Butchering Beasts and Firing Up the Grill at Miller's Guild in Seattle

[Photographs: Jay Friedman]

Walk into the new Miller's Guild at the Hotel Max in Seattle, and what you'll immediately notice is the immense presence of an impressive nine-foot wood-fired grill. Affectionately called "the Hearth," the custom-made Infierno (made by Grillworks, which has only produced a handful of these to date) is clearly intended to be the focal point of the restaurant. Sit anywhere close, and you'll not only see it, but you'll feel it as well. The Infierno puts out a lot of heat.

So, just how hot is the grill?

It's so hot that those working it wear welder aprons (and gloves)—a lesson learned after realizing that cotton t-shirts heat up intensely. (In fact, the original idea of shirts with decals was ditched when the plastic started melting onto the cooks' bodies.) It's so hot that workers are limited to just two days per week on the hot side of the grill. It's so hot that chef Jason Wilson jokes that his biggest challenge is "stocking up on lotion and ChapStick." And it's so hot that I couldn't conduct an interview of Wilson at the grill (I was worried my camera and I would both melt), and even at the counter I needed occasional breaks for cooler air.

Talking with Wilson away from the fire, a quick question came to mind: did the grill come with an owner's manual? He explained that there was basically just a sheet explaining how to use the crankwheel, which enables him to adjust the height of the cooking surface according to desired interaction with the flames. When I asked if he felt like a mad scientist at work over the open flames, he nodded and said, "I'm like a caveman who's figured it out."


Bavette steak with beetroot pesto

Grillworks would likely call Wilson a maestro, as the company describes its Infierno as "a stage for chefs to conduct an open fire symphony." Wilson wants to maximize use of the Infierno, demonstrating for me the ability to grill seafood above the fire, cook meats in cast-iron pans, heat bread, roast beets under "coals" (wood, actually), blister apples, and more. Reflecting on the challenge of working with his new toy, he said, "it's mostly about exploring the full potential of multiple styles of cookery...at one point, I looked at the copper pipe above the Infierno and realized I could hang quail there to smoke them."

In some ways, Miller's Guild is the opposite of Wilson's long-established Crush restaurant. Cooking over fire is far different than sous vide cookery, for example; walk away from the fire for even a minute and the food may suffer. Wilson explained that you need to constantly see and hear (and feed) the fire. In opening Miller's Guild, he wants to show his breadth of skills rather than replicating something he's already done. "What we're doing here is not fine dining, but I don't consider it a step down," Wilson explains, adding, "It's simply a different style."

Inside Miller's Guild

If you can take your focus away from the fire, you'll find an intimate dining room that's casual and yet classy. The restaurant name pays homage to the building's past, when it was known as the Vance Hotel, housing Vance Lumber Company workers. As the area was home to many guilds, Wilson wants to evoke era-based cookery, including the crafts of butchery, baking, and cocktails.

Miller's Guild currently serves dinner only, but it will soon expand to include breakfast and lunch, with each mealtime uniquely different in terms of food and ambiance. During dinner, there are several menus to consider. The main menu has appetizers and salads, entrées and large plates, and sides and vegetables. The Infierno menu changes daily based on what's being butchered and lists animal, source, and details. It's where you'll find large cuts of beef (including A4 Wagyu), rack of lamb, pork loin, prawns, and that smoked quail. Check the slideshow for some of the menu items and a closer look inside the restaurant.