By Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host Published Jan 29, 2014 at 11:04 AM

While a good percentage of chefs choose the profession after going to college for something else, Andrew Miller, executive chef at HOM Woodfired Grill in Brookfield, took a different approach. He started off in the culinary world, and then returned to school for a degree in accounting.

Miller, who hails from Naperville, Ill., says he started out in the industry when he was 14 years old.

"I got in trouble with my parents a little bit," he says. "And they gave me the choice between doing volunteer work or getting a job."

So, Miller got a job at the restaurant across the street from his house. It was a place he describes as a "typical Italian red sauce joint." In his two years there, he got involved in the kitchen.

"I liked the energy of the restaurant," he says. "And since I was 15, 16 years old, I’d take my money and use it to go to other great restaurants in Chicago."

One restaurant in particular caught his attention.

"Every time I went to Vie, they blew me away," he tells me. "I went there again and again. And finally I sent a letter to the chef and asked if I could stage there once or twice a week. I ended up working Fridays and Saturdays for three or four months while I was in high school, and then – six or seven months later – it became a paid gig."

Miller graduated from high school early so that he could go to the Culinary Institute of America in New York, where he got practical experience in a number of New York kitchens, and then completed an internship at Stella in New Orleans.  

"I learned a lot about real fine dining in Michelin kitchens at Stella," Miller notes. "Coming from Vie where the chef was much more of a mentor, New Orleans was all about business. It was a grind day in and day out and 80-hour weeks during Mardi Gras."

After graduation, Miller returned to Chicago, where he opened Tony Mantuano’s restaurant at the Art Institute.

"About five months after we opened, I was second guessing whether I wanted to be a chef," Miller admits. "I thought about getting into management. So, I enrolled at Northern Illinois for accounting, did my degree in three years."

However, while he was attending school, he secured a job as the executive chef for the Kishwaukee Country Club, which he says reinvigorated his thirst for cooking. So, after graduating, he and a friend decided to open a restaurant in Milwaukee – a fast casual Mediterranean joint. But, when his investor relocated, plans for the new spot fell apart.

After interviewing at a number of Milwaukee restaurants, Miller hopped on board as the sous chef for SURG’s 8-Twelve concept, where he ultimately transitioned to executive chef at HOM.

It’s exciting times for the young chef, with a new HOM restaurant opening at Bayshore in the next couple of months. So, we sat down to talk about what he loves about his work, how he feels about the collaborative nature of chefs in Milwaukee, and what he loves to eat when he’s at home. What are you most excited about here at HOM?

Andrew Miller: The whole making things in house, making charcuterie, pickles, preserves, jams and jellies – it’s almost become cliché, but if you’re a good restaurant, that’s just what you do these days.  But, going above and beyond that is really what excites me. Working with local farms and getting tons of seasonal produce – I’m always pushing the envelope with that. 

I’m bringing in 300 pounds of cabbage or Brussels sprouts. We might be doing Brussels sprout sauerkraut in June. I have green beans and tomatoes and corn. We’re getting a lot of our produce from farms within ten miles of here. I’m literally going to the farms and establishing relationships.

OMC: How is it working with a woodfired grill?

AM: You’re constantly feeding and stoking and poking.  There are hot spots, and it can be challenging. But, I had a little bit of experience with it at Vie, so I learned how to stoke the fire and keep it going, as well as utilizing it in creative ways.

OMC: What kinds of creative things are you doing with the fire?

AM: Well, tonight we’re featuring an aigre-doux (a gastrique, or sweet and sour sauce) made with local beets. we’re grilling the beets in their skins and then we’re making the sauce with them to serve with cauliflower.

We also do quite a few wine and beer dinners and VIP tasting menus where we grill a lot of stone fruits. We had a spin on the gooey butter cake where we took Italian prune plums from Mayville and we wood-grilled those and made a compote. Very simple, grilled, but complemented the butter cake very well.

OMC: You’ve spent much of your life in the industry. But, what role did food play in your life at home?

AM: My mom’s cooking was formidable. She made a white chicken chili with braised beans that I still remember … lemon bars. Nothing out of the ordinary. But, I always liked food. And I always liked to cook.

It would be like a Friday night and my friends would be over. If there was nothing for dessert, we’d pull out my mom’s cookbooks and make something.

I’d watch PBS shows and try to replicate what they were doing. I was always tinkering and making a big mess in the kitchen.

OMC:  You’ve had your doubts about the culinary world. Would you do it all over again if you had a second chance?

AM: Yeah, I mean that’s kind of how I live. No regrets. I’m living in the present. And it’s gotten me pretty far now. I’m at a good place at a pretty young age, and I think it was a good balance – learning the business side of things and the cooking side. It really made me into a well-rounded chef and a well- rounded person.

OMC: Who have been your major influences?

AM: Definitely the chef and owner of Vie – Paul Virant.  He was a really big influence at such an early age. I was 17 or 18 at the time, and instead of going out and partying on Fridays and Saturdays I was working the line. And he was a great, talented chef to learn from. He inspired me in how to live life, respect the food.  It really gave me a sense of place … introducing me ingredients like paw paw, and how he transformed great local ingredients into great dishes. I draw a lot of inspiration from my experience there.

And from everyday experiences as well. Like the dish tonight with cauliflower and beets. We’re doing cauliflower in four different ways and beets three different ways.  I was sitting on my porch about three weeks ago. It was a tundra, but there was kind of a red skyline above the snow. The dish will have these strips of guanciale sticking out of it, and beet chips. It’s a lot like the landscape. That’s what makes it really personal for me.

Also cookbooks – especially ones written for professional chefs.  Back when I was younger, and even more recently, I tried to read at least a cookbook a month.

OMC: Do you have a favorite cookbook?

AM: (Thomas Keller's) "The French Laundry" was pretty mind blowing to me. "On Food and Cooking" (by Harold McGee) is always a reference book, but I’ve read it through multiple times.  And now, some of the newer books – I really like "Manresa," "Modernist Cuisine."  It’s been helpful in seeing the new techniques – even if they’re not my style – it gets you thinking about new techniques.

OMC: What is the best compliment someone could give to you?

AM: Well, if I’m feeding other chefs… even someone telling me something was delicious, when it’s sincere, that’s a really great feeling.  I also get to interact with a lot of staff and guests here. But, when someone’s having a day… and you can turn that around, and get them past that, it’s a really rewarding piece of being a chef.  When you see people learn something new – or you can change a perspective – that’s rewarding. It keeps me going.

OMC: Talk to me about the collaboration/camaraderie among chefs in Milwaukee.

AM: I think it’s a lot more cliquey in other major cities, but in Milwaukee it’s like one big group. I have a very good relationship – and am friends with – the chefs who work with SURG and who have worked with them in the past. It’s a little different for me because I’m out in Brookfield. But, when I get to cook with the chefs downtown, it’s great.

I think the proximity of the chefs in the city really helps. They talk with one another, and eat at one another's places. Chefs have pride in the ingredients grown and made in Wisconsin. Coming from disciplined professional kitchens, they all have a bond. And there are a lot of chefs here doing great things. And that’s really the push towards excellence that binds them together.

OMC: What’s one of your biggest failures in the kitchen?

AM: I’ll go back to my days at Vie. I remember very specifically one night when we were really busy. It was one of my first weeks working the hot appetizer station. We had a dish – a gnocchi appetizer – essentially gnocchi, tomatoes and parmesan. It was simple, but the sauce had probably eighteen different ingredients in it – each brunoised – and it took about an hour and a half to make.  I probably had enough for 12 orders, and I was a little in the weeds on prep that day. So, I rolled the dice and I started stretching the sauce with chicken stock and butter. And the chef found out pretty easily. The look that he gave me will stay in my mind as one of the worst feelings ever.

Since then, I make sure I don’t make shortcuts.

OMC: What is your favorite kitchen gadget, and why?

AM: A wooden spoon. Flat edge. There’s nothing else that will ever compare when it comes to getting to the bottom of a pan and getting the good bits up. I can’t live without that.

OMC: What is always in your refrigerator at home?

AM: Really good Cheddar. A lot of condiments. Beer. Umm… usually good salami, prosciutto.  A good baguette in the pantry. Really simple stuff.  At home I’m not doing tasting menus. I’m enjoying simple, handcrafted products from Wisconsin and imported stuff… Baguette with butter, sea salt and prosciutto is my go to after a night of hard work.

OMC: During the cold weather, what is your comfort food?

AM: Honestly, I make that white chicken chili of my mom’s when it gets cold.  But, also sandwiches. Me and the roommates will go to Glorioso's and get great cured meats, balsamic vinegar, arugula… we’ll layer the ingredients on a good rustic bread with cheese, like Provolone, wrap it up in foil and bake it.

It comes out all melty and crispy. Just the variety of texture and flavor – it’s great.

Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host

Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club. 

When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.