wolf and her partner, Tony Foreman, then of Savannah’s, where Milani began as a busboy. Now, he says, it’s his turn to give back.
However, that doesn’t mean he’ll rest on his professional laurels — uh, bay leaves — in the meantime.
Even as Milani speaks, bourbon, scotch, 70 flavors of vodka and yes, ketchup are quietly being infused with flavor essences, the scotch prepping for the new Rob Roy cocktail at the end of summer. Many homemade ice creams, to be served by threes with bread pudding, chill in the freezer. (The Rumor Mill’s description as a fusion bar and restaurant refers both to these signature infusions and to its fusion of global cuisines.)
But hold onto your napkins, for if all has gone well, a new “satellite” open kitchen in the side room off the bar is already feeding, instructing and entertaining diners at high-end custom demo dinners. That is, if design and construction of his “part restaurant equipment, part Ikea action station” — meet the schedule.
Great food but a casual and interactive atmosphere with Milani behind the counter isn’t the hoity-toity “molecular gastronomy” of other venues. But what else would be expected of a chef who won the Kids’ Choice division of a grilled cheese contest with his special spin — white cheddar and bacon marmalade, vanilla tomato mousse to dip it in, and white chocolate and mango dessert looking like a mini version of the sandwich?
Or one whose employees grow the herbs and onions at home? Or who organizes his own diner-judged Restaurant Wars between employee teams, at once encouraging both staff bonding and innovation?
You’d expect an observation something like that of RAM’s Laura Kimmel: “He gives so much back to education and the future of the industry. The students look up to him. He’s a mentor. ... And he’s impossible not to like.”