Utah Farm & Fork recently caught up with Derek Miller, who is the president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber and Downtown Alliance. The Chamber is the state’s largest and longest-serving business association that “Stands as the voice of business.” 

If the name sounds familiar, Miller has been in the public for some time, serving previously as the president and CEO of the World Trade Center Utah and Chief of Staff for Governor Herbert. Derek began his career in Washington, D.C. as a management consultant with Arthur Andersen and as legal counsel for the U.S. House of Representatives. He is a graduate of the J. Reuben Clark Law School and holds a Master of Public Administration from the Romney Institute of Public Management at Brigham Young University.

Where were you born? Tell me about your family and childhood. What things did you enjoy doing as a child? Or things you hated doing? 

I grew up in the southern part of Orem. To the west of our home, all you could see were farms, while on the east side, all you could see were orchards. We were right in the middle of all these farms, which gave us a chance to learn and appreciate what they do. 

I grew up in the middle of six kids, with an older brother & sister, and then three younger siblings. My parents both taught at BYU, with my mother retired from teaching English, while my father – who is in his 80s! – is still teaching engineering at BYU. My grandparents were both farmers from Idaho – one grew potatoes and the other alfalfa – and they instilled in us a love of and appreciation for agriculture at an early age. 

I did all the things that you read or hear about kids from the 80s doing. Those memes describing the care-free days are about right. Going out until dark, playing sports and games, riding my BMX bike, etc. 

One thing I didn’t love, was that as a kid, we had jobs all the time to make any spending money to do things we wanted. I had a paper route, and back then one of the tasks associated with that was that I also had to be the one to collect the money from subscribers to the Daily Herald. That was not a fun thing to do as a kid.


Did you grow up on a farm or have a family garden?

I think because both of my parents grew up on farms, this was very important to them. There was a big section of our backyard that was a garden. My dad did something that in hindsight I think was very wise of him. Rather than it being a family project as a whole, my Dad divided up the garden and every kid got a section. We got to choose what we planted and we were responsible for it, weeding it, etc. It only took me a couple of years to realize that pumpkins were easier than some of the other crops. They spread so fast that you didn’t have to weed as much. So, I chose that. One time, I chose to do carrots and that was the worst because they were hard to take care of. 


What was the favorite meal/food you ate growing up? Or what food memories do you have from your childhood?

One of the favorite things my mom made growing up were Navajo tacos. She would make the fry bread and all the toppings. If you were really lucky, you would get a piece of the bread that was hollow in the middle, so you could put all of your fixings in the middle and eat it like a sandwich. So that was fun. 

One thing my dad would make was something he picked up on his mission in Finland, which are best described as mini crepes. On a Sunday evening, if we’d been good that day, he’d make these for us. And it was fun because we wouldn’t sit at the kitchen table, but at a kitchen bar and my dad would serve them up to us as fast as we could eat them.

I did not love vegetables growing up, but I do love them now. Probably not too uncommon for many kids. But I can’t get enough of vegetables now.


Was being involved in business something you wanted to do when you were a child/teen? Or what other interests do you have? How did you get involved in your current industry?

I was in the band and the debate team, which took up most of my extra time. I liked school and learning new things and had a rivalry with Orem High School – as I attended Mountain View High School in Orem.

I was always interested in business and always had jobs at a young age – working on the farms and a paper route. I learned the concept of money pretty early, and how life worked when you had money or not.


Please describe a typical workday for me.

We have eight different organizations that are part of the chamber – including the Downtown Farmers Market – and my day can be quite varied. We have great people who run these programs and manage their teams, so I try not to get too involved and get in the way of what they’re doing. I view my job as supporting them, and seeing how I can help them if they encounter a roadblock that is keeping them from achieving their goals. It’s my job to help smooth the path.

The thing that I love the most about the chamber is how it sits at the intersection of the public and the private sector. I’ve worked in both sectors and find this job a good fit for me because of the crossover. I see the importance of how the economy is supported by the private sector, and the role of the government to help support free markets and help create level playing fields to keep Utah a business-friendly state. I think what I enjoy most is that when we’re doing our job right, we’re supporting individuals and families. The better our economy is and the more we’re growing jobs, we’re helping individuals and families be self-sufficient and support their families. That’s really the satisfaction I get out of it – helping people.


Food is definitely part of the atmosphere of many downtown big cities, do you feel it is for Salt Lake City? 

It is important, and that importance is also growing. We know from data that amenities – including the restaurants that cities have – play a significant role in where people choose to live. People have more choices and flexibility than they’ve ever had before. This is really important to Salt Lake City, and I’m sure to every community. 

We’ve seen a significant interest in the options available in our capital city, with new restaurants popping up all over the place. I'm not just talking about five-star restaurants, but also the hole-in-the-wall places that I love. 


You have traveled to a lot of places for work. Are there things you like to eat that remind you of home?

My wife and I have the opportunity to travel a lot, and we really enjoy traveling. We love going to places and making the food of that place part of our experience, but we’re also very down-to-earth eaters who don’t need the fanciest restaurants. So, when we do an international trip, we have a little ritual we go through. The last meal we eat before we leave for a trip is Café Rio, and the first meal we eat when we get home is Crown Burger. In addition to having these fun culinary adventures around the world, what ties us to home are those meals we have before and after the trip.


It seems that food has a way of connecting people, and is often associated with business (meetings, building relationships, etc.). Why do you think this is so?

I think it is one of the most fundamental aspects of human nature. Obviously, it supports life, but it’s also something that we all have in common and that we all enjoy. You think of the stereotypical business lunch, but there is really something substantive there. Going with someone, eating, and getting to know that person. It’s almost hard to put into words, but it’s critical. There is that connection that comes with the person you’re meeting with.


What’s the best meal you’ve ever had? And why?

We were in Greece, in Santorini with all the white walls and blue-domed roofs. We were sitting in a restaurant looking over the coast eating a burrata salad that was just the best I had ever had, and it was so integrated into the whole experience – eating a great meal in a beautiful place. It was just the best.


Do you have a favorite food?

I love to have variety in meals. I like small plates and trying a lot of different things. I like family-style restaurants and meals, so because of that, I really like Mediterranean food and Mexican food. Those are my two top types of food because you get to try a lot of different things.


Have you visited a farm/ranch or farmers market in Utah before?

Because I live close to downtown and because of the Chamber’s support of the Downtown Farmers Markets, that’s the one I go to. It is a great way that we can support local growers. And we get growers from around the state that come there.


Do you like to cook or is someone else the main cook? If yes, what is your go-to meal/dish/recipe?

My wife and I are empty nesters now and are pretty busy, so we use one of those meal services. We like that because it’s hard to shop for only two people. It was easier when we were buying for a whole family, but we don’t go through things as fast as we used to. Now, we can get just the right amount for what we need.

We also like it because they give you instructions on how to cook it, and we try things we might not otherwise even know about. And it’s an activity we can do together, which is nice.

If you are cooking, and don’t want to cook anything fancy or elaborate, what is the basic comfort food you like to eat (no shame!)?

My guilty pleasure or comfort food are chocolate chip cookies. I eat three of them every night at about 9 p.m., my wife and I watch a show on TV, and I eat the three cookies and a glass of milk.

I have a recipe that I developed myself, and it goes back to 1986 when I won the blue ribbon in my neighborhood for the chocolate chip cookies I made. The recipe was developed through trial and error, and it is still the recipe that I use today. I still have the ribbon too!

What would you have for your last meal on earth?

This is a tough question and the answer changes over time. But my current favorite place to eat is called Santo Tacos, and I go to their Rose Park location. My wife loves the fish tacos, which are excellent, but I get the Mulitas – because I like cheese!


Any last thoughts about food, farmers & ranchers, etc.?

We can’t underestimate or overstate the importance our state’s farmers and ranchers play in Utah’s economy. People would be surprised to know how much of a role they play. Agriculture isn’t just a legacy issue, it’s a big part of our economy. They have a great legacy, but it’s not just in the past. It’s in the present and hope it’s part of our future. If you like to eat, you need to like farming. We need these dedicated farmers and ranchers who are producing food on our behalf.