In honor of Earth Day, writer Feifei Sun enjoys sustainable cuisine with Chef Steve Satterfield
It’s a storybook spring morning when I arrive at Steven Satterfield’s home in Atlanta’s Inman Park neighborhood. The sun hangs high in a clear blue sky, and a gentle breeze cuts through the heat of the 70-degree day.
But inside Satterfield’s kitchen, where we’ve gathered to make a couple recipes from his recently released Root to Leaf—a cookbook that celebrates vegetables, as Satterfield likes to say—the Miller Union chef is quick to remind me that it’s not actually spring (we’re technically a few days out). “It might feel warm outside, but there’s barely a lick of spring produce,” he says, as he starts slicing radishes on a mandoline. “We still have root vegetables and hearty greens from winter.”
Satterfield would know. Dubbed the “Vegetable Shaman” by New York Times food editor Sam Sifton, Satterfield has spent more than 20 years working in Atlanta restaurant kitchens, from Anne Quatrano’s famed Floataway Café to Watershed. In 2009, Satterfield opened Miller Union with general manager Neal McCarthy, offering a menu of Southern-inspired, unpretentious plates focused on local vegetables; a year later, the restaurant was a James Beard semifinalist for best new restaurant.
Miller Union has gotten a slew of other best restaurant accolades, too, from local magazines to national publications including Bon Appetit and Esquire. But talking to Satterfield, you get the sense that he’s not motivated by honors like these. Here’s a chef who has been passionate about sustainability, local food and organic vegetables for decades—long before “farm-to-table” became a trend, or “slow food” a movement. And everyone and everything else—media attention included—has just caught up.
In his elegant but comfortable kitchen, we’re making a radish salad with walnuts, lemon, olive oil and parmesan, and a smoked feta dip with assorted vegetables. Except today, Steven is out of feta, so we’re using a goat’s milk kefir instead. Just like his food, Satterfield is refined but unfussy. He wakes up without an alarm clock and doesn’t watch what he eats in the traditional sense. Satterfield does, however, care deeply about where his food comes from.
“I’ve very focused on farming practices, the way animals are raised and slaughtered,” he says. “I’ve started thinking more about every source. Grains—what happens to them before they get to us? Oils, vinegar—I want to know more about who is making them and whether they’re doing the right thing. And of course, vegetables.”
Vegetables aren’t just the driving force in his restaurant; they’re also big parts of Satterfield’s own life. He was a vegetarian in college and credits plant power for helping him beat testicular cancer two years ago. “I started thinking more about how most of our vitamins and minerals come from plant-based foods,” he says. “I was already eating like that, but as I was going through chemotherapy for cancer, I really started to think about eating produce as a way of healing.” Today, Satterfield starts his mornings at home with a fruit and vegetable smoothie—kale, frozen fruits, whatever’s in season and in his fridge—before heading to work.
The proverbial seed was planted early. Satterfield grew up in Savannah, GA, playing woodwind instruments, but spent summers in Asheville, NC, with his grandmother, Hilda. She grew her own vegetables, shopped at farmers markets, and cooked seasonally. From Hilda, Satterfield would learn how to can, preserve, and maybe most important, appreciate food. “My grandma was an amazing cook,” he says. “Everything was super simple, fresh and seasonal. I could really taste the difference in ingredients.”
He grew even more interested in vegetables, and the farms on which they’re grown and harvested, while working under Scott Peacock at Watershed. There, in the days before e-commerce, the late Ann Brewer, an early advocate of Atlanta farmers markets, would visit weekly with farmer availability lists that she had collected by visiting farms or calling their owners personally. “I would see things like fennel or Asian greens on the list that we never got,” Satterfield says. “I thought, ‘What if we did a restaurant where you got everything on the list and figured out how to use them on the menu, instead of cherry picking what you want?’”
That became the original idea for Miller Union, though Satterfield is the first to admit that he can’t always balance the concept with the need for a consistent menu for customers. But seasons still drive the menu there, as they do Root to Leaf. The cookbook is divided by season, and each section contains advice and tips on choosing and preparing various vegetables in addition to straight recipes. Satterfield decided to write the book after realizing how many people wanted to cook more vegetables, but didn’t know what, exactly, to do with that kohlrabi or turnip at their farmers market. “I would be doing a demo with carrots, and people would come up to me and ask about radishes or another vegetable,” he says. “They would see all this beautiful produce, but they were scared to take it home.”
That education component is hugely important to Satterfield, who practices what he preaches. He recycles and composts—and has been happily surprised that his Miller Union staff have taken to both practices in their own lives. Satterfield would like to ramp up his community outreach, particularly with young school children, and down the road, he’d love to have a farm. He doesn’t eat factory birds or beef that’s not grass-fed. Guilty pleasures include organic corn chips from Tostitos and the occasional bag of fried pork rinds from a gas station on a road trip—but even then, they’re usually made from pigs from a nearby farm, he says.
“Sourcing is so important to me because we’ve made a lot of mistakes in our food systems with industrialized food,” Satterfield says. “I want to do the right thing, help steer us on the right path, and I think I can be influential, whether that’s talking to guests in the restaurant or how I spend money as a consumer personally.”
Today it’s cooking for me. As he plates the salad and dip, Satterfield moves effortlessly. I tell him it looks beautiful, and again, he corrects me. “It’s kind of sloppy, actually,” he says. “But I like stuff to look like it just fell on the plate. I don’t overthink the way it looks—I like when food looks natural. Like it just landed there.”
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