Photo courtesy Heidi Geldhauser
By: Mary-Kate Tucto
From performing for crowds to cooking for them, Steven Satterfield’s route to culinary success has been anything but ordinary. After studying architecture in college and touring with the pop band Seely, this four-time James Beard Award nominee and co-owner of Miller Union in Atlanta traded in his electric guitar for a cast-iron skillet. Though Steven’s professional evolution has certainly been a unique one, it has undoubtedly produced a chef who stands apart from the pack.
Long before working in a few dives during tour breaks with the band, Steven cut his culinary teeth hanging out in his grandmother, Hilda’s, kitchen in Asheville, North Carolina. “She was a really good cook, and everything she made was delicious,” he reminisces. Her Midas touch with fresh ingredients fascinated Steven, and he spent many a visit helping her in the kitchen, rolling out biscuit dough and asking questions. “I didn’t know at the time that no one was allowed to be in the kitchen with her while she cooked,” he says. “I just started doing it and she let me. I guess she saw something in me and let it slide.”
Years later, when he got his first real break in the restaurant business at Anne Quatrano’s Floataway Café, and later during his almost decade-long stint at Scott Peacock’s Watershed, Steven’s initial taste for seasonal produce developed into a passion that has become his constant inspiration. He rose through the ranks at Watershed to executive sous chef, when he realized he’d hit the proverbial ceiling. “I started thinking, ‘I’m running someone else’s business and spending all my time here,’” he remembers. “Wouldn’t it be cool if it were my own thing?” So he partnered with Neil McCarthy and opened Miller Union in 2009. The next year, the restaurant was a semi-finalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Best New Restaurant award.
Named for the animal stockyard that occupied its place in the late 1800s through the 1920s, Miller Union has become famous for Steven’s signature seasonal, vegetable-forward approach to cooking. “All of us (at Miller Union) have trained our brains to think that way,” Steven says. “From pastry, to line cooks, to bar tender, to server, we’re all talking about what produce is coming in and what we’re putting out. It’s really the driving force of the menu.” Rather than building a dish around a cut of meat, he allows the produce of the day to be his muse and then adds a protein compliment. The summer months inspire a creamed hominy dish, paired with a bone-in pork chop and peach chutney while the autumnal months call for carrot puree and a skillet-seared duck breast. While Steven describes Miller Union’s style as modern Southern, he doesn’t rein in his creativity. “We’re using Southern ingredients, but I don’t always make Southern food,” he says. “I love an array of flavors and I think having a bit of a worldly approach is good for Atlanta because it’s such a melting pot of cultures.”
Though the menu may change with the color of the leaves and the fancy of Steven’s imagination, certain Southern traditions are very much alive at Miller Union. The most prominent example is the presence of dozens of cast-iron skillets—both in the front and back of the house. “We use cast-iron skillets for very specific things,” Steven says. “It keeps really even heat, so you can leave it on low and toss in a duck breast to order and let it render nice and slow.” Mountain trout, grilled pimiento cheese sandwiches and, of course, cornbread get the cast-iron treatment when they grace the menu. Outside the kitchen, however, these forged beauties have a much easier life. “We only have 12 burners and 20 or 30-something cast-iron skillets,” Steven says with a laugh. “We had way more than we could use in a day, so we found a way to put them on display and make it really cool.” The wall of cast iron is now one of Miller Union’s most recognizable features. These skillets are retired for now, but that doesn’t mean they won’t see the fire again. “Maybe some of the ones we’re using right now will get switched out,” Steven muses. “They don’t ever go bad, right?”
This chef’s dedication to organic, seasonal produce reaches far beyond the heat of the kitchen. Outside of the restaurant, Steven is extremely active in the food community. If being the vice president of the Slow Food Atlanta Board wasn’t enough to keep him busy, he is also the local leader for the Atlanta Chefs Collaborative local network and works with Georgia Organics, The Southern Foodways Alliance, and local cancer centers, where he teaches patients going through chemotherapy or radiation how to cook and eat fresh vegetables. As a cancer survivor, Steven credits a diet of organic plant-based foods in aiding his recovery from surgery and chemo. “I think what it boils down to for me is that we’ve done a lot of damage to our food system over the last five decades and I want to see that change in my lifetime,” Steven says. “I feel like if there’s anything I can do to help reverse some of the issues we’ve created then I want to, even if that means just small bits of change and affecting a handful of people here and there. That’s a good start.”