Chef Travis Milton Is Pioneering An Appalachian Culinary Renaissance

Native son Travis Milton could be the chef to push Appalachian cuisine into the light

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Last year, excited whispers started to surround Travis Milton. The warm chef from the South was planning to open an Appalachian restaurant in Richmond, Virginia, a place where he had come to call home but wasn't from. He planned to grow his own food, so he would have access to the ingredients that he grew up with in Castlewood, a small town in Southwestern Virginia.

Then, earlier this year, Milton announced that he was, in fact, going home. And, more recently, he explained what was once one restaurant had evolved into three: a meat-and-three that will open early next year in Saint Paul, Virginia. And later next year, in Bristol, Virginia, he will open Simply Grand and his flagship Shovel and Pick, which will play with the tension between classic and more modern Appalachian food, with Milton's take on dishes like kilt lettuce (greens dressed with hot bacon fat), turnip greens and collards stewed with dried apples, apple stack cake, and a brined and fried catfish with tomato and bacon gravy (see the recipe).

Photo: Scott Elmquist/Style Weekly

The projects have become a crusade of sorts for the food of Appalachia, the mountainous region that runs from the bottom edge of New York to Georgia. It's a cuisine that's tied tightly to its terroir and diverse communities, both of which can change in an hour's drive. It's also a type of cooking that is inextricably linked to a culture of subsistence, to making the most out of what the earth can give and helping it last through the seasons when the ground doesn't yield much.

While other cuisines of the American South have gained champions in recent years, the foods of Appalachia have largely been left untouched by chefs. One major exception is John Fleer, the longtime executive chef of Blackberry Farm, who opened the well-regarded Rhubarb in Asheville, North Carolina. But even Fleer defers to Milton: "He's our designated spokesperson no matter what. He has this in his bones. I have it, because it's my adopted home, but he was born with it."

A consensus of sorts has formed around Milton as the chef who could propel this food into a new phase, while still carefully respecting the roots of its traditions. "[Travis has] been building this story for a long time, and the moment has opened, the light has suddenly shifted to this region and he is the person who is totally prepared to do this," Ronni Lundy, whose Appalachian cookbook Victuals comes out next month, explains.

Milton was quite literally born into the cuisine. He grew up peeling potatoes with a plastic knife at his grandparent's greasy spoon in the area. Later, he left to work at famous restaurants until one day in the kitchen of modernist wd~50, something clicked. "It made me realize how important and true the food I grew up with is," he explains.

And then there were other moments, like the time he lamented to Husk's Sean Brock that he wasn't cooking Appalachian food, and Brock said, "'Why the hell aren't you doing it?'" Milton recalls.  

For Milton to "do it," he ultimately decided it would have to be back in the mountains, in the heart of the region. "If I was outside of Appalachia, I'd be part of the problem I'm bitching about," he says. "I'd be outside of Appalachia, capitalizing on Appalachia." It's a sentiment that he and others cooking in the area feel deeply, in large part because the region has a long history of extraction, of people taking from Appalachia and not giving much in return.

Being back has also allowed Milton to join and build a community for himself and his projects. He's collaborated with other chefs on suppers, heritage projects and a culinary salon with the James Beard Foundation. It's also allowed him to work as an oral history collector, learning recipes from neighbors and meeting with local Cherokee historians and folklorists to understand the strong impact of Native American foodways on Appalachian cooking. "I'm not trying to tell other folks' story," he says. "I'm trying to get a sense of their story and where they are coming from. I want to tell my story and showcase theirs."

Moving back to the mountains also has a tactical advantage, as the soil grows the ingredients he was raised on, which are so challenging to find elsewhere. While he will grow some himself, using seeds that have been passed down for 10 generations, he will also buy from local farmers, helping support the economy, which he sees as key for the future of the cuisine and the region. "I'm working hard . . . to create a base of knowledge and create a way for [others] to obtain these ingredients and know the story behind them. That has to happen for this cuisine to sustain itself and not be in the spotlight for five minutes," he says.

Milton's projects aren't without their challenges. Appalachian cuisine has typically been one consumed in homes, not restaurants, and the growing season, which is so vital to the cuisine, is shorter than it is at points further south. But Milton isn't deterred, saying, "I'm kind of scared but too excited to let that stop me." He adds, without cliche or hyperbole, "I'm going to make [it] or die trying."