Profile: Chef Andrew Smith's Journey from the Rossi to Roys Ave
Andrew Smith stepped away from restaurant life more than four years ago, just as he was emerging as one of Columbus’ most talented chefs. Now he’s returning on his own terms.
[Editor’s Note: After this profile ran in the January issue of Columbus Monthly, chef Andrew Smith announced that his forthcoming restaurant, Isla, would no longer be opening in Westgate at 3060 W. Broad St. In April, Smith told Columbus Monthly that Isla would be instead be taking over the former Bake Me Happy prep kitchen in Merion Village. You can read more at ColumbusMonthly.com.]
One weeknight in October, I step into the Westgate home of chef Andrew Smith for what is the hottest dinner ticket in Columbus. To the left, a junglelike parlor greets me, the work of Smith’s green-thumbed wife, Devoney Mills. I am the first guest to arrive, wanting to take the temperature of the kitchen before the other dinner guests descend on the house.
I’ve missed Smith’s food: turkey chili at Philco, blanket pasta at Rockmill Tavern. He has been out of the hectic, pressure-filled restaurant game since leaving his position as executive chef at now-shuttered Rockmill in 2018.
But that doesn’t mean the 41-year-old, Oregon-born chef hasn’t been cooking. In fact, Smith and his food are arguably more popular than ever.
For the past four years, Smith and Mills have turned their South Roys Avenue home, a 1930s white Colonial, into a supper club three nights a month. What began as an underground experiment at the suggestion of a friend, Dan Murphy, has become a rite of passage for serious food hounds, restaurant industry types and the couple’s friends. The Monday dinner each month often resembles a who’s who of the local dining scene, attracting the likes of Sangeeta Lakhani of Service!, Veritas’ chef-owner Josh Dalton and Comune owner Joe Galati.
Fifteen minutes before guests are due, Smith sips a gin-and-lime libation in this modest home kitchen with a “regular, old gas oven.” Only the chef, Mills and kitchen “sidekick” Lorenzo Tavani are there. And it’s calm.
I expect to see drama, dirty pans, frantic dish-washing—the kind of state my kitchen would be in if I were about to serve 14 people an exquisite, 10-course meal in my home. I get none of it. There is no panicky washing, and the limited counter space is free of clutter. A list of the evening’s courses is written in black on the fridge, the only real indication as to what’s about to unfold other than the table settings.
Smith is a master of lists. Each dinner requires a shopping list (invariably used at Saraga International Grocery), a prep list (which has its own baby lists), a components list (outlining each item needed for plating) and a service list (what piece of cutlery pairs with each dish). Without this impeccable order before Roys Avenue dinner guests arrive, Smith tells me, the supper club wouldn’t have lasted for four years. “If I didn’t have those lists, I’d be living in a ditch,” he quips.
It’s exciting to see firsthand this surprising turn in Smith’s atypical culinary career. He is one of Columbus’ most talented chefs, among a small list of locals with the vision and ability needed to someday snag a coveted James Beard Award, a recognition that has overlooked Central Ohio chefs and restaurants year in and year out. Yet just as he was emerging as a local superstar, he quit the restaurant business, burnt out and frustrated with the demands of his profession.
Through the Roys Avenue experiment, Smith rediscovered his love of cooking, finding a better (and more balanced) way to live a culinary life. And his fans have followed him. Sommelier Gregory Stokes, co-owner of Accent Wine and, now, the Bottle Shop, has attended many of the dinners and has collaborated with Smith on wine pairings for the supper club. He calls Smith his favorite chef in Columbus.
“When you eat a number of the menus, you get to look inside the mind of a chef who is not trying to really please anyone but himself,” Stokes says. “People who are signing up, they’re signing up because they want to know what he thinks about food, not because they want to get something that’s safe and easy.”
Now, after four years of cooking at home, Smith is ready to return to restaurants. In mid-2023, he and Mills will open Isla at 3060 W. Broad St., the same building that currently houses Third Way Café, located just a few blocks away from their Westgate home. But Isla won’t be business as usual. Smith vows to run the place on his own terms, incorporating the lessons he’s learned during his self-imposed exile.
Smith claims that he knew nothing about food growing up in Hood River, Oregon, and along the Columbia River in Washington, even though he was surrounded by it. Perhaps it was osmosis. “My grandma had her own garden, ate almost all of her own vegetables. My dad would kill chickens, and we raised eggs, and he would hunt. I ate more venison growing up than I did beef,” he says. “I don’t think I appreciated it until I got older.”
His uncle was a butcher, and one of Smith’s most potent memories is when his uncle would come over to butcher a deer his father had killed. “We would clear off the massive dinner table, and he would break down a deer on our dinner table,” Smith says matter-of-factly.
After high school, Smith, who was raised in the Mormon church, went away for two years for his mission trip, came back and married young, at 22. He and his wife had two kids. He worked construction for a time and enjoyed working with his hands but not much else about the job.
With a family and a growing interest in food, he decided to go to culinary school in 2006 and enrolled at the now-closed Western Culinary Institute, a Le Cordon Bleu Associates program in downtown Portland, Oregon. His initial intention, however, was never to work in restaurants. He wanted to be a nutritionist who knew how to cook good food. That would be his niche.
While still in culinary school, Smith got a job as garde manger cook (shucking oysters and the like) at Riccardo’s Ristorante, a traditional Italian restaurant in the Portland suburb of Lake Oswego. That’s where he met the chef he calls his mentor: Charlie Zorich, who now co-owns two businesses in Stockton Springs, Maine—the Hichborn (a seasonal, 30-seat restaurant) and Hey Sailor, a “gastrodivebar.”
At the time, Zorich was sous chef at Riccardo’s and recalls interviewing Smith for the job. “He was wearing maroon Dansko [clogs], which I thought was really funny,” Zorich says, referring to a stereotypical brand of cooks’ footwear. “I just remember him being really shiny, and he had these new shoes on. And he had ... that young, ‘this is all new and I’m ready to learn’ look.”
During this time, Smith also took a part-time job working the cold station at a more high-end restaurant called Bluehour, giving him the chance to work with products like foie gras and caviar. He also learned what kind of chef he didn’t want to be: the stereotypical rude, mean-spirited one.
“I had to teach myself how to get my point across in an assertive but respectful way, without making someone feel like I was looking down on them,” Smith says. “One thing that I learned from Charlie is that if I was doing something wrong, he wouldn’t just tell me I was doing something wrong. He told me why I was doing it wrong and how to fix it.”
Having never been to Columbus, Smith moved here in mid-2009 to be closer to his then-wife’s family. They later divorced.
Leading up to the move, Zorich told the young chef to “apply at the three best restaurants in town.” Then, he added another directive: “I said, ‘Go there, start cooking Portland food and get the head chef fired.’ And that’s what he did. I mean, it’s brilliant. Right?” Zorich says, laughing.
In January 2010, Smith snagged a line cook job at the Rossi, the hip Short North haunt owned at the time by Club 185 restaurateurs Randy and Tina Corbin. And within just a few months, the head chef was fired—though not necessarily from Smith’s doing. Despite Smith’s lack of experience running a restaurant, he was thrust into the role of leading the Rossi’s notoriously small kitchen. The experience forced Smith to search for efficiencies, ways to work smarter. “I had no idea what I was doing,” Smith admits.
But he knew what Zorich meant by “Portland food”—the kind of “progressive” and “intentional” food that they were exposed to out West. Zorich meant tasting, tasting again and again. Focusing keenly on flavor and sourcing. “Just caring a little bit more than everybody else does,” Zorich says.
To this day, Smith is proud of the meatloaf served at bygone Philco, the Rossi’s sibling Short North diner. Smith opened Philco and wrote the menu. And what people may not know is that Smith was driving every week to Bay’s slaughterhouse in Lancaster to pick up a whole hog in his car. He would carry the hog over his shoulder to the Rossi’s “large, creepy basement” and, despite little experience in butchery, break the whole thing down. Pork chops would be used as specials at both restaurants, and they’d grind the scrap for use in the Rossi’s meatballs and the meatloaf at Philco. “I don’t think people realize what was going on in the basement at the Rossi,” Smith says, with a sly smile.
By 2015, Smith was enjoying his work but feeling restless. He’d spent most of his career at two restaurants, Riccardo’s and the Rossi. “I wanted to do something a little more refined,” he says. “I had a good offer for another job, and that sounded absolutely amazing.”
The offer was to be opening executive chef at Salt & Pine—the over-ambitious, 7,000-square-foot, Downtown restaurant from the owner of Harvest Pizzeria, Chris Crader. It debuted in November 2015 and shut down after just 15 months.
“The opening menu that [Smith created] for Salt & Pine, it was amazing. You know, crispy pork head rillette. Come on, this is what Columbus really needs!” Stokes says. “I loved the ambition of what he did with that menu.”
Smith fondly recalls a specific dish on Salt & Pine’s first menu: pâté paired with fried chicken livers. He had just begun dating Mills, a fried chicken liver fan, and the dish was a love letter.
After the first Salt & Pine menu ran, the relationship between Smith and Crader soured, though Smith declines to go into detail about it other than to say that he felt the work environment was sucking away his passion for cooking. “I was very unhappy,” he says. “The space was too big. The ideas were too big. Probably even including some of mine.”
He and Crader agreed to part ways in 2016, and by that October, Smith had landed the executive chef job at the new Rockmill Tavern. Smith had known Rockmill’s brewer-owner Matthew Barbee since the Rossi, when Barbee would bring his Belgian-style beers to the bar to sample.
At Rockmill, Smith met chef Jay Kleven, who claims he botched his first interview and offered to work for free to prove to Smith he could cook. They’ve been friends ever since.
Prior to joining Rockmill, Kleven had worked at big hotels in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for “angry French chefs” and at high-end restaurants with chefs who would “walk around with clipboards.” Smith was very different. He would wash a dish now and then and enlist his staff to help him build the menu. His kitchen demeanor is the same as the one he carries out into the world. “You know how he just comes off as the nicest person you’ve ever met? He’s just like that all the way through,” Kleven says.
Smith loved the kitchen team at Rockmill, the camaraderie, the novel experience of pairing food with Barbee’s craft beer, the rush of a busy service. The tavern was gaining Top 10 recognition, including by this magazine. But the restaurant life was grinding Smith down. By 2018, he’d reached a breaking point, and his priorities had changed.
“I knew that I had to get out … or something bad was gonna happen with my health, something bad was gonna happen with my mental health and maybe something bad was gonna happen with one of my relationships,” he says.
After leaving Rockmill in the fall of 2018, Smith went back to working for the Corbins as a consultant, and there were plans to add a second Philco in German Village. Those plans never came to fruition, and the Corbins ended up selling the Rossi the next year.
“It just didn’t work out,” he says about working with the Corbins again, though he declines to say more. “Which I think was a really good thing, because it kind of pushed me into working for myself, which I was really nervous about doing.”
In January 2019, the chef and Mills, who married in 2017, launched Roys Avenue. “I needed to kind of scratch that creative itch again,” he says. “And Devoney and I wanted to do something creative together.”
The very first supper club was eight guests whom Smith thought would provide useful feedback. “And then it turned into 10, and then 12, and then 14, and it went from one night to two nights to three nights a month,” he says. “And then it kind of just—I don’t want to say spiraled out of control. But it’s like this beautiful monster.”
“At the end of the day, [Roys Avenue] really isn’t a business. It’s just a club. It’s just a bunch of people getting together and eating. And it gained so much popularity that we want to turn it into a business,” Smith says. “The whole idea is to start out cooking two nights a week as an extension of the supper club and then go from there.”
In September, Smith and Mills hold a preview of Isla, the couple’s first restaurant, which will take over the 1,250-square-foot room adjoining Third Way Café. (The coffee shop will relocate just across the street.) The BYOB restaurant will feature only 20 seats in the dining room for the same kind of very personal, multicourse dinners Smith has honed at Roys Avenue. A chef’s counter will have another six to eight seats and will moonlight as the setting for private chef’s dinners. Mills, who is a manager at Greendigs Design Studio, will handle décor for the space.
“We’ve got [service] dialed in to the point where it eliminates a huge amount of stress that you would normally find in your regular restaurant setting, which leaves a lot of room for what I originally loved about it,” Smith says about his approach to Isla. “It’s definitely more sustainable.”
“One of our philosophies is that food should bring people together, and it should be intimate and romantic,” he adds. “Unless we feel that way in that environment, nobody else is going to feel that way.”
The venue for Isla’s preview is the Lox Bagel Shop. Owner Kevin Crowley, who used to live around the corner from the Rossi, says he doesn’t turn over his Short North kitchen in the evenings to just anyone.
“We would charge for the space if it were anyone else. But we don’t charge him just because, you know, [we’re] supporting a buddy, and I think he’s cooking the most exciting food in the city,” Crowley says.
The preview’s dishes show off Smith’s playfulness with textures and local sourcing. One delectable course features mushrooms foraged by Tavani, Smith’s sidekick: a smooth porcini pâté on a tostada with crispy roasted maitake, leeks pickled in mulling spices and then finished with pumpkin seed oil.
“We used to say that his go-to cooking ingredients were soy, sherry, maple—always,” Kleven says. “You could always find a variation of those things inside the dishes, whether you swap out the soy with mushroom or the sherry vinegar for a spruce tip.”
Zorich calls Smith extremely humble and knows his friend has that special X factor to be successful, however you define success. “It’s a rare thing. I’ve worked with hundreds of people by now, and a lot of people are just going through the motions,” Zorich says. “And Andrew really gives a s--- about his food, and his food is good. That’s what sets him apart.”
“He is too friendly to fail,” Kleven says. “He has a group of people behind him who will always come and eat his food. Every chef I’ve talked to or worked for, the key to unlock their hearts is just mentioning Andrew Smith, and they light up. There’s not a chef in town who doesn’t like him.”
As guests arrive at the supper club in October, they’re handed glasses of bubbly. The fairytale evening begins—best summed up, cheekily, by Mills: “Welcome to our old home. It’s falling apart. Here’s a glass of wine. Relax.”
There are two dining tables, one set for six and another for eight. Each place setting has a menu with a guest’s name written on it. The paper includes, on my visit, a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote and 10 courses with simple descriptions like “cod / potato / roe” or “fig / honey / coffee.”
When one of Smith’s dishes appears under your nose, the soft-spoken chef—usually wearing a ballcap, black T-shirt, dark khakis, black apron and white-and-black Nike Air Force 1s—visits from the kitchen and describes the dish in his quiet manner. There are thank yous in return from the guests, and then the tables go silent. A guest inevitably breaks the quiet: “Where did he come up with that combination?”
The fourth course, for example, is a perfect two-biter: slightly charred Greek flatbread sitting under yogurt, lump crab and a pumpkin-seed salsa. I could eat 10 of them, but we have six courses to go.
Four dishes later, Smith achieves the perfect balance of fat and acid: pork cheek, one of the chef’s favorite ingredients, braised in tamarind. Shavings of in-season delicata squash and Smith’s “magic peanuts” add texture. The dish is unctuous, with the tamarind and Sichuan peppercorn-enhanced peanuts lending perfect tang for balance.
With a gentle smile, Mills changes out the table settings between each course. The pace is not rushed, allowing conversation to drift. At first, there are awkward get-to-know-yous (though some diners have met before). Talk shifts to memories of past supper clubs and, inevitably, the diners’ favorite local restaurants and, once the wine is flowing, experiences with edibles.
Sitting next to me is chef Matthew Heaggans, a co-founder of the hospitality industry nonprofit Service! and Preston’s: A Burger Joint. “Andrew’s never given me a bad bite of food, ever,” Heaggans tells me later, adding that the two former Rossi alums feel comfortable trading constructive feedback.
“Even the stuff that’s not my very, very favorite, I’m aware of the technique and the effort and the thought process, and have a lot of respect for it,” he says. “I think we both want to build each other up and make each other better.”
When the last course arrives, Smith fulfills his promise to “be as weird as we can with desserts.” Guests each receive a beautiful, solitary fig in a brown bowl, with a whipped coffee-and-vanilla buckwheat honey in the bottom. But this fig is holding a secret: Inside its belly is a sticky fig cake slow-cooked in Madeira syrup and butter. A sprinkle of brown butter coffee bread crumbs adds crunch to the chef’s clever finale. This is the intentional food Zorich was talking about.
I think about the Emerson quote that the couple selected for the supper club’s menu that night: “Adopt the pace of nature: Her secret is patience.” Over the past four years, Andrew Smith didn’t stop, but he slowed down and patiently waited for the right time to reemerge, reinvigorated.
Now it’s his time to bloom.