We're a peculiar lot. Professional cooks often have quirks and idiosyncrasies that most rational people would find, perhaps, circumspect. Yet we earn those quirks sincerely. It comes with our territory. Long hours in a brutal environment, late night trips to the emergency room and looking at all those tattoos and piercings can make anyone a little crazy. Clay Miller is no different.
"When my girlfriend first came over to the house, I was going to cook dinner for her. She opened the fridge to search for something to drink. I looked at her and calmly stated, 'There's something I have to show you because I wouldn't want you to accidentally find it and get the wrong impression of me.' And then I showed her my collection of cleavers. And these just aren't any cleavers; they're big two-handed ones with enormous carved handles and gleaming blades. I was afraid she would take one look and bolt for the front door."
Clay Miller didn't decide to become a professional cook until later than most of us do. He didn't grow up under the tutelage of a family cook. It was only after he earned his degree in Hotel, Restaurant & Tourism did he pursue cooking because he figured he should have an understanding of both sides of the business.
"Soon after graduating culinary school I ended up working for Guenter Seeger at the Ritz-Carlton in Atlanta. I had only been there a few weeks when I caught this aroma; one of the more experienced cooks was making a sauce and I walked over and asked him about it and how he made it. I wanted to know what was in the pot and how to make someone else as curious as I had been. The flavor of that sauce was almost magical and it was at that point that I started to take this stuff seriously."
So seriously that in 2010, Food & Wine magazine named him one of their best new chefs.
"Ever since that day I've been in love with cooking. I know that sounds crazy, that I would go to culinary school because it just seemed like something I should do. But that's my story. Some cooks know from an early age that cooking was all they ever wanted to do. Though I may have found my passion late in the game, I found it. And then Guenter put in his notice and told us he was leaving to open his own place. I had been at the Ritz less than a year and felt that I was just finding my groove. Guenter was such an amazing chef and had a phenomenal reputation so we all figured the guy to replace Guenter would have super-hero status. And when Joel Antunes arrived, well, we got our super-hero. He was such an amazing chef and quite the dynamic personality as well as a genuinely nice guy. There were no secrets with him."
So there were no cleavers in the closet with Joel?
Now Clay Miller makes his living in South Beach Miami doing of all things, frying upwards of 2,000 pounds of chicken a week at Yardbird. That's right, two thousand pounds. And he calmly states that his patrons are often the super-model elite of Miami, gliding into the dining room not to exercise caution or try the latest gluten-free foam flight but rather to indulge in deep-fat fried chicken.
This Saturday, Clay Miller will be in good company as guest chef at the Euphoria Food & Wine Festival in Greenville, SC courtesy of the bacon-fat infused kitchen of Stella's Southern Bistro, Open Table's highest rated restaurant in the Upstate -- along with chef-owner Jason Scholz, King Estate's Randy Ford and James Boyce, executive chef of Huntsville, AL's Cotton Row. Perhaps at the end of the night, when the last dish has gone out and the bourbon has been poured someone will ask Clay Miller about his cleaver collection and if his girlfriend ever come to terms with all that sharpened steel?
"She's now my wife and even better, she helped me hang those cleavers throughout the kitchen."