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At Your Service: 28 South Restaurant
by Nicole Jovel + photos by Chris Jackson
28 South owner and head chef E. Jay Zuspan III shapes his future and the future of dining in downtown Hagerstown with his passion for good food.
“Everyone dreams of having their own shop and not too many people realize it, especially in this industry,” says Chef E. Jay Zuspan III, owner and head chef at 28 South, the restaurant aptly named for its location at 28 South Potomac Street in Hagerstown. Opened in the fall of 2012, 28 South and its owner have already become known for contemporary cuisine, use of fresh, local ingredients, and desire to please. “I enjoy making other people happy,” says Jay. “It’s a selfless industry because you work while everyone else is enjoying themselves. You have to love it to do it and I really love what I do.”
Though he can often be found in the kitchen, it’s not always because he’s cooking. Thanks to his humble beginning as a teenage dishwasher at a smokehouse in Virginia, Jay also loves what most people dread: washing dishes. “Dishwashing is really soothing to me and I’m really good at it,” he says.
He started washing dishes because he wanted a job where his friends worked. He was a fast dishwasher, which gave him time to observe the chefs and eventually help with prep work. “I’d go watch the fry guy or the line guy when I was done peeling carrots,” he says.
Jay realized early on that he enjoyed the fast-paced, stress-filled environment in a restaurant, so he stuck around at Hank’s Smokehouse learning everything he could from the restaurant and catering sides of the business. A few years later, he helped Hank’s open a second restaurant in the Shenandoah Valley called the Thunderbird Café. “Then I turned 20 and I left for Baltimore International Culinary College in Baltimore,” Jay recalls. “If I didn’t leave for culinary school, I’d probably still be down in the valley slinging grease at the smokehouse.”
At BICC, Jay says he did what all good cooks do; he broadened his foundation of cooking. “You take your foundation, like the five mother sauces, and build on it to build your niche,” he says. While in Baltimore, he worked at a cigar bar before joining the team at the Treemont Grand. There it was common to prepare dinner at $175 a plate for the who’s who of Baltimore. “It builds your ego working at a place like that,” he says. “But after a while you look at all the food going in the trash and you realize people aren’t going there to eat as much as they are just to say they were there.”
That’s when Jay started thinking about where he would land next. He knew he didn’t want to stay in the city, and he had spent weekends visiting his dad in Boonsboro as a kid. He still had friends in the area, so he moved to Washington County and took a job at Gladchuk Bros. in Frederick. “If you’ve never been there, you should go,” he says. “It’s always packed. They’ve been there for over 30 years and do all fresh seafood.”
When his daughter, Lucy, was born, Jay took a break from cooking to work for the D.C. Carpenters Union. “I doubled what I was making and had benefits and the whole nine yards but I was fighting traffic for four hours a day,” he says. “A line cook makes little to nothing but I had to decide what it was really worth.”
Jay found his way back to cooking through Applause Catering in Hagerstown. “It’s like riding a bike,” says Jay. “Once you get back into it, you get in the groove.” From there, he took over as head chef at Always Ron’s, before making the leap from chef to proprietor or his own restaurant. “I love downtown and I wanted to be a positive impact to the community,” he says.
Now he gets to feel that impact daily when new customers and regulars walk through the door, drawing traffic to the downtown area. The historic location’s high ceiling, spacious seating, and long bar top makes it possible to take your pick between having an intimate meal and meeting friends at the bar. But it’s Jay’s rustic cooking style — evidenced in the soups, paninis, artisan pizzas, and entrées he features on the menu with rotating seasonal items — that have drawn faithful followers. “Our menu is small with a core set of items and then we develop our seasonal specials based in part on what those seasons have to offer,” he says. “We try to locally source as much as possible.” That includes locally grown kale and fennel and locally made feta cheese.
Jay found that having his own restaurant is a give-and-take. His daughter Lucy can have her own apron and help dad out in the kitchen whenever she wants, but Jay also has to do his least favorite thing: paperwork. But it also means he can develop and market the business the way he wants. From curating the restaurant’s beer selection — which includes more than 30 varieties such as Dominion, Tröegs, Starr Hill, and Dogfish Head — to adding a Sunday brunch with pancakes, French toast, hash and sides to the menu, Jay is shaping the restaurant and, he hopes, his future.
“I’ve spent my whole life trying to get here. Sometimes I almost wish I was back at the smokehouse washing dishes, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” he says. “If I wasn’t here I’d be working some mindless job and volunteering at a soup kitchen. I’ll cook until I can’t cook anymore.”