Steven Satterfield is co-owner and chef of Miller Union, a restaurant located in Atlanta’s west side that focuses on seasonal ingredients. His relationships with local farmers and producers are the driving forces behind his menus. Chef Satterfield is an active member of Chef’s Collaborative, Southern Foodways Alliance, and Georgia Organics. In 2015, Satterfield released his first cookbook, Root to Leaf: A Southern Chef Cooks Through the Seasons, and in 2017 was named Best Chef: Southeast by the James Beard Foundation. In anticipation of our upcoming Friends of the Café dinner featuring chef Satterfield—an event held in conjunction with our annual community picnic and gathering—we asked Steven a few questions.
AC: You pursued a couple of other vocations before becoming a chef. For instance, you studied architecture and fronted the band Seely. How did you move from the drafting table to the stage to the kitchen?
SS: Well, when I decided to study architecture I was applying for college at Georgia Tech and I was probably 16 at the time, so you know it’s just one of those decisions you make as a teen that you hope works out. I had a very challenging but successful experience in school, including studying abroad in Paris my final year of design, but when it came down to working in the field, my heart was just not in it. I guess I rose to the occasion when it came to deadlines with my professors, but I didn’t love the practice as much as the theory. Additionally, the year I graduated was when everything was transitioning to computer-aided design, or CAD, and I knew I wanted to work with my hands. That summer after I graduated (1992) I picked up a guitar for the first time and started learning how to play. I already had musical experience playing clarinet, bass clarinet, and singing in choral group through high school, but this time I wanted to play modern music. I formed a band and we ended up getting signed to a label in the UK called Too Pure in 1994. We released 4 records between 1995-2000 and then disbanded. At that time I was 30 years old and had been working in restaurants to make ends meet. I loved the restaurant culture and the instant family that forms with a good team. I weaseled my way into Floataway Café under Anne Quatrano and learned so much in one year. Our last tour was in 2000 and I had to leave Floataway to go on tour. When I returned I started working at Watershed that summer.
AC: You have worked in several kitchens, including working with Scott Peacock at Watershed. Can you tell us a little about your journey and how it led to opening Miller Union?
SS: I ended up working at Watershed for nine years. I started as a grill cook, then transitioned to sauté, sous chef, and finally executive sous. That is a long time to work in one place but I just kept learning and growing and Scott really taught me a lot. I finally decided to take the risk and go out on my own when I realized that I could do it.
AC: Your “root to leaf” approach focuses on what vegetables are in season and using as many parts of the vegetable as possible. Is reducing food waste a priority, a fortuitous side effect of exploring ingredients, or both?
SS: Food waste is a serious cultural problem in our country. Food is viewed as disposable because we have so much of it, yet there are still many people that are food insecure and go hungry. It is a very unbalanced system. We all need to be more mindful of food and participate in fighting food waste as consumers.
AC: And what is your biggest takeaway from viewing vegetables and ingredients as whole entities and not just pieces and parts?
SS: If you’re going to spend your hard earned money on beautiful food, vegetable, or animal, you owe it to the grower or rancher to honor the ingredient and you owe it to yourself to utilize as much as you can to make the most of your purchase.
AC: What is the most challenging part of your job?
SS: Managing people is always difficult and getting your team to care and subscribe to your philosophy is something that we are always working on.
AC: Do you have any early memories of cooking? Did it play a role in your upbringing or was it something you came to as an adult?
SS: My earliest memory of cooking is helping my grandmother make biscuits in her Asheville home. I also used to cook dinner or weekend lunch for my family when I was a teen, and my mom let me help her in the kitchen. I definitely was able to cook for myself all through college and it was a natural progression for me to end up in a restaurant kitchen, as I felt comfortable with the general tasks required for cooking.
AC: What is your most reliable go-to ingredient? What do you always keep on hand in your home kitchen?
SS: I love to use extra virgin olive oil and citrus on lots of things. They have a natural balance that just tastes great. In my home kitchen, I rarely cook but I always have healthy snacks: nuts, nut butters, eggs, granola, frozen fruit, greens. I make breakfast mostly. I’m rarely home at lunchtime or dinner.
AC: What is your advice to home cooks on how to find the best produce – and how to not get overwhelmed and intimidated by trying new things?
SS: I would have to say buy a copy of Root to Leaf and read it and then you’re all set!
AC: In a culture where fast and easy solutions often prevail, what do you think is most important for home cooks to focus on? And what should they avoid buying when pre-packaged, if at all possible?
SS: Unlimited options clutter our minds and stifle our imagination. Start with whole fresh ingredients and treat them with respect and you will not only eat better but will appreciate the source more.
AC: What steps can you offer the average family on reducing food waste in the home?
SS: Tips for the home consumer
- “best by” or expiration dates are manufacturer’s guidelines for quality and freshness, not food safety. They are often not cues for throwing perfectly good food away. Just be wise about them – cultured dairy and dry goods last longer than advertised, and dry packaged goods may have an arbitrary manufacturer date on the package – use your best judgment and assess as needed.
- Make soup or stock with odds and ends from the fridge, leftovers, or items that could potentially go to waste and use them to create flavor and add nutrition to your cooking.
- Shop in smaller amounts and shop more frequently. Purchasing food in smaller increments means less chance of waste and more awareness of what you have on hand
- Preserve or put up for later use. If you have too much of one product and you want to avoid wasting it, pickle it, preserve it, freeze it, or repurpose it.
To experience chef Satterfield’s cooking firsthand at The Factory, get tickets to our April 12th Friends of the Café Dinner.
Lead image credit: Heidi Geldhauser