Steven Satterfield, the executive chef and co-owner of Atlanta’s Miller Union, is embarking on a Bay Area trip, and he’s taking us with him. Well, he’ll really just be taking over our Instagram starting today and going through the weekend, but we can dream, right? Satterfield will be promoting his new book, Root to Leaf, which focuses on using the entire vegetable and how to navigate your local farmers’ market. We recently chatted with Satterfield about his itinerary and why he’s so obsessed with using the weird leafy parts of vegetables that most people toss out (hopefully in the compost bin). Make sure to follow @foodrepublic on Instagram to catch all of Satterfield’s Bay Area updates.
You’re starting off your Bay Area tour with a book signing at Chez Panisse. What does the restaurant and Alice Waters’s work mean to you?
Well, first of all, you could say that Chez Panisse is probably a model restaurant. I’ve always admired what they do because they really try to put the farmers first, and their dishes are simple but really delicious. I love the access to the dining room downstairs. It almost feels like you’re going to someone’s house instead of a restaurant, kind of like an auntie’s restaurant. I also like the café, where the signing will be. It’s just fresh and simple and light and thoughtful. I’ve always been a big fan of Alice’s work, not only in the style of food that she created at Chez Panisse but also her activism and what she stands for. I think of her as the mother of farm-to-table in America. She changed the way that everyone eats, essentially.
Your next stop is at the Progress, where you’re playing guest chef. Other than the many nods and attention they’ve been receiving, why there?
I like the way that Stuart [Brioza] and Nicole [Krasinski] think about food, and also their approach to a restaurant is really unique. They kind of took the mold and threw it away and sort of came up with a more approachable…approach [laughs]. Especially at State Bird [Provisions]. I remember eating there for the first time and thinking how cool it was that it was like a beehive: Everybody is really finely tuned into their jobs. But then, it’s also the opposite of a beehive where they can actually transition from job to job. Everybody sort of shares the work. Cooks might be running food or taking an order; servers might be plating something. Everyone just knows how to do each job. Everyone comes out to clear, reset, run food. Everyone knows the menu. It’s just a really unique experience. The Progress kind of takes it in a way that I love. They do a lot of family-style food, and I think that’s a really great way to eat. I always want to share food with people, and I think part of the eating experience is not just about food, but it’s also about fellowship. Also, they have their own farm, and they’re really focused on ingredients. There’s so much good, fresh produce in their work.
Are you going to be sourcing your ingredients from their farm that day, or are you going to be shopping around the city’s farmers’ markets?
I think Stuart and I are going to go to the farm.
Do you have a menu planned out, or are you going to feel it out when you get there?
We have a menu, and a lot of it is based on Root to Leaf. We sent the book and ideas to Stuart and then let him kind of riff on everything, so he’s really taking the ideas from the book and then putting a little bit of a California spin on them. It’ll be fun to see the reincarnation of these dishes through the filter of what they do.
What was the reasoning behind choosing Omnivore Books in San Francisco as another stop on your tour?
I think it’s just a great idea to have an independently owned store that strictly focuses on food, food writing and cookbooks. People who are into that really seek that out. It’s a really simple food lovers’ experience to get into that store. You can really spend hours in there. It’s tiny, but I’m sure we’ll fill up the sidewalk and have a lot of fun.
I think a lot of the time vegetables just need a little more love and a little more thoughtfulness when it comes to preparing them to make them taste as best as they can.
You’ll be teaching a class at Shed in Healdsburg at the end of the trip. Do you have any tips for people who haven’t cooked with things such as carrot tops and celery leaves? What is your philosophy on cooking the whole vegetable?
For every vegetable, I have some sort of wisdom I could share. Whether it be some of the things that people don’t typically think of, like carrot tops, radish tops, celery leaves and things like that, or even some of the more common vegetables that might give people a new perspective. Oftentimes I talk about the onion and the life span of an onion, and how it starts in the spring with the green tops and most people don’t know that. Then I talk about breaking the onion down. I compare it to the globe, like with the North Pole, the South Pole and the equator. It helps you remember where your knife is going to go in and which direction you’re going to turn. A lot of people can’t wrap their head around it in a geometry kind of way because vegetables have natural curves and angles and things that are a little more organic. I like to talk about how to work with vegetables on the cutting board and really master them with simple knife skills, but then using the whole vegetable. Fennel is a great example, where you have the bulb and the fronds (leaves). We have recipes for every part of it, and I can talk about ways those can be used as well.
Your hometown, Atlanta, is a really meat-centric town. What do you have to say to people who think of vegetables as an obstacle when they consider the main event to be meat?
I think a lot of times when people say they don’t like vegetables, they often had a bad experience, and they don’t look back. A great example is my aunt, who had Brussels sprouts for the first time in her 70s at my restaurant, and she hadn’t had them since she was a kid because she wrote them off as something she hated. Then she realized she really liked them when they’re prepared a certain way. I think a lot of the time vegetables just need a little more love and a little more thoughtfulness when it comes to preparing them to make them taste as best as they can. We all know that we should be eating more fruits and vegetables, and we always hear this from the nutritional guidelines and things like that. Americans eat way too much meat, so the more we can trim our meat consumption and raise our produce, we’re going to be a healthier society. It’ll also be a lot more enjoyable once you start focusing on food preparation.
How did you get into the concept of root to leaf?
I started focusing on what farmers were growing, and the whole idea behind Miller Union was to incorporate as many things that were in season as possible onto the menu at one time. Nothing changes more throughout the course of the year than the seasonal produce. That’s really what can define a menu, and it makes you aware of the season. The more I focus on that and the more I try to incorporate all these vegetables into the menu, I just start realizing that I looked at it a little differently than other people. I didn’t notice it until people pointed it out to me. When I started working on a lot of the content for the book, it was just a natural progression, and that seemed like the best angle to approach seasonal cooking, instead of doing a Miller Union book, because when we started working on the book we (the restaurant) were already two and a half, three years old. I felt it was better to give a kind of a home cooking guide to navigating a farmers’ market, incorporating more produce at home and thinking more about seasonality.
When you were first opening Miller Union, did any of your chefs question you about throwing out some parts of the vegetable? Were they ever like, “You really don’t want me to throw this out? Are you sure?”
I think there’s always an evolution going on in our kitchen where we look at things through different filters at different times. Like right now, we have corn on the menu and we generate a lot of corn cobs, so we just recently switched from using chicken bone stock on most things to doing more of a corn cob stock because we have so many corn cobs leftover that we can make it into a flavorful stock, and it becomes the base of so many things that we cook. We could always combine the chicken and the corn, but what I’m saying is, I’ll see something that we’re throwing away and then I’ll be like, “Well, what can we do with this instead of throwing it away? How can we utilize this to create something flavorful?” And if there’s a way to do it, we will, and if it’s too gratuitous, it’s better in the compost bin sometimes. It just depends on what it is.
So have you ever yelled at someone for throwing away a carrot top or something like that?
[Laughs] I’ve, you know, been like, “Hey, we need to be saving these fennel fronds and not tossing them.” Like sometimes my pastry chef will take the fennel fronds and make fennel ice cream, or we’ll make a fennel syrup for a drink or something like that. But it’s not always for the kitchen; if we don’t have a use for it on the menu, then we’ll figure out another way to use it somewhere else in the restaurant.
What is your favorite vegetable to work with and why?
I always say, “I don’t pick favorites,” and it’s really true. I’m an equal-opportunity vegetable lover. In every season, I get excited about all of them, and I think they all have a place on our plates. Each fruit and vegetable really has a contribution to the biodiversity of how we eat, and I think that’s a very important thing to say because a lot of the time everyone wants to focus on one thing, like kale or blueberries, and then it becomes singularly focused. I think we need to take a step back and look at the bigger picture and try to eat as much biodiversity as we can.