'Shining up classic dishes
The ocean is a long way from Rick Miller’s kitchen. The kitchen is a long way from where his journey began.
“Back then I wanted to be a marine biologist,” the 61-year-old smiled. “And I can still give all the Latin names to the fish.”
Head chef at the Moonshine Grill, within the Smoky Falls Lodge in Maggie Valley, Miller has spent a lifetime working in kitchens, managing and owning restaurants, and, quite simply, creating meals that fill the belly and warm the soul.
“We try to keep one foot in the mainstream, but we put little twists on everything we do,” he said. “I just want people to enjoy our product, have a great experience, and have a reason to come back.”
Miller opened Moonshine Grill in April 2011 with lodge owner Eric Freyeisen. The establishment specializes in hearty dishes cooked in a 72-inch wood-fire grill, fueled by hickory wood. Entrees range from hand-cut steaks (sliced on the premise), pasta and pork chops to elaborate appetizers and sweet-tooth desserts. Most of the plates feature a key ingredient: moonshine.
“When we started this, we wanted to tie into the history and popularity of moonshine in this area,” Miller said. “Popcorn Sutton is a big name here, and I remember seeing people walk around with their ‘headache pills,’ which was the berries they’d eat from the moonshine jar.”
Growing up in Yorktown Heights in Upstate New York, Miller was surrounded by a family that grew their own vegetables and caught their own fish. There were a lot of cooks in the kitchen, with Miller enjoying the fruits of their culinary labors.
Eventually, Miller decided to enroll at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, where he’d major in marine biology. That’s when he realized he couldn’t cook as well as he was used to eating back home.
“My relatives could all cook, and there was a shock of going to college and eating cafeteria food,” Miller said.
Soon, a friend offered him a gig as a dishwasher at a local restaurant. The friend also began slowly teaching Miller the art of cooking while on the job.
“I needed money, and I was starving to death down there,” Miller chuckled. “Working in that kitchen was an opportunity to feed myself — that’s where it all started.”
Upon graduation, with his marine biology degree in hand, Miller was making great pay in the culinary industry. So, he decided to give it a couple more years in the kitchen. Those years passed, and he gave it a few more, which in turn became his lifelong pursuit.
“I was going to work at the restaurant a little while longer and pay off my student bills, then go into my field,” he said. “But, I was making twice the amount in the kitchen as I was being offered in [marine biology]. Where I was was really growing at that time, and I ended up opening seven restaurants all over.”
Now, years later, Miller still wakes up every day and loves his job. The hours and pace are fast, something that appealed to him as a young adult. These days though, he enjoys being able to be a big fish running a smaller restaurant.
“When I was younger, it was about the thrill of filling volumes, where you’d be cooking for 700 people at night and 1,100 during the day — it was an adrenaline rush,” he said. “But, I’ve been fortunate to work myself into smaller and smaller places where I can solely concentrate on the food.”
Maggie Meets Mélange
With the annual Mélange of the Mountains culinary celebration overtaking Haywood County next week, from April 10 to 13, Miller looks forward to throwing his hat in the ring. He hopes to put the Moonshine Grill on the map and in the bellies of local residents and visitors alike.
“We really enjoy what we do. We wish the word got out there a little bit more. It’s been a constant battle — people just don’t realize what we’re doing here,” he said. “The hardest thing for us is drawing people in from Waynesville, and that’s a problem Maggie Valley is facing, too. We’re looking at Mélange as a way to get our name out there, let people taste our moonshine pasta, pork loin cheese spread and frozen key lime mousse.”
Miller noted some long-term goals at the restaurant. Possibilities include a brewpub, moonshine micro-distillery and maybe the option to franchise the business into something that the rest of Southern Appalachia can enjoy eating as much as Miller enjoys preparing it.
“Any position someone works in, whether you’re a construction worker or a CEO of an electronics company, you have to have a passion for your job to start with, and if you don’t, the product won’t be good,” the cook said. “Satisfaction for me is putting out a good product, something that people will remember and enjoy — that’s what it’s all about.”