On the day last April when a vintage pair of Air Jordan sneakers, previously worn by basketball icon Michael Jordan himself, sold at Sotheby’s auction house for an astounding $2.2 million, chef Travis Milton was sporting a pair pulled from his own copious and valuable collection of Jordans, and most likely dripping gravy all over them.
Milton, the chef at Hickory, a farm-to-table restaurant at Nicewonder Farm & Vineyards in Bristol, Virginia, has built his reputation on proudly showcasing the ingredients and traditions of Appalachian cuisine. While racking up accolades, he’s also been compulsively amassing squadrons of Air Jordans, the coveted basketball shoes Nike first introduced in 1985. Indeed, his hoard, currently hovering around 450 pairs, would be the envy of any sneakerhead, as those in the avid shoe-collecting community are called.
“My great-grandfather played for Marshall University and was a huge basketball fan,” Milton says. “I remember going over to his house to watch the famous 1986 Bulls-Celtics playoff game with Jordan breaking the scoring record. From then on, I wanted a pair of Air Jordans, but we lived in rural Castlewood, Virginia, and it wasn’t like we could afford them.”
He finally saved enough to buy his first pair, the Air Jordan 6, during high school. (Nike releases new style iterations and colors annually, along with reinterpretations of retro editions, further fueling collector frenzy.) That scratched his itch until a handful of years ago, when a retro Jordan 1 pair in “Hyper Royal” blue beckoned from the window of a mall Foot Locker in Richmond. “Then I figured I’d go ahead and buy another pair while I was at it,” he says. “From there, it snowballed into the most expensive and space-occupying habit I’ve ever had.”
Beyond the memories of his great-grandfather that Air Jordans evoke, Milton admits to a deeper link between his affinity for the sneakers and his identity as a chef. “Even though I grew up in Appalachia, I was a kid who listened to hip-hop and punk rock and spent a lot of time trying to lose my accent and disassociate myself from living there,” he says. “Then, as I started making a name for myself and re-embraced my roots, there was pressure to look the part, to have a long beard and wear a trucker cap. I really lost myself in the brand for a while. One of the first things I did to regain my mental health was to say, ‘Screw that,’ and still be the guy cooking cornbread and ramps, but do it while wearing punk band T-shirts and Jordans. Every inch of me is from here, but my Jordans buck the stereotype of what might be expected from me.”
Currently residing in a farmhouse with little storage, Milton repurposed his home office as a display room for a portion of the collection, those from his favorite era encompassing the first six Jordan editions. “There are some more sitting in random places if they need to be cleaned,” he says. “And I’ve got my most valuable ones in a temperature-controlled shed, away from the constant temptation of putting them on my feet.”
Among those rare Airs are a vintage 1987 pair for which Milton traded twenty less-prized pairs, and a pair of Air Diors, a special collaboration between Nike and the luxury fashion house that reinterprets the original 1985 Jordans in subtle gray and white with a less-subtle Dior logo emblazoned across the sole. “Those are very sought after, and go for about fifteen thousand dollars,” Milton says. “They are amazing. I put them on maybe once a year.”
Don’t fret: He doesn’t model the Diors while stirring collards or whipping sorghum butter. Still, he owns about fifty pairs he swears he’ll wear anywhere, including a hectic kitchen during dinner rush. Fortunately, Milton actually enjoys removing stains. “When I have a day off, I’ll just sit and clean them because it’s monotonous and calming,” he says. “Look, I’m dressed in a chef coat almost every day of the week, so the only place I can show off my Jordans is around the restaurant. Just today I ordered a new release with colors that match my black-and-yellow aprons here at Hickory. I had to have them.”