Market Hall Foods Executive Chef Scott Miller
Market Hall Foods owner Sara Wilson hugs Executive Chef Scott Miller at his 30-year celebration
In 2017, Market Hall Foods, formerly The Pasta Shop, has been celebrating its 30 years as the flagship store inside Rockridge Market Hall in Oakland. This month, Executive Chef Scott Miller celebrates his own three decades as captain of the Market Hall Kitchen. Yes, in this world of fleeting chef celebrity, Chef Miller has stayed the course. He's been here since day one, so he has a few stories to tell. We sat down with him amidst the bustle, bubble and boil of his busy kitchen.
You're the Executive Chef of a food empire. How did you get your start?
Where I came from, there was not much talk of college or the future, just politics. I even went to Black Panthers Summer Camp! I grew up like many other children of the 60's in Berkeley, running wild and not caring about much beyond the moment. But I was lucky. In 1978, a buddy got me a job washing dishes at Narsai's. Along with Alice Waters, Narsai David was already a local food legend. After a few weeks scrubbing pots, I was asked to do prep. Soon, I was learning knife skills and working with the charcutière, Narsai's brother Jim. He taught me how to make pâté, terrine, and sausage. When he left, I became the charcutière and got really good at it.
These days, high-level butchery is a big thing—guys with handlebar mustaches in denim aprons.
Right, I was a charcutière when no one knew how to say the word. Now, there's this big wave. It's great, but I was doing this s%*t back in 1980. That's all I did all day—terrines, galantines, pâtés en croûte. I stayed at Narsai's until 1981. Next, I was hired by the previous owners of The Pasta Shop (now Market Hall Foods). I worked with them for three years. Then I started helping other people open restaurants.
That's when the Wilsons came and found you?
Yes, they'd purchased the business [The Pasta Shop] and wanted to work with me, so they hunted me down. And the rest is history!
You've worked with a lot of women in your career.
Yeah, I went from working for Narsai, a maniacal, crazed, genius guy—who taught me a lot from afar, like not to throw s%*t away—to doing stints with women like Barbara Tropp at China Moon and Amaryll Schwertner at Premier Cru, then working with Sara Wilson and Sandy Sonnenfelt. These women had a different approach, patient and gentle, calming yet creative. Their example helped frame how I treat others in my own kitchen. (pictured, Sara Wilson with Chef Miller in the late 80's)
What's it been like working for a family company?
I loved the Wilsons from the beginning. They were there every day with me. Tony would be behind the line with me, grilling sausages at the street fair on a little Weber. I miss that. They were here all day, every day, committed and willing to do anything. Sara, of course, never left the trenches, and Tony and Peter are still around every day, though they're more involved with the design and building of other projects.
Chef Miller flanked by General Manager Ali Jahangiri, Tony Wilson, Peter Wilson, Chef Sandy Sonnenfelt, Sara Wilson and CFO Gustavo Houghton
You admire hard work.
Yes, and these are the kind of people I now hire, people with a tremendous work ethic—one day cleaning a grease trap, the next day chopping onions. There's no "I don't do that." And that's kind of how I was, working my way up every day from being a dishwasher.
In this culture of job-changing, you've stayed the course.
Initially, people would say, "Wow you've been here a long time". At first, I wasn't sure if it was a sign of weakness. I used to think maybe I was scared because I didn't go open a restaurant, or that I lacked self-esteem. But over time, I came to realize that my experience with the Wilsons has allowed me to have a great work/life balance. I was there for my two boys. Now they've grown up and there's no "woulda, coulda, shoulda". There's such a high value to that. One minute, your kids are babies and the next minute, they're going to leave. (pictured, Sara Wilson and Chef Miller holding the photo of themselves from three decades prior)
Longevity's a good thing!
At my 30-year celebration with the staff, Tony Wilson said something that really means a lot to me. He praised my stability in the kitchen. I'm really stable. When you think about this business, that is really something. There's been this stability, like a ship that's moving slow and steady, nothing earth-shattering, but every department I've managed has continued to grow and be profitable and that's not easy to do.
The Market Hall Foods kitchen staff and family members at Chef Miller's 30-year celebration
You seem like a big, extended family.
We've lived through a lot of stuff together over the years. Going through the earthquake, the firestorm . . . We've had some deaths and divorces, as well as lots of marriages and births. There were amazing moments like Obama being elected. And everyday silly stuff too. About a year ago, a bunch of my chefs were challenging each other to foot races. One day I was working and I looked out the window to see all my guys in the Bart parking lot in their chef coats and pants, running back and forth amidst the parked cars!
You've been at it 30 years. How have food trends changed since 1987?
I don't think they've changed much. Every few years, there are different buzzwords: natural, organic, free range, non-GMO. What people really want is fresh, high-quality food. In the 80's, it was the more ingredients the better, and they called that California Cuisine. At Market Hall Foods, we wanted simplicity. Sometimes, Sara would come by while we were cooking and say "Too many ingredients!".
We're in a culture of celebrity chefs. Ever wish you'd gone that route?
No, I'm shy and introverted for the most part. In the beginning, when I had a meeting with a crew of ten, I was shaking. That Christmas, I had a crew of twelve and I had to make a speech. I was petrified. People say "you're so good," but it's because I'm such a nervous wreck, I'm over-prepared. Recognition from people who work with me means more. I was so moved by the staff party we had for my 30 years. I couldn't believe how many people came to celebrate with me. They came from all departments and in in huge numbers. That meant the world to me.
Your sons work at Market Hall Foods now. Do you see them becoming chefs?
On the one hand, it couldn't warm my heart more that they're interested in food. It makes me proud, and they're proud of me. On the other hand, I stumbled into this. I was lucky. There are fewer jobs now. So do I want my sons to follow in my footsteps? Not necessarily. I want them to have options. (pictured, Chef Miller with his sons Max and Josh)
Name your top three influences
Narsai David, Barbara Tropp, Jacques Pépin, and I have to add a fourth: Sandy Sonnenfelt (pictured below, with Chef Miller).
Do you still work the line?
At this point, I jump in where needed. Either working out new recipes, or reworking current recipes. I spend a lot of time writing recipes. Over the years, I've worked out a format of how to write foolproof recipes that I can hand to anybody. Because customers demand consistency.
When's the cookbook coming out?
[Laughs] We started to write one 25 years ago . . .
Your desert island food?
I'm a sucker for good pizza.
I can go all over the place.
What do you eat for lunch every day?
I eat many different things for lunch, but mostly one of our salads with either salmon, chicken or carnitas mixed in. However, every morning I eat oatmeal with almonds and fruit for breakfast. Now we sell our own oatmeal at Market Hall Bakery, but before that, I used to prepare it for myself every morning. All the employees would make fun of me and think I was weird for eating it. Now, almost every employee eats oatmeal for breakfast.
Your chicken liver mousse won a Good Food award. Do you have a favorite deli item?
I always have our Ranch Dressing, Roasted Tomato Sauce and Nocellara olives in my fridge at home.
How about your kids?
In the past, they would always call and ask me to bring home a Fried Chicken Sandwich (Max) and a Terrific Turkey Sandwich (Josh). I cook all kinds of things at home . . . lots of simple curries. Back in the day, if I served it with plain rice, my kids would say "Why not coconut rice, Dad?". Early on, as an exhausted parent of twins, I admit to going through a McDonald's stage with them.
My dad loves the Ragù Lasagne. My mom lives in Mexico, but when she's here in town, she loves everything we make. She's my #1 fan.
What do you like most about working at Market Hall Foods?
My crew has shown me incredible loyalty, tenacity, commitment to family, unparalleled work ethic and most of all: cooking talent. I would be nowhere without them. I am a big believer in developing and maintaining long relationships, whether it's with my employees or my purveyors. I have so many employees that have been with me for more than ten years. We all have been through so much together, both professionally and personally. We're like a big tribe. (pictured, Chefs Sonnenfelt and Miller with long-time Kitchen Managers Manuel Sánchez and Patricio Alvarado)
All photographs, excluding vintage pic, by Stuart Steinhardt.