Photo Courtesy of The Reynolds Group Inc.

Forget what you think you know about the “grass roots” movement and experience it first hand at Atlanta’s Miller Union. Head chef Steven Satterfield has devised a restaurant system that takes full advantage of the resources around him and his colleagues. He has developed a network of relationships and local connections that have given the restaurant its strong culture and unique menu. With a heavy emphasis on farmer and chef relations, Miller Union shows that there’s more to a good eatery than just food. The Technique had the opportunity to speak with Satterfield about that extra kick.

You’re a Tech grad, correct? How did you get into cooking?

Miller Union shows that there’s more to making a good eatery than just tasty food

…I think the main reason why I got interested in architecture was because I liked the idea of working with my hands and drawing and building models and things like that. When I was in my final year…it was when AutoCAD was coming onto the scene so I did a couple of internships in the field and that’s the direction it was moving in, computer automated design, desk job basically, which is sort of what I didn’t want. I wanted to do something more tactile…I took a little break for awhile and I actually played music for about 10 years or longer when I graduated from Tech was the first time I even picked up a guitar…Long story short, after a couple years time, I was writing songs, had some friends to play with, formed a band, made a demo, sent it to some labels and we got signed. During that time period, I started working at restaurants because it was easy, sort of transient place to work, there were a lot of musicians doing the same thing…That’s kind of how I got into the restaurant world, my first job was at Eats on Ponce. I actually worked there for four years, and it seemed like everyone there was a musician. We were able to finagle our schedules enough to maybe take a week off to take a quick tour, and that’s how it all got started. I do think that architecture prepared me for long hours because you get into that mode of working on a project nonstop and also, there’s a certain amount of science and creativity that goes into architecture, music and food….All of these things were great preparation for me to move to an executive chef position because I got to see from behind the scenes…Then when Miller Union came along…

Why the name Miller Union?

This is the site of the Miller Union Stock Guards for the late 1800s…As we were doing research for the restaurant, we kinda considered it as a name, narrowed down to the top 5 and we just went with that. It has a distinct ring to it. It doesn’t sound like any other restaurant in town. We felt like it was a good nod to the history of the area. Atlanta is notorious for erasing its own history. It’s a cycle that happens here a lot. I think it all started with Sherman’s March and burned everything down…

Quick question about the food trends in Atlanta, it’s always been known that Atlanta has the mostly food chains, do you think Atlanta has developed more of an individuality and more of a culinary identity?

I think they’re both sort of happening at the same time. I think people that pay attention to food and food sourcing and also culinary trends or whatever, there’s a lot of room for individual restaurants that are locally owned, small businesses because there is that pioneer spirit here. Atlanta is still growing as a city, so you can jump in there, do your own thing and be recognized. But I think it’s also more an in town thing. There are definitely a lot of chains here, all over America there are; in some ways it’s a problem. All the fast food restaurants we have, all the poor eating trends that Americans have, it’s like the flip-side of the coin, what we do is the opposite of that. When you see the trend that there are a lot more green markets than you used to see, like a lot more, it’s quadrupled in the past couple of years; people will pay more attention to where their food comes from, eat healthier, all those things come into play and we’re starting to see locally owned restaurants in the little towns around Atlanta as well, where people don’t have to drive all the way into the city to get something good. I think there’s kind of a grass roots movement for cleaner, more responsible food that’s traceable, but I also think at the same time that fast food market is still really growing. A lot of it depends on education and awareness of the population…We’re a good crossover restaurant because we have enough attention and enough presence because we’re catching a larger market than those who just want to know where their food comes from.

Is the sustainability and the relationship with the farmers ever difficult?

It’s just difficult in general, there’s a lot of different sources that we have, we don’t use a broad-liner, so we don’t use Sisco or US Foods…As a result, we have to use multiple sources for things. Even for produce alone, we probably have 10-12 different farms we use. So imagine all the phone calls, texts and emails that you have to coordinate just to get all those things in place and work…Every afternoon, I’m shuffling…and communicating with our sous chefs on what we need, I rely on them to tell me what the restaurant needs, then I go and secure those items.

If you had to recommend to college (Tech) students who wanted to come, would they want to do lunch?

Appetizers at lunch or appetizers at the bar or something like that because lunch is much more affordable, we have everything priced so that you don’t have to spend an arm and a leg, or you can if you want to do multiple courses, everything’s fifteen dollars or less and I think our portion sizes are good. Saturday lunch is a great day to come in where you don’t have to rush, I think the student’s schedule during the week is kind of busy.

When are you all open for lunch on Saturdays?

Everyday for lunch we’re open at 11:30 to 2:30 but we’re not open Monday lunch because we decided we wanted to have that day where we could catch up or clean or get prepared or whatever and Mondays are pretty quiet around this area.

Do you guys have any prospects to expand or start a new restaurant?

We don’t really have any plans to do a new restaurant, we talk about it from time to time, I’m on a cook book project, I actually have a book deal with Harper Collins cooking fresh produce at home, so for people that want to subscribe to farms or shop at a green market but they may not know what to do with the produce when they get home, it’s kind of a factual page overview of each produce item with five or six recipes attached, including how to cook for later if you don’t want to cook it that day, so drying, freezing or preserving but also practical recipes that you could use fresh that week.

What kind of message would you like to get out to the public about your restaurant and your goal?

I think one side of it that may not be clear is that we do a lot of other sustainable practices like how we source our food, we bottle our own water, we recycle everything that we can, including old menus into little pieces of paper for under the bowl to keep it from slipping, like carry out soup, we recycle all the obvious things like glass, plastics and steel, we compost everything that will pretty much break down like meat scraps and bones, and we can also in turn scrap and compost foods that people don’t finish. All that stuff is great because we really have very little waste, when it comes down to it, what we’re putting in the landfill is probably one to two regular sized trashcans per day. Everything else is recycled or compost, also we take our fryer oil and it’s turned into biodiesel. I think that’s the message to send, we’re looking at a sustainable business from all sides. Restaurants are very wasteful in general and we wanted to leave small footprints…

For those looking to experience a connection to the city and local farmers, along with a constantly evolving menu, Miller Union is a must-visit, and students on a budget can still enjoy the experience with an affordable lunch menu. Satterfield has proven that local grass-roots movements are more than just viable and gives people a peek into the world of where their foods come from and how they are prepared. The inner workings of a kitchen can bear fruit to a generation for the better. At Miller Union, Satterfield is a full believer in working intimately with his employees in hopes that it will show in performance and taste.