Carving out a niche: The Millworks combines art, farm-to-table food philosophy

Photographer: Laura Knowles / Fly Magazine

The new food, art, music and drinking hub is set to open on March 12 in Midtown Harrisburg

 

 

Joshua Kesler likes to think of Central Pennsylvania as the Tuscany of the East Coast.

Admittedly, there are more Italians in Philadelphia, New York and New Jersey. There aren’t even that many true Italian restaurants around here. But that’s not what Kesler – owner of the brand new (and old, as in historic) Millworks in midtown Harrisburg – means.

It has nothing to do with Italian and everything to do with fresh, organic produce; locally raised meats, poultry and eggs; fresh-from-the-dairy farm milk and cheeses; and wood-fired breads with hearty grains.

“Sometimes I think people forget what we have in this area,” says Kesler. “We have an enormous bounty that supplies much of the East Coast.”

Thus, Tuscany.

The new Millworks restaurant and art studio space in Harrisburg is taking advantage of all that goodness. Kesler likes to call it “new rustic American.”

The Millworks Harrisburg - Fly MagazineThey’ve got wood-fired flatbreads laden with all that fresh produce, meats and cheeses. There are also salads layered with all sorts of lettuce, fresh beets and greens you may never have tried before. The heirloom tomatoes alone come in countless varieties – all misshapen and au natural in colors like deep burgundy, brilliant striped green, sunny yellow, tangerine orange and warm ruby red.

“It’s all about the taste,” says Kesler. “You can’t get that taste anywhere else.”

As for meats, Kesler notes that Millworks focuses on “nose-to-tail” cuts of meat. That means nothing goes to waste. Executive Chef Nicholas Jones explains that dining at Millworks defines the term farm-to-table. The least expensive cuts of meat can be braised to blissful tenderness. Imagine what he can do with more costly cuts.

“We are looking for a mentality of ‘loyal to the farm – not the cut,’” says Kesler, adding that the menu features about 20 items, with five full entrees, as well as small plates and flatbreads.

 

You’re right to assume that the Millworks kitchen must have some pretty good connections. They do. Right across Verbeke Street in Midtown is the Broad Street Market – a great city market with food from the farm. All the food at Millworks is being sourced through their own Millworks Farmstand, specializing in local, sustainable and organic foods.

The meats are sourced from Thistle Creek Farms in Tyrone and North Mountain Pastures in Newport. Bread is baked in a wood-fired oven using Daisy Organic Flour from Lancaster. The breads include red wheat, soft wheat, wheat burger buns and French-style baguettes. Produce will be jarred and canned in the summer, so you can savor peaches in March and tomatoes in April. Produce is also grown hydroponically, so you can have tender baby lettuce in winter that really is freshly harvested.

Kesler combed the countryside for artifacts to enhance the sleek old-and-new design of the 100-seat Millworks restaurant. There is a huge Pennsylvania Railroad Company sign that came from a boxcar at a Perry County farm. The 1920s-era pendant lights were discovered in storage at the Broad Street Market. The burnished bar is crafted from long leaf yellow pine salvaged from roof joists that once stood above the Biergarten.

 

“Sometimes I think people forget what we have in this area,” says Kesler. “We have an enormous bounty that supplies much of the East Coast.”

 

The wood-beamed ceiling looks like it belongs in a country barn rather than a restaurant in the city. In what may be the most striking aspect of the Millworks, a huge wall of firewood climbs all the way to the ceiling. The thick-cut kindling is placed vertically so that only the ends show. It’s almost like an architectural sculpture, which makes perfect sense in a place that’s all about wood.

They don’t call it the Millworks for nothing.

Dating to the 1940s, it was originally the Stokes Millwork plant, which manufactured wooden trim, laminates and other wood products. The place sat empty for years until Kesler had a vision for it.

Kesler – a developer and former Harrisburg Academy teacher – purchased the brick building two years ago and made a $2 million investment to breathe new life into the old millworks. He imagined a place where locals and visitors would come to dine on regional fare with a contemporary twist, have a cocktail or a glass of wine or maybe a hearty, locally crafted brew. The 50-seat open air Biergarten provides an intimate warm-weather spot, while a rooftop terrace is planned for summer.

And that’s only the half of it.

 

“My vision was to combine artist studios with a sustainable restaurant – the kind of place that becomes a destination in and of itself,” says Kesler.

Just as Kesler envisioned, the arts community is supporting his efforts to bring more art to Midtown Harrisburg. With the Susquehanna Art Museum nearby, the Millworks can be part of the city’s new renaissance in art, sculpture and design. A long hallway provides gallery space for art shows and special events. There is a common art workspace for the artists – especially handy when they need to stretch out and work big, or they just want some artistic bonding with other creative types.

Crystal Wagner - The Millworks - Fly Magazine“I love it here,” says Crystal Wagner, a one-time college art professor with an MFA from the University of Tennessee. “I wanted to be in the East – closer to New York, D.C. and Philadelphia – and this gallery space is just what I was looking for.”

Wagner describes her art as paper-sculpted terrariums in which all sorts of wild, crazy, colorful patterns seem to grow. She also has done large-scale two- and three-dimensional mixed media installations internationally.

There are 23 artists in all, each with a studio hideaway in which they can close off the world if they want, or open it wide to share and be inspired. Among the resident creators are artist and craftswoman Caroline Owens; Fennec Design, with Joelle and Justin Arawjo designing home goods, clothing and jewelry; watercolorist Craig Andrews; collage and mixed media artist Mary Gelenser; photographer Paul Vasiliades; infusion artist Gianna Veno; and illustrator James Arnold.

Wide pine floors, rails made from millwork from the original plant and all sorts of stairways and cubbies make the space interesting. There is a loft-like area, where lumber was once stored for easy access. Now it offers a wide view of Broad Street Market and showcases authentic “sculpture” – like a wood lathe that was once used at the millworks.

“Our mission is simple here,” says Kesler. “To create a regional destination that showcases artistic talents and culinary talents with our region’s bountiful harvest.”

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• 340 Verbeke Street, Harrisburg
• 695-4888
• Monday-Thursday, 4 p.m.-12 a.m.; Friday, 4 p.m.-1 a.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.-1 a.m.; and Sunday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m.
• millworksharrisburg.com


 

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Posted in Dining Scene, Eat – Harrisburg, Harrisburg Headlines

Laura Knowles is a freelance writer and photographer for Fly Magazine. She is obsessed with writing about food, art, music and theatre, in an effort to pretend to be a chef, artist, musician and actress. Her goal in life is to be on Jeopardy, as long as there is no math category.

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