There’s no stopping James Beard “Best Chef: Southeast” 2017, Steven Satterfield, when it comes to his modern approach to Southern/Atlanta food. His restaurant Miller Union in the West Midtown of Atlanta is a fresh mix of highs and lows to old and new. You get the comfort of the perfect fried chicken to his infamous farm egg baked in celery cream and grilled bread.
The depth and layers of flavor in Satterfield’s simple seasonally-driven menu is what has gotten Miller Union its countless recognitions and honors since its opening in 2009. There is no saying where his dishes will take us next.
You’ve been nominated as Best Chef: Southeast consecutively five times before you finally picked up the award this year. How does it feel to finally come away with the recognition?
It feels amazing – I was starting to worry that I may just continue to be nominated every year but never win. All of the chefs that are finalists work very hard to get where they are and it is a validating feeling to be recognized for that hard work. To win the medal is an indescribable feeling. I never expected to win, and maybe that’s just my inner defense mechanism kicking in, so it is really a wonderful reward to take the prize home. It’s also a huge honor for the city!
What would you say is the philosophy behind Miller Union and your style of cooking?
I am very inspired by vegetables and use them as the starting point for any dish. We have a vibrant farm community in Atlanta and I’m always excited when we get our farm deliveries. They make our job easier. I also do not like to manipulate ingredients too much. You won’t find foams, powders or meat glue in my kitchen. We are rooted in traditional cooking methods with a fresh, modern approach. Some years I may repeat a dish that I really love or am nostalgic for, but there’s always some new ideas floating around on the menu too. I like the mix of old and new, high and low, classic and modern.
Southern food seems to be getting a lot of traction lately, what are your thoughts on the Atlanta/Southern food scene these days?
I think Southern food has the richest documented history of any American cuisine. We have deep agrarian roots and many iconic dishes that have stood the test of time and keep coming back as favorites. We also have a wide region that swaths across many states and there is a mutual respect for the similarities and differences within those regions.
You studied Architecture at Georgia Tech and traveled as a musician in a band called Seely, all before ever becoming a chef. What led you to start cooking? What’s your connection between Visual Art, Music, and Food? Does music and art influence your food?
I knew I wanted to create and work with my hands. All three of these medias require creativity, math, science, technique and precision. They all are experienced through the passage of time and space. Architecture school taught me to endure long hours, tap into the creative side of my brain, and learn what I was capable of. When everything switched to computer aided design, I decided to leave the profession and move into music. I was a classically trained windwood instrumentalist as a teen, so after college I decided to try my hand at guitar and play the kind of music I was listening too, instead of the classics from centuries ago. It was a liberating experience and collaborating with friends in a contemporary medium was exciting and fun. We had the time of our lives playing in clubs and traveling around the country to open up for bands that we admired and respected. I started cooking while I was in a band and in between records studied food and worked under chefs here in Atlanta. As I approached 30, I realized that food could be a viable career and that it could also be esteemed and professional, and I just went for it.
You’re very passionate about seasonal cooking and sourcing ingredients locally, what drives that?
The ingredients that are available in my area are rich and diverse. There are endless possibilities of combinations if you allow yourself the time to experiment and taste.
What is your favorite memory growing up in the kitchen?
Making biscuits with my grandmother, Hilda.
How did your relationship with your grandmother influence your food? What was your favorite thing she would cook?
She was effortless and had the Midas touch. Everything she made tasted perfect, but it was so simple – icebox pickles, lemon pound cake, pole beans simmered with smoked pork, creamed corn, ripe juicy tomatoes with mayonnaise and salt, the perfect biscuit.
Can you please tell us what the secret is to the best Southern biscuit?
Plenty of fat, a gentle touch, lots of buttermilk and a ripping hot oven.
What inspired you to write Root to Leaf?
I was very inspired by the work of English cookbook author Nigel Slater with his Ripe and Tender volumes for fruit and vegetables respectively. These are bibles of the produce world and he not only cooked with these ingredients, but also grew them. It’s both gardening and cooking – I did not try the gardening side, I’m terrible at growing food I think it’s because I’m never home. One day, when I have the time, I would like to grow my own food.
Why is it important for us as chefs to create produce forward cuisine?
Let’s face it, we all need to eat more plant based foods. Our meat consumption is out of control and our society is headed towards lots of health problems. Also, the quality of most meat in america is shit. Factory farmed animals pumped with antibiotics and growth hormones should be illegal. If you eat with the seasons and incorporate more vegetables in your diet, it’s a win-win. You’re supporting local agriculture and you reap the benefits by consuming the original source of vitamins and minerals. Have you ever thought about the fact the a multivitamin is just plant based foods processed down into the form of a pill? Why not just eat from the source instead?
Cast iron is featured in the design of your restaurant beautifully. What do you love about cooking with cast iron? Why was it important for you to include it in the aesthetic of your restaurant?
A good well seasoned cast iron skillet is a symbol of the South and our heritage. It’s also a really great even conductor of heat and is perfect for making griddle cakes, fried chicken, perfect rice, seared fish, and many many other things. Everyone should own one!