Photo by Stephanie Breijo
Comfort chef Travis Milton cut his culinary teeth peeling potatoes in Wise County with a dull knife in the back of his great-grandfather's greasy spoon restaurant. From a lineage of coalminers and farmers, he spent much of his childhood planting seeds and preserving Appalachian harvests alongside his parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and extended family. It's a way of life Milton has carried with him from restaurant to restaurant in Richmond, first inwardly and then publicly, and now is bringing to his own concept, Shovel and Pick, opening later this year or early next.
"I would follow the cooks around in the kitchen and always wanted to learn, and dig my fingers into whatever they were doing," he remembers. "I was literally surrounded by food all the time and it was part of that vernacular where no matter where I was, everything revolved around food; cooking food, picking food, planting food, eating food, and when you're eating, everyone's around and the whole family's there, like 10 or 12 of you, and generally the conversation was dominated not just by what happened that day but by the food itself."
Though Milton has garnered national attention for his work in Appalachian food preservation and his time in the kitchen of Comfort, his adolescence and early adulthood were spent trying to bury his heritage. After moving to Richmond around the age of 12, he hid his accent and any trace of those long summers pickling beans or learning about apples from his great-grandfather's orchard.
"Everything I wanted to do was get away from that," Milton says. "When I got [to Richmond] everyone would say, 'He's a hillbilly,' 'He's an idiot' because I had this fairly thick accent and I worked really hard to get rid of this accent and every single part of being Appalachian, and as I grew older I did a total 180. I thought, 'That's all I want. I want the food from back home. I miss it.'"
Thankfully for Richmond diners — and seed preservation — Milton's "180" has been successful and he's going back to his culinary roots. While you'd sometimes find sour corn on special at Comfort, or the occasional grits made from heirloom Cherokee White Eagle corn beneath your shrimp, these limited menu offerings will be available every day at Shovel and Pick, Milton's new concept that, as of now, is torn between three locations in two neighborhoods: Scott's Addition and Church Hill.
A meat-and-three restaurant by day with more composed plates for dinner by night, the 80-to-100-seat venture will rely on produce Milton farms himself — roughly 80 percent of the produce on the menu — which he has already begun farming on his parents' land in Powhatan. The seeds, gathered from trips back to Wise and Russell counties and from other seed supporters like chef Sean Brock, Anson Mills and the professor of Southern studies at the University of South Carolina, will offer guests a chance to try varieties of tomatoes, apples, radishes, beans and corn they've never experienced before and haven't been available for years.
“I kind of struggle planning a restaurant that’s really in the vernacular so I kind of refer to Husk being that; it’s comfortable but the food’s really, really nice, it’s nicely plated, nicely presented, and everything around you kind of points towards the heritage of it all, and that’s kind of the thought process," says Milton. "Obviously I don’t want it to look like Husk or anything, but that’s just the closest thing I can think of — to that extreme — because I’m going an extreme level on this, growing my own stuff and seed saving.”
In true Appalachian fashion, meat — primarily Mulefoot Hog from Lockhart Family Farm, "the quintessential Appalachian hog," according to Milton — won't typically be the focus of the meal.
“I work with Josiah [Lockhart] a lot in the Slow Meat program with Slow Food, about taking meat away as the focus of the plate, so it’s going to be very, very vegetarian-friendly — not by design but just based off of happenstance of what Appalachian culture is," Milton says. "That was the way I always grew up; we would have a little bit of meat, but we would have 15 different types of vegetables — fresh tomatoes, all kinds of stewed beans — but meat was never the focal point of everything, and that kind of came about via poverty throughout time in Appalachia.”
Guests can also expect house-made vinegars, tinctures, handmade cakes and pies like the apple stack, pickled goods, and craft cocktails made with Cheerwine.
Fans and regulars of Comfort needn't fear, however; owner and chef Jason Alley will continue to spend the majority of his time at Pasture, but will reintroduce himself into the Comfort kitchen to retool some of the menu while maintaining the restaurant's original concept.
"We are obviously sad to see Travis go, but we are super excited for him," says Alley, who has already chosen a new chef de cuisine. "Travis has done a great job but there’s always a way to look at this opportunity to do new, so I just want to get back in there and tweak some dishes, maybe revamp some of the appetizers that have been there quite some time and take the opportunity to freshen things up a bit. But no, conceptually I wouldn’t [redacted] with that.”
While we wait for Shovel and Pick to launch, Milton says he'll be cooking at a series of pop-ups over the summer including one held at the acclaimed The Shack in Staunton, and another at Shoryuken Ramen here in Richmond, possibly centered around the theme of vinegar and pickling in both Asian and Appalachian cuisine.
“I often tell the story that seeds come from the hard work and the sweat and sacrifices of my ancestors, and that’s what I want to preserve and show people. I want to take people back to that place," Milton says. "I won’t necessarily be able to tell the story of my grandfather, but you biting into a certain dish that I make, that’s based of something my grandmother did. Or some produce I have seeds for that they grew — it’s going to take you to a place and maybe it’ll take you to you being in a kitchen with your grandmother or being on a farm in the summer when you were young. It’s a wonderful thing about food and that’s what I try to push forward, is the heart of it all.”