Jay Zuspan III of 28 South has his own style of cooking

April 02, 2013|By CHRIS COPLEY |
  • Jay Zuspan opened 28 South in downtown Hagerstown last year. He focuses on buying produce from regional growers.
By Kevin G.Gilbert/Staff Photographer

Editor's note: This is part of an occasional series of profiles of local restaurant chefs.

Jay Zuspan III is living a dream. At 28, he's opened his own restaurant — 28 South in downtown Hagerstown — and he's cooking foods the way he wants to.

"My style of cooking is really trying to fuse the old-school, traditional dishes with the modern cooking," he said. "I use fresh ingredients, but I leave things rustic. A lot of chefs will puree their sauces and (strain) them through a chinoise. I like to leave everything in there, the pieces of the shallots and things like that. I like the old-school look."

Zuspan sat down recently with The Herald-Mail in his restaurant, his 4 1/2-year-old daughter, Lucy, playing nearby. He talked about balancing work and being a father, his learning curve as a chef and about his focus on local and regional ingredients.

In The Herald-Mail story on your restaurant's opening, you said you wanted to prepare foods from the Shenandoah Valley and Chesapeake Bay.

My parents were separated. My dad lived in Boonsboro. My mom lived in Massanutten ski resort (near McGaheysville, Va.). They're two similar demographics. I grew up eating hominy, barley, steak and potatoes. On the weekends, living with dad, we'd have Maryland crab cakes, fresh seafood. I wanted to bring those two together (in 28 South).

Are local ingredients a part of your emphasis on regional foods?

Certainly. We buy the majority of our produce from Blue Mountain Farms (in Hedgesville, W.Va). He's at the (Hagerstown City) Farmers Market. We've been getting spinach, and he's planting a lot of stuff. Our spring menu is based off a lot of the produce he's growing for us.

How do you find local producers and develop your contacts?

I used to go to the farmers market a lot. Dave (Elliot, owner of Blue Mountain Farm) and I started talking (last fall). Also, Trickling Springs Creamery (in Chambersburg, Pa.). They carry goat cheese. We purchase it through Dave for our Grand Fromage pizza.

So who is your customer base?

We tried to aim for people in their late 20s to 30s. But we get a myriad of customers. We've been really blessed to have the older folks and the younger crowd coming in at the same time, which you rarely ever see. On weekends, on Saturday, we have a mixed crowd for dinner, then we have bands every Saturday night, when we typically get the younger crowd coming in.

When did you first work in a kitchen?

McGaheysville is at the base of Massanutten ski resort. I started working at Hank's Smokehouse (Southern Grillery) there in high school.

Did you start out in the kitchen?

A dishwasher job opened up. And all my friends were there. I started washing dishes there, and worked my way up. Dishes there are unlike dishes anywhere else. You'd come in at 4 o'clock, and they'd have this three-bay sink (downstairs, in the catering kitchen) piled with dishes. Dishes stacked five feet back. So you knock out those dishes. Then you go upstairs and knock out the lunch dishes. And you'd have just enough time to get your stations set up and grab a bite to eat before the dinner rush. I got so good at time management and multi-tasking that I could go down, knock out the dishes, do the lunch dishes, and then I'd start prepping on the side: I'd peel carrots, cut up potatoes, do little odds and ends stuff. Or if there was no prep to do that day, I'd watch the guy on the fry side, because it was always fascinating. All the cussing and swearing, the piracy going on, the flames.

And you ended up working in the kitchen. Was there anything about Hank's that stuck with you over the years?

I was really fortunate, because they cook from scratch. Didn't know how blessed I was. Because if it had been any other restaurant, like a family-style or diner-style restaurant, I wouldn't've gotten that base.

I worked for them for a couple years. I helped them open the Thunderbird Diner, about a mile away from the Smokehouse. Was there for six months or a year before I went to culinary school in Baltimore — Baltimore International College. Got an associate degree there (in culinary arts).

While I was there, I worked at Ropewalk in Federal Hill (in Baltimore), which is a cigar bar. I worked there for six months. Then got a spot as cook one — similar to sous chef — at Tremont (Suites Hotel and Grand Historic Venue). We were getting Duff (Goldman)'s Charm City Cakes in — $100-a-plate meals. Essentially three of us running the show, everything from table decorations to plate-ups to menu design. So that was fun.

Seems like a great job.

It was all high-end. But you see the plates come back and the food just goes in the trash. I think people eat out at those type of locations just to say they ate at those locations.

Not really to enjoy the food?

Yeah. Seventy-five percent of people don't have the palate to grasp things like that — blueberry-infused couscous. Or quinoa — people are like, "That's bird seed." I kind of got turned off by that. Plus, it's corporate. I am not like that. I'm a friendly, open guy. And it just wasn't for me. I couldn't do it.

So after I graduated, I left there to work in Frederick (Md.) at Gladchuk Bros. restaurant. I came out of culinary school thinking I was (a) hot (shot), you know, and was really humbled going there. The owner, John Gladchuk, said, "You don't have to do all this over-the-top, elaborate stuff. Just serve good food. Good food; that's it." He was really old school. But really humble. Would never ask for praises or anything like that. I was really, really blessed to cook under him.

I worked for him for about four years, and then Lucy came along. I took a year's leave of absence to go work as a carpenter for the D.C. carpenters union. I've always been handy, always been a carpenter. Took that in trade school during high school. I'm a jack of all (trades), master of none. I think you have to be in this industry.

How did you get back in the kitchen?

Well, even though I was working down the road (in D.C.), I was still working nights and weekends at South Mountain Inn. I was making $73,000 a year as a carpenter, getting caught up on bills. It was good, but then I said, "Enough's enough." I couldn't do it. I needed to be in the kitchen.

Worked for Mike Guessford at Applause Caterers under Francis Verdier. I worked there for two years, then came up to Always Ron's, worked there for another two years. And then this happened.

So what makes a good chef?

If you get into this industry, it's not just a job. It's a lifestyle. You have to be selfless. When I think of a chef, I don't think of a TV chef in a white hat sauteing stuff in front of you. I think of a guy in a steward's jacket, which is like a T-shirt with old-school button snaps grinding over a stove, sending out good food. Passionate about what he does. Detail-oriented, making sure everything is done correctly. Selfless, as in not seeking praises for what he does.

You have to be passionate about what you do. That's how I did my hiring. My sous chef is extremely passionate. Puts in 100 hours a week right beside me.

Also, for me, growing up in the industry, a thank you goes miles. I'm not money-driven — I've left jobs because I never got a thank you. So I try to say thank-you to my staff every single day.

When you're not working in the restaurant, what do you do for fun?

I spend the remainder of my time with Lucy. We'll typically go hiking, fishing, camping. I'm really outdoors oriented. For the rare 15 minutes or half an hour, we do watch TV. But we're big on the outdoors. We go morel hunting, which is coming up here soon. She loves morel hunting. We go up to High Rock. Outside of that, we go out to eat.

Do you cook at home?

Yes. We both do. She loves baking. I have millions of pictures of her and I baking. We try to bake Irish soda bread. And cupcakes. Doing seasonal things, like Easter eggs. And Halloween is big. We carve, like, 15 pumpkins. Whatever is seasonal and not keeping you indoors.

Not all dads spend time with their kids like that.

Well, I think nowadays, people as so socially connected through Facebook and the Internet. I think it's degenerative to people. You tend to find out what people are doing on Facebook instead of calling them up and talking to them and socializing, interacting. I think it makes you lazy.

Also, I want her to have a great work ethic. And manners. And to be social, be open. She's in here Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays in the evening with me, talking, interacting with the people. The people love it.

And your dad works here, too.

My dad manages the front of the house when I'm in the back. He had just retired about a year and a half ago. So I said, "Why don't you come aboard for a month or two?" He's always wanted to open up a restaurant.

He's here a lot. Initially, he wasn't going to stay. But I couldn't find a front-of-the-house manager I really trusted. That's key. The first impression is the front of the house. Then comes the food.

So, like I said, all the stars lined up. And he was in here and just kind of got hooked. So now we try to tell him, "Hey, we're good. You can take off. We don't need you." But he's still here, and he's still a big help. He helps me out a lot.

How do you keep yourself fresh as a chef? It would be easy to do the same-old, same-old.

I watch TV — the (best) show would be "Chopped." All the others are just made up for TV. There are a few others, like "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives" — that's kind of cool.

I read the Lucky Peach, (a food magazine published in San Francisco). I read cookbooks. I love Anthony Bourdain. He was kind of my (inspiration) to get into culinary school.

And dining out — going out and seeing what's going on in the area. Talking to other chefs in the area. Keeping up with the trends. And then you gotta take what you see and make it your own.

If you go ...

28 South

28 S. Potomac St., Hagerstown

240-347-4932 or go to

Open 11 a.m. to midnight Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays.

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