We’re excited to welcome this month’s “Dishing With…” guest, Executive Chef Zach Smith of The Hamilton DC. We’re thankful he took time out of his busy schedule to dish with us on all thing seafood!
Raised on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Chef Zach discovered cooking at a young age with his mother and it’s been his passion ever since. He trained at the Culinary Arts Program at The Art Institute in Arlington, Va., before he began working under Brian Voltaggio at Volt, and American Tap Room under Steve Mannino. Smith’s career path led him to Pennsylvania, where he further honed his skills at The Lodge at Woodloch.
Returning to D.C., Chef Zach joined The Hamilton team in 2013 as Sous Chef, before he took the helm in 2016 as Executive Chef Today, he’s sharing with us some tips for cooking seafood at home, his family’s favorite recipes and advice on how to feel more confident in the kitchen.
Let’s dig in!
Tell us about yourself and your background as a chef.
Cooking has always been a passion of mine. It started when I was 3 years old, living in Chicago, and my mom got me a Fisher-Price kitchen. I would put on my apron and chef hat and “cook” with my mom while she was making dinner. That same year I asked for orange roughy and asparagus for my birthday dinner. From then on, it remained a passion of mine.
It wasn’t until I went to the Art Institute of Arlington and started working as a line cook at Lansdowne resort, that I realized this would be my career. I’ve worked in many different restaurants, from fine dining at Volt in Frederick Md., to The Lodge at Woodloch, a destination spa resort in Hawley, Pa., and others in between. Now I run The Hamilton, a $23 million-a-year restaurant, which houses a 650-person music venue, located a couple blocks from the White House. I oversee a staff of 100-plus that helps me make everything from scratch in house.
What is your favorite way to cook seafood, and what is your favorite seafood dish to make (either at work or in your spare time)?
Last summer, I was lucky enough to travel to the southern coast of Portugal. My sons, who were 3 and less than 1 years old at the time, really enjoyed the seafood while we were there. My oldest couldn’t get enough of the Amêijoas (clams) cooked with white wine, garlic, extra virgin olive oil and cilantro, and whole grilled sardines. Even my youngest was eating the whole grilled bream and turbot. The excellent quality of the seafood and the simplicity of the dishes really stuck with me.
On my days off, I’ll ask my oldest if he wants clams or if he wants crispy skin fish (because if there is no skin, he doesn’t want it). We enjoy local littleneck clams steamed with garlic, white wine and olive oil, and finished with cilantro. Or, whatever fish is freshest, cooked skin side down in a pan and gently basted with brown butter with garlic and finished with thyme.
Many are intimidated by cooking seafood at home. What’s your advice for these aspiring seafood chefs? Can you share a tip for seafood prep?
Keep it simple. There are so many different types of seafood and fish, and I think a lot of aspiring cooks/home cooks mask the flavor with overpowering sauces or marinades. If you get fresh, local, seasonal seafood, sometimes all you need is some good olive oil and a wedge of lemon.
At home, I’ll buy a whole snapper, rockfish (striped bass) or even farm-raised Bronzino and simply grill it. I may stuff the cavity with some lemon slices and fresh herbs, season and oil the fish well inside and out, and that’s it. I’ll serve it whole with a liberal splash of good extra virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. The skin and bones help keep the fish moist, and then my whole family sits around the table, picking the meat off the bones. It’s healthy, light and takes very little time to prep or cook.
What’s the biggest misconception about seafood?
I think a major misconception about seafood is that it’s too difficult for the home cook. If you spend some time looking through cookbooks, there are many simple, full – proof ways to cook beautiful fish. Try cooking a nice piece of halibut en papillote with white wine and herbs, or a whole fish covered in a salt crust. Both methods trap moisture and steam the fish, which will yield a more flavorful fish and allow for a smaller margin of error. Brining fish also delivers amazing results. An 8-ounce piece of swordfish left in a 10% salt brine (100 grams salt dissolved in 1000 grams water) for 30 minutes before cooking will ensure your fish is seasoned evenly throughout and it will also help it stand up to the high heat of grilling or pan searing without drying out.
What’s your favorite seafood dish to eat in the restaurant?
Even though the season for local scallops is coming to an end, we’re still getting the freshest day-boat scallops from Ocean City, MD. Captain Derek Hoy of the fishing vessel “Second to None” goes out to the Elephant Trunk region, 13 miles off the coast of Ocean City, and catches 600 pounds of scallops daily. The scallops are shipped to Congressional Seafood. Just two days after being pulled from the ocean, they end up in our fish cooler. They are the freshest, sweetest and cleanest scallops I’ve ever had.
From there we season them with salt, give them a hard sear on one side, flip, remove the pan from heat and finish with a little butter. The residual heat from the pan gently finishes cooking the scallops, so you get the golden brown sear on one side but also the luscious mouthfeel of a properly cooked scallop. We serve these over a wild mushroom “veloute” with some local asparagus and roasted shiitake mushrooms.