David T. Mills has worn many culinary hats over the years.
He started as a dishwasher at 16 years old and quickly worked his way up the ladder to become an executive chef at the tender age of 19.
He then worked in food service and as a culinary arts instructor, while pursuing a certificate in brewery science at Tröegs Independent Brewing in Hershey.
He’s recently hit another milestone. Earlier this year, he opened Smoke & Pickles Artisan Butcher Shop & Kitchen, adding to the flavor of historic downtown Mechanicsburg, itself in the midst of a revival.
Many of Mills’ ideas for his shop originated with trips to Italy, Spain and France, journeys that were both eye opening and inspiring, he said.
“We ventured into a small town in Chianti in the Tuscany region [of Italy] called Panzano, where we visited a butcher shop,” he said. “It was an extremely busy place, and the butcher was blasting AC/DC as he handed me a water glass full of Chianti.”
It turned out that the butcher was the renowned Dario Cecchini, who’s been featured on many food programs, including in the Netflix documentary series, “Chef’s Table.”
Cecchini is an eighth-generation butcher, committed to doing his job in the traditional way. For instance, he uses all parts of the animal—an ancient skill that has been passed on through the family. This resonated with Mills’ sense of sustainability.
“When I returned to the states, I realized how broken the food system was,” he said.
His newfound knowledge led him to try to make changes in his small corner of the world in central Pennsylvania. He now serves on the board of the LEAF (leadership, education and farming) project in Carlisle, whose mission is to cultivate youth leaders through meaningful work in the food system. He also joined the nonprofit American Culinary Federation, where he currently serves as president.
“That [affiliation] gave me the opportunity to dive into what was next,” he said.
He’s since run into his Italian butcher/mentor stateside, as Cecchini has appeared at York’s Pullo Center, hosted by Caputo Brothers Creamery.
“I got wind that the same butcher I observed in Italy was slated to break down a hog on stage, while playing AC/DC, of course,” said Mills, with a chuckle.
Mills’ first task at Smoke & Pickles was to remodel the space on Market Street to accommodate several meat cases, a work area and a separate eatery, which includes seating for 27 customers.
Products for sale include pre-marinated steaks, roasts, farm fresh eggs, sausages, stocks, burgers, beef, pork, bacon, chicken, turkey, guinea fowl and duck, to just name a few items.
Those who prefer to dine onsite can choose from a variety of handhelds served on homemade rolls. Popular choices are the “Screamin’ Eagle,” prepared with boneless fried chicken, house-made sauce and slaw, and the “The Mechanicsburger,” made with ground beef and bacon and served with Bibb lettuce, red onion, garlic aioli and a fried tomato. “The Smoker,” another much-ordered option, features pulled pork, house barbecue sauce and slaw.
Customers can usually find Mills working onsite in the food preparation area. Both he and his staff are available to answer questions about the provenance of the products that he showcases each week.
“I visited every single farm,” he said, speaking about his products. “It is important for me to see how the animals are raised. You can tell how they are cared for, and, if you can smell the farm when you get there, they are not doing things how they should be.”
It’s also important to Mills that antibiotics are kept to a minimum.
“Most of them don’t use any,” he said, adding that he knows of one farm on his list of purveyors that has administered just four shots in the past decade. “That’s a testament to how he cares for the animals.”
Candace Bordner was one of the first customers to visit Smoke & Pickles. The Mechanicsburg resident, who dined onsite, said that she was impressed with the quality of ingredients used for food preparation and the fact that all the products are sourced ethically and sustainably.
“I love that they list where everything is from,” she said.
Owen Bower, Jr., drove from Halifax to purchase a bone-in prime rib for Easter and, while there, also bought pickles and a dry-aged, grass-fed tomahawk steak.
“My girlfriend lives in Mechanicsburg, and we were waiting for it to open,” he said. “I like the fact that everything is local. It’s worth the splurge.”
For Mills, opening an artisan butcher shop is the culmination of a dream, and he’s delighted that it has been received so enthusiastically.
“I’m just happy to revive the cozy, reputable, neighborhood butcher shop that meets all the traditional standards of the past, while breathing creative new life into the locally sourced food movement,” he said.
Smoke & Pickles Artisan Butcher Shop is located at 30 S. Market St., Mechanicsburg. Learn more by visiting their Facebook page or calling 717-795-4852.