Jimmy Mills: chef and owner of Jimmy’s Bistro

by Rigel Herman The Pineapple Staff Writer “I think if everyone”knew how to make a simple tomato sauce at home, the world might be a little better place. – Chef Jimmy Mills Despite being the chef and owner of one of Delray Beach’s most popular restaurants, Jimmy Mills remains unaffected by the stereotypes that seem to commonly consume many of his peers. Chefs are known to be irritable, even arrogant. If Mills is cranky or over-worked, he doesn’t show it. This could be chalked up to the fact that his restaurant, Jimmy’s Bistro, located just South of Atlantic Ave. on Swinton, is only seven tables and the kitchen is open. It would be difficult for Mills to behave erratically or with pomposity that his customers could literally see. So it could be that he’s hiding it. But with one conversation and a peer into his eyes that hold so much sincerity, it’s obvious that what he’s cultivated is authentic. If you’ve never been, Jimmy’s is known firstly for its cuisine. The food is fresh, made from scratch, local and straightforward. The menu, which is scrawled on the wall behind the bar in chalk, (no paper version exists) changes, “frequently, yet not regularly,” based on Mills’ mood, inspiration and, of course, what’s available.

Currently, for example, you can find zucchini flowers (the top part of a zucchini that eludes many) listed as an appetizer. Locally grown and purchased by Mills from Pontano Farms, he interprets them for the plate by stuffing them with eggplant and ricotta, breading, frying and dressing them with olive tapenade. Surrounded by big, upscale and restaurateur-owned establishments, Jimmy’s doesn’t have to try to be different.

Based solely on location and size, it just is. Of course competition in the restaurant industry is fierce; fortunately and with great care, Mills has created a place where people can experience a different side of dining in Delray Beach. Servers without uniforms, a bar without liquor (beer and wine are all that’s offered), Jimmy’s has made its own rules, without the pretense of trying too hard. While tourists tout that they’ve been to the best joints in Manhattan, Jimmy’s gives them a run for their money with its tenacity and realness. Jimmy’s is a place that would thrive in New York City, but would maybe fall flat in the suburbs, where diners expect a uni- formity and sameness in their meals based on region or commercialism. Growing up on a “bad ass” farm in West Virginia (the accent hasn’t been lost), Mills was taught the value of hunting and gathering his meals from an early age. “I learned a love of nature, the value of where things come from,” Mills said, adding, “Strawberries don’t come from the store, they come from the ground.” With this philosophy, Mills’ food has been written up in The New Times as, “So honest and heartfelt that diners will want to eat everything.” His dishes were photographed for Conde Nast Traveler’s story, “A Tour of Florida’s Hot Spots” and have garnered a high Zagat Guide rating.

Most notable though, is Mills himself. It takes guts to open a restaurant like Jimmy’s Bistro. And though he may not admit to being courageous, his spirit of unwavering wanderlust seems to tell the real story. After dropping out of college because he didn’t get good grades and felt “uninterested,” he attended culinary school in New Jersey. Cooking school wasn’t a back up plan or a willy nilly endeavor. On the contrary, he’d always had a passion for it and once it finally appeared to him as an actual “path,” he excelled. After graduating he lived in New York City and worked at three-star restaurant Le Chantilly and then at Aureole. But it was his irresistible desire to travel that seem to have had the greatest impact on the chef and the man that he is today.

He first went to Paris and worked in a restaurant there for a year, learning “the respect that the French have for dining out.” After that, he went to Israel and took a job. Of that experience Mills said, “the people there eat very healthy; I’ve never been so healthy as I was then.” His need to wander then led him to Africa, Thailand, South America and Southeast Asia, where he says he was the most heavily influenced. “They have a totally different usage of ingredients that is more complex and multi-layered…they want sweet, sour, soft, crunchy, hot, spicy. They really want to shock their taste buds.” Family eventually brought Mills to Delray Beach, but he stayed and opened Jimmy’s Bistro here because, “what’s not to like, c’mon, it’s obvious,” referring mostly to the close proximity of the beach. Though the food at Jimmy’s is what initially lures its customers in, Mills is the reason they come back. Diners can see him in the kitchen, hard at work, sometimes even hear him singing along to a song playing on Pandora from the laptop behind the bar.

He always steps out to greet his guests. He has the right amount of charm and familiarity with them to engage in friendly and folksy conversation without being disingenuous. His regulars (as most customers fancy themselves) like him. Dining at Jimmy’s feels like you’re a part of a club, an intimate and homey clique of people with similar tastes. Delray local and bi-weekly regular, Sean Sheppard said, “I like the food the most. But I like the way Jimmy always makes you feel appreciated, comes out and says hello. And I’ve met a lot of cool townies there, people that I’d like to keep hanging out with. Jimmy included, of course…maybe that’s what I like most.” Mills is not a fan of superficiality and it comes across clearly in his restaurant. He says the food is for everyone, but isn’t thrilled to modify his dishes. “The bottom line is,” Mills said, “it’s my interpretation of a dish, my idea of perfect. Try it that way, if you don’t like it, get something else.” Although one suspects from his increasingly full reservation book, that his talent rarely fails him. With such a gift to create interesting and delicious food and a knack for bonafide likability, how does Mills sustain his humility? Without it, Jimmy’s Bistro wouldn’t succeed. That seems to be one way. Another lies in his idea that, “there shouldn’t be any guidelines, any rules; in cooking or in life. Have a moral compass, be a good person, other than that, no rules.” Of his talent and his restaurant’s growing success, Mills said, “It’s one thing I can do well. Though I ain’t a bad golfer either.” Final Four: A quick take on the man with the plan. Q: Pineapple: What’s your favorite spot in Delray? A: Jimmy: “The beach, duh.” Q: Pineapple: What’s your favorite album? A: Jimmy: “Dire Straits, Dire Straits.” Q: Pineapple: What’s your favorite food? A: Jimmy: “Spaghetti with fresh tomato sauce.” Q: Pineapple: What’s your guilty pleasure? A: Jimmy: “Expensivesunglasses.No,blackjack or the horse track…that makes me feel cooler.”