Photograph courtesy of Zeb Stevenson
13 Questions is a weekly series where we ask chefs 13 questions to get to know them outside of the kitchen. Zeb Stevenson is the executive chef at Watershed on Peachtree.
What was your first start in the restaurant industry?
I left Cornell after two years. I spent a couple of years directionlessly traveling around the country, and I landed with some friends in Bloomington, Indiana. One of my buddies got me a job washing dishes at a Waffle House. I fell in love immediately. It was so much more exciting and dynamic than any environment I’d been in. It was this band of misfits that I fell into immediately. The love of food came in later.
What was the first dish you learned how to cook?
I remember a bistro in Bloomington I worked at in 1998-1999, where I made chicken with white tarragon sauce. I remember being very proud of it because up to that point I’d only done short-order cooking. The chef turned me loose on this dish . . . I sometimes have no idea how I got here. I always think of myself as this kid from trailer park Indiana.
When you aren’t cooking, what do you do for fun?
I lead a very active life. I spend a lot of time cycling and running. It keeps my energy level up so I can deal with everything else. And I spend a lot of time thinking and working on ideas. I have a chalkboard that I made on my wall of my dining room, so I write food ideas, things that are on my mind. I have a lot on my mind; I am very pensive, and sometimes I just have to get things out.
What was the last TV show you binge watched?
I really don’t watch much television at all, but I was sick over the Christmas holiday last year with the flu and laid up in bed, so I Netflixed every single episode Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23.
You studied painting at Cornell. Do you still make art?
I do, though not as much as I would like to. I fall into this cycle of starting a piece, a painting or a drawing, and as soon as I get to a stage where I prove to myself I can still do it, I lose interest and stop. The most recent piece I’ve been working on was photo realism; it was a still life from my kitchen.
What’s your guilty pleasure snack food?
It was told to me by my mother that when she carrying me, she binged on popcorn. If there’s popcorn in the room, I will eat myself sick on it. I also have a hell of a sweet tooth. I love chocolate in all of its form as well. The kids at work have been instructed to keep me away from the chocolate, which is why I run and ride a bike. I inherited that from my father; he has an all-around sweet tooth.
You played bass at Taste of Atlanta recently. How long have you been playing, and are you in a band?
I started playing bass when I was 14 years old. I played in a lot of bands. The group I play in is an all chef band, The 5 Bone Rack. It’s a revolving cast of characters: Gary Mennie and I have been doing it for five to six years, Jamie Adams, Sheldon Wolfe, Chris Neff. Ted Lahey did it for a while, and Ford Fry was in it forever until he got too busy.
You famously hosted a blood dinner in 2012. What’s the next obscure ingredient you’d like to plan a menu around?
That set the bar so high that I don’t know what you’d do to top it. My desire to gravitate toward obscure ingredients has waned; it’s a been there done that. The blood dinner was like I showed up to the duel, fired all six shots, put the gun down, and went home.
As a Midwesterner, what was the biggest culture shock you had moving to the South?
I’ve lived in Atlanta for 15 years now, but I never ate grits before I moved down here, and I didn’t even know what they were. I remember the first time I went out for breakfast when I moved here, and the grits just came with the food.
If you could ask Edna Lewis one question, what would it be?
How to make a proper johnnycake. It’s the one thing I still just can’t get my head around. It’s simple, but I know there’s something I am missing.
What’s your favorite city to visit on vacation?
I was recently in Chicago. I hadn’t been to Chicago for 20 years. I was stunned. The food scene is outstanding; it was so varied and so good and so intense. I was at Longman & Eagle, and they just slayed it.
What’s your least favorite ingredient or dish in the Southern food sphere?
Okra isn’t my favorite thing. I didn’t grow up eating it. Okra is one of those ingreidents that people develop childhood attachments to, but I tend to see it for what it is—oddly textured. But I cook with it.
If you were to open a food truck and serve only one dish, what would it be?
I am a big fan of the grilled cheese sandwich. It is my ultimate comfort food. The bread is very important; it has to be something with a little bit more elasticity like a potato bread. The cheese has got to be young enough that it melts effectively, but it also has to have lots of flavor; a young tomme style cheese works because the cheese should be a little funky. If you’ve got the right bread and the right cheese, you shouldn’t need to throw a lot more stuff on it.