10 years of Miller Union: How the restaurant challenged the way we think about Southern food

Chef Steven Satterfield and general manager Neal McCarthy will celebrate by hosting a party at Westside Warehouse on November 10

Miller Union Atlanta 10th Anniversary
Miller Union celebrates its 10th anniversary this fall.

Photograph by Heidi Geldhauser

Miller Union chef Steven Satterfield and general manager Neal McCarthy have helped reimagine what it means to be a “Southern restaurant” since opening the doors to their Westside restaurant in 2009. Satterfield was one of only two Atlanta chefs in the past decade to win the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast. McCarthy, also the restaurant’s sommelier, has been nominated twice for his wine program. (This year, they also earned the top slot for the first time in our annual Best Restaurants list.) Through Miller Union, the pair have changed how Atlantans think about Southern food, in part by elevating the role of vegetables and reconceiving traditional recipes—but also by reflecting the modern and multicultural South.

For their 10-year anniversary, the duo is celebrating not just their accomplishments but the evolution of Southern cooking more broadly. “One of my ideas was to involve other chefs from the South that I’ve become good friends with, which also takes a little bit of burden off of us in terms of preparation,” Satterfield says. “This way, we can have a little more time to interface with our customers and raise a glass with them.”

Miller Union Atlanta 10th Anniversary
Chef Steven Satterfield and general manager Neal McCarthy

Photograph by Heidi Geldhauser

At the anniversary party, on November 10 at the Westside Warehouse, Satterfield will cook side-by-side with guest chefs including Tandy Wilson of City House in Nashville, Joe Kindred of Kindred in Davidson, North Carolina, and Michael Hudman and Andrew Ticer of Enjoy A|M Restaurant Group in Memphis. Kimball House and Ticonderoga Club will provide drinks, as will Savannah’s Service Brewing Co. The party also will function as a fundraiser for Wholesome Wave, which is dedicated to strengthening local food communities.

We spoke with Satterfield and McCarthy about the restaurant’s first decade, as well as what’s next for Miller Union.

You opened your restaurant in the middle of the recession. Did that worry you?

Steven Satterfield: We were pretty freaked out. All of our friends were like, You’re crazy. This is a terrible time. Don’t do it! But we had already started the ball rolling. We couldn’t reverse it, so we moved forward. But we were scared shitless.

Neal McCarthy: We’d both worked hard for a long time, and to [finally] do something for ourselves and have the economy turn the way it did was one of those things that we would have never seen coming. But looking back, it was probably such a great time to open, because I think there were a lot of people that needed something new and exciting, and we filled that void for some people. It was exciting.

When Miller Union opened, it was labeled as a Southern restaurant. Is it still a Southern restaurant today, or has it become something different?

McCarthy: Steven had come from working for a great Southern chef, Scott Peacock at Watershed, so he was automatically labeled as a Southern chef. When we first opened, there was this moment of Southern food becoming culturally significant, but we never put that label on ourselves. What Steven and I always talked about was our mission was to serve the best ingredients that we can buy. And those have to come from Georgia, from North Carolina, from our local farms. That’s something we’ve never budged on; we’ve stood by it regardless of the financial implications.

Satterfield: I think there are always going to be elements of the menu that feel significantly Southern, but I think we’re also in an international city and a cosmopolitan place. More and more we start to borrow from other cultures for inspiration, while still using the Southern ingredients. It’s exciting to be able to use these ingredients in different ways. When you think about organizations such as the Southern Foodways Alliance and their recent explorations of what it means to be Southern and how multicultural that can be, it helps redefine [Southern food], especially in a city like Atlanta, where there are so many different of cultures. We can explore a little more and not be tied to grandma’s recipe list.

Miller Union Atlanta 10th Anniversary
The vegetable plate at Miller Union

Photograph by Heidi Geldhauser

How has Miller Union changed, and how is Atlanta’s restaurant scene different from what it was a decade ago?

Satterfield: We’ve evolved, but the one thing that hasn’t changed is that Neal and I still work in the restaurant every day. One thing I’m particularly proud of in Atlanta is how much interfacing there is between chefs and growers, all the farms that we have here, and how much our farmers market scene [has grown]. In 2009, it was still kind of burgeoning, but now we have so many [now].

When I go out to eat at other restaurants, I see the same ingredients, but the way the chefs interpret them is what makes [the chefs] stand apart. It’s exciting to see chefs embracing seasonality and making it part of their routine. It didn’t use to be that way, and I’d like to think that maybe Miller Union can take some credit for starting that as a local trend. I don’t think it should be a trend, though, it should be the way we cook.

McCarthy: This restaurant has created a wine program that is, in my opinion, the best in the city. And I’m still as active now as I ever have been about trying to always keep the wine list fresh and vibrant. But [our program] has also enabled a lot more wine programs in the past 10 years to know that they can push the boundaries of what has been expected. Ten years ago, there weren’t very many independent wine shops that were open. Now, we have a good culture of drinking wine.

After you were diagnosed with cancer [in 2012], I remember hearing you talk about the healing power of food. Did cancer change your approach as a chef?

Satterfield: Not necessarily. We’ve always pushed to have a lot of produce on the plate no matter what the dish is. I embraced it for myself more so than ever during and after that healing process, thinking a lot about what vegetables and fruits have to offer as sources of vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients. These are things that our bodies crave and need so much. It’s better to go that route than to take a pill.

Miller Union Atlanta 10th Anniversary
Inside Miller Union

Photograph by Heidi Geldhauser

What are some of your favorite moments looking back?

McCarthy: I think the James Beard [Award] celebration was a collection of everything for us. We’ve had [a lot of] talented people come through the restaurant and work with us. From my wife, our bookkeeper, to Steven’s husband, Ben, who enables Steven and I to be able to do all the things that we do to make the restaurant work. Our management staff; Julie [Steele]’s been here for eight years. Vince, my bartender, has been here since the day we opened. We had a dishwasher that was with us from the day we opened, for nine years until he moved back to Mexico. Winning that award was for all of them. We felt like [the award] was great for Atlanta, too. I was born in England, but I tell people that I am from Atlanta; this is my home. My wife is a native Atlantan. Steven has been here 30 years. I feel like we bring a lot to the city, and we’ve been able to do that with one small restaurant in a part of town that we didn’t know was going to explode into the neighborhood that it is today.

Satterfield: I’ve spent a lot of time doing events both locally and out of town. And my goal as the chef has always been to be a sort of ambassador for the restaurant. When people think of Atlanta, we want them to think of us first. Oh, we’ve got to book a table at Miller Union. I feel like we’ve succeeded in that. The proof of it is when we’re stowing people’s luggage in our office on a nightly basis. It’s a blessing and a curse. Every convention that comes to town, we get slammed. We’ve exceeded that goal of being a place that people visit when they come here. 

When you open a restaurant, you don’t know what the life span of it will be. It’s pretty amazing to make it to the 10-year mark because not many restaurants do. Now when I think about Miller Union’s lifespan, it’s big question mark. Who knows how long this place will last? I look at restaurants like Chez Panisse in California, which has always inspired me. They just celebrated [48] years. I don’t know if I’ll still be alive then. But we are very, very lucky and feel very blessed to have such great support from our community and beyond. We only get busier every year. There was a time where I was concerned, maybe year three or four, where I thought, Okay, people are going to stop coming because we’re no longer new. That happens with new places; it can be a flash in the pan and all of a sudden people stop going. We’re lucky that we’ve never fallen out of favor with Atlanta, and we are very appreciative of all of our diners.

Are there any plans to open a second restaurant?

McCarthy: After you publish this article, then maybe somebody will give us some money.

Satterfield: Every year we talk about ideas that we have, and we have some good ones, but we’ve never felt the timing was entirely right. Maybe on the horizon, who knows?

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

If you go: Miller Union’s 10th anniversary party will be at Westside Warehouse (996 Huff Road Northwest) on Sunday, November 10 from 3-6 p.m. Tickets are $100 and available here.