When Miller Union opened in fall 2009, it didn’t take long for it to become one of Atlanta’s most beloved restaurants. Esquire and Bon Appétit named it one of the Best New Restaurants of 2010 (an honor we also bestowed upon it, naming it “Restaurant of the Year” in our 2010 Best New Restaurants issue), and Miller Union was a James Beard Award semifinalist for Best New Restaurant in 2010.
A few years later, chef Steven Satterfield earned his first James Beard nomination for Best Chef: Southeast. He lost to Tennessee chef Joseph Lenn. Satterfield was nominated again in the same category in 2014 and again, but North Carolina’s Ashley Christensen took home the prize. This scenario repeated itself for four years in a row. Then this spring, he was nominated alongside a fellow Atlanta chef: Ryan Smith of Staplehouse. Smith has received a similar level of national attention as Satterfield’s early days—Staplehouse has earned accolades from GQ, Bon Appétit, and is currently sitting at No. 1 on our Best Restaurants in Atlanta list.
But when Bacchanalia chef Anne Quatrano (who won the category in 2003) opened the envelope at last night’s awards ceremony in Chicago, it was finally Satterfield’s time.
“It was so surreal,” Satterfield said of the announcement in a phone interview today. “I felt like I was watching it, like it wasn’t really happening to me. I knew that [Anne] was pulling for me. She said she was so nervous when she was opening the envelope, and if it didn’t say my name, she was going to say it anyway!”
Satterfield, who worked with Quatrano when he was getting his start in Atlanta kitchens, praised her influence. “I was a starving line cook trying to get my big break. She took me in with very little experience and the belief I could pull it off. I wish I’d thanked her on stage. I was so overwhelmed I don’t even remember what I said.”
Friends and fans quickly began sending congratulations messages, so many that Satterfield said he couldn’t even look at his phone. “I left it in my pocket―there was too much love for that one device to handle!”
Satterfield said that he wasn’t expecting to win after so many years of nominations. “It really caught me off-guard,” he said. “I got used to the rhythm of seeing everybody, being honored to be invited, going to some fun parties, and going home. That was the routine.”
Which raises the question: How is it that Satterfield was nominated in the same category for five years in a row, yet never won until last night? John Kessler, the former AJC restaurant critic and current James Beard journalism awards committee chair, provided some insight.
“A lot of it has to do with the way the judging works,” Kessler said. “You’ve got a bunch of food writers from all over the country, past restaurant winners, and a handful of semi-pro restaurant diners all casting ballots. The people who live in the region have their favorites and vote for the chefs they best know and admire. The others, perhaps increasingly, get to know [a restaurant like] Miller Union as a must-visit restaurant when work or pleasure takes them to Atlanta. It is not uncommon for excellent chefs to get nominated for several years before bagging the win. Some other chefs have multiple nominations, and then stop seeming as relevant and fall off the list.” Clearly Satterfield did not seem less relevant.
And there were no hard feelings between friends Smith and Satterfield, who said the Staplehouse team greeted him with “a big hug” after the ceremony. “I know he’ll be back in that circle again―there’s no way he wouldn’t be,” Satterfield said of Smith. “He’s just at the beginning of this journey.”
Satterfield returns to Atlanta tonight and will be right back at work in the kitchen at Miller Union tomorrow. What does the award mean for life at the restaurant, now that more eyes than ever will likely be on Satterfield’s creations?
“We work hard to make everything up to a certain standard, and now we’ll have to work harder,” Satterfield said. “People will come with higher expectations, but we’ll continue to put out the same simple, honest food.”