Story By Warren Nast; Photo By Ali Waxman
At the age of seventeen, David T. Mills III was washing dishes for a local restaurant and living across from the projects in Philadelphia, far from Rittenhouse Square. Two years later, he became an executive chef with much more responsibility than his previous position of dishwasher. But Mills aspired for more.
“From there I went on to manage contract companies but was frustrated that I couldn’t break into the upper levels of management without a degree. So I enrolled at Harrisburg Area Community College and got my degree,” says Mills. “I graduated on a Tuesday and on Thursday I started working as a Culinary Instructor for Harrisburg Area Community College.”
In 2015, Mills chaperoned a group of HACC students on a culinary tour of Italy. “One of our stops was a picturesque little town on a hill with narrow cobblestone streets called Panzano. We ate lunch at the Antica Macelleria Butcher Shop,” says Mills. “I didn’t realize this guy playing ‘AC/DC’ on the radio, who was quoting Dante and pouring us Chianti was anybody famous, but I liked his style and what he represented.”
Mills describes Antica Macelleria as a “meat lover’s paradise with cases and cases of meat. “There was even a Minotaur standing guard. I immediately connected with this man’s hospitality and style,” says Mills.
Soon Mills had a name to his new found butcher. He was Dario Cecchini, the world’s most famous butcher whose fame was cemented in history during the mad cow disease crisis in 2001. The eighth-generation butcher is also known to have followed a “nose-to-tail” philosophy well before it was in vogue.
The Italian government had banned eating beef on the bone so Cecchini held a funeral for the “bistecca alla fiorentina.” This peaceful protest spectacle of Cecchini marching through the streets with a porterhouse steak in a casket garnered world-wide news coverage. Cecchini’s fame soon skyrocketed and he started appearing on shows such as the late Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations,” and “Top Chef.” Cecchini even had a lengthy section in Bill Burford’s culinary classic book, Heat. Cecchini is now known as one of the modern trendsetters for “the tail to snout movement,” which utilizes every part of an animal for cooking.
“You could tell this place had an effect on David. He was like a kid taking in everything, asking lots of questions of Dario,” says Faith Brenneman, a HACC culinary student who was on the trip to Italy with Mills and now one of his employees. “Cecchini’s butcher shop is definitely where David’s passion was ignited.”
After returning to Pennsylvania, Mills says he knew he needed to acquire more training so he became involved with the L.E.A.F. Project (Leadership, Education and Farming) which trains teen leaders from diverse backgrounds through farming. “Through the L.E.A.F organization I visited local farms such as North Mountain Pastures in Newport and Pecan Meadows Farm in Newburg and learned that when looking for a humanely raised animal it is important to use your nose to smell that the farm has a ‘clean’ odor and your ears to hear no sound of distress coming from the animal. This is important for to me that the animals I butcher have been well looked after by the farmers who raised them,” explains Mills.
?Mills’ next meeting with his culinary hero occurred at the Pullo Center in York where Cecchini gave a lecture and the following advice: “Find a maestro, don’t be afraid of your knives, and don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do it.”
“From that point on I knew I was going to open my butcher shop. Whether it was just me alone behind a butcher block or what we have today, a shop plus a restaurant was my plan,” says Mills. And he did just that. Mills developed a menu, sourced food, and hired employees. However, three days before the opening of his butcher shop a fire in the upstairs apartment put a hold on Mills’ plan.
Brenneman remembers that day well. “When I drove up to the shop there were firetrucks everywhere, and I thought everything was gone. That is when I got to see how strong Dave is,” says Brenneman. “He was encouraging everyone that it would be okay, and he was right. He doesn’t let obstacles stop him from his dreams.”
“One of the things I learned in the restaurant business is that when hiring people you can’t teach them to be on time, smile or care about your business, so I hire for these intangibles and then I can teach them the basics of food service,” says Mills. His philosophy paid off as his staff, family and friends rallied around him and got everything cleaned up, allowing him to open the shop, only ten days later than what he originally planned.
Now when customers walk into the Smoke & Pickles Artisan Butcher Shop, they’ll see Mills, who towers at 6 feet 5 inches, sporting an old-fashioned handlebar moustache and wearing a bow tie, behind a butcher block. Mills describes himself as “farmer strong” as he can lift half a cow onto the block with no help. With his knives and saw hanging from the ceiling, classic rock playing in the background, the meat cases full of homemade sausage, lamb chops, pork, and of course porterhouse on the bone, customers see in real time, a man living his dream.
Mills says the future is bright, “We have had offers to expand already but my goal here is to be a part of the community, to offer clean food, and to educate people with culinary classes on sausage making, brewing, and butchering.”
Mills’ wife, Kelli, agrees. “Our motto has been to dream big, dig deep, work hard, and connect with people personally,” she says.
This year, Mills had another chance to meet his hero in person when he appeared once again at the Pullo Center. “I told Cecchini about my shop and his influence on me,” says Mills. “Cecchini told me he was proud of me for keeping the lost art of butchering alive, and that if I ever needed anything I just had to whistle.”
Smoke & Pickles Artisan Butcher Shop is inspired by the nostalgia and Old World charm of a traditional family-owned butcher shop with a refreshing twist of modern culinary artistry and is located at 30 S. Market Street, Mechanicsburg. Open five days week the shop is closed on Sunday and Monday. For hours of operation and more information go to www.smokeandpicklesltd.com. Phone: (717) 795-4852.