We had the good fortune of connecting with Zeb Stevenson and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Zeb, where are your from? We’d love to hear about how your background has played a role in who you are today?
I was born is a small town in Indiana to a poor family. We moved around frequently from trailer parks to primitive houses far from town. We once lived in an apartment over a laundromat that my parents looked after and I can remember hearing frequent gunshots from the trailer park next door and my mother fighting off teenagers attempting to rob the change machine with hatchets. Not exactly a picturesque childhood but coming up that way has done everything to influence who and what I am today. Having come from nothing I was never burdened with the pressure of living up to anyone’s idea of what my life should be. There was no family business to take over, no generational imperative to keep up the family’s reputation. No one ever told me I had to be a doctor. I was raised by parents who honestly don’t care if I am rich or poor – they only care that I try to be a good person. I was taught these two mantras: “It’s not what you are that counts, its WHO you are that matters” and “Work is not punishment”. Because of that upbringing I have always felt free to pour myself into things that inspire and fuel me and to work hard at them. I feel truly lucky that I have been given that ironic gift of freedom through poverty.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
What I’m about to tell you is, in my mind, 100% true even though people disagree with me when I say it. I am not in the position that I’m in today as a chef and restaurant owner because I am a great cook because I don’t believe that I am. What sets me apart and what has led me to cook great food is my undying lifelong curiosity and my unquenchable desire to understand how things work. I was the child who took everything in his path apart to find out how it worked. That’s the obsession that truly propels me. I don’t cook great food because I was born with the gift of great taste – I’m able to do it because I’ve devoted the last 24 years of my life to understanding how food ingredients respond to stimulus and how they behave under countless combinations of variables. It’s only in the last few years, as I’ve matured, that I’m learning how to take that knowledge and attach a soul to it. I’ve finally come to understand that skilled cooking with no comfort or heart will always feel sterile and, in the end, will not truly satisfy.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
The best time ever is a lot of pressure. I’m not sure I can live up to that but I’ll tell you some of my preferred spots. Drinks and food at Ticonderoga Club are always top notch and I can’t say enough good about what they do. I’ve also been meaning to check out the Chastain. They have an amazingly talented team there. Coffee at Chrome Yellow and, while we’re in the neighborhood, fruit cups at LottaFrutta are not to be missed. We’re going to skip the Beltline, though. It’s often too crowded for my taste. Instead I would prefer to visit some local farms and see what they do. We could pick up some great local goodies and cook at home. Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I dedicate everything I do to the team at Redbird. Always. Without their hard work there is nothing to talk about.
Andrew Thomas Lee: @andrewthomaslee