Note: This story originally appeared in Creative Loafing in May of 2013. Their archives are screwed, so here’s an unedited version of the original story – on the day it was announced that Watershed is changing hands and chef Zeb Stevenson will be preparing his last Watershed supper this weekend.
Chef Zeb Stevenson was preparing his Last Supper, though it wasn’t really a last supper by any strict definition of the term. It wasn’t a solemn occasion, nothing with an air of finality. Rather, it was a dinner to celebrate the upcoming end to his tenure with Livingston and Proof & Provision, and the yet-to-be-determined new things to come for restaurant and chef alike. It was a chance to look back, as far back as childhood, to host the kind of meal that Stevenson wishes more meals could be like – a gathering of friends, a communal sharing of food. The mere two dozen tickets had gone quickly, everyone there eager to break bread together. As Stevenson prepped for the dinner, he told me, “looking back, my best meals were always the ones where everyone was laughing and enjoying the company. That’s what matters most.”
Life, or nature, or maybe even God, wasn’t being very helpful with this Last Supper on this particular Sunday. Flash flooding and storms were creating havoc around Atlanta, so the dinner for two dozen was being moved from the Georgian Terrace rooftop to a make-do indoors. A street festival nearby tied up traffic, causing guests to circle for blocks before being diverted by hotel staff down an alleyway into the parking lot. The charcoal rotisserie wasn’t functioning the way it should, so Stevenson had to improvise a solution with MacGyver-like ingenuity. Even the main course, the whole lamb to be put on that rotisserie, had its issues. And while the story of the lamb that Stevenson shared is one of a chef’s creativity in dealing with a dilemma, it is not one for overly sensitive souls.
Earlier that week, Stevenson had gone out to the farm to meet the shepherd, whose preferred method of solemnly transitioning his flock from field to table involved a rifle. The shepherd had been bragging of his marksmanship, but on this particular day, the rifle was not shooting straight. His shot missed. And missed again. And again. And then he hit an unintended target, a spring lamb which was presumably the child of the chosen animal nearby. This was upsetting, of course, as it was now both the elder and younger lamb that would be leaving the field.
So what do you do when you’re planning to roast a whole lamb on a spit and now you have two? If you’re Zeb Stevenson, you de-bone the younger, surround it with herbs and wheat berries, and truss it up inside the elder, ready for the coals. Is that wrong? Demented? Genius? Or is it even sentimental in its own way, bringing the two lambs back together for what would be their last supper? The chef seemed to recognize the horrible nobility of it all, joking that he could dub the dish a “mother and child reunion.”
Whatever your view of the situation, Stevenson made the most of it when it came time to cook, which fit the overall tenor of the supper that he termed “do-it-yourself” cuisine. More than going out to the field to find the lamb, the chef and his crew had made their own fresh butter, their own cream cheese. They had made beet vinegar and cider vinegar aged in a whiskey barrel. Pickled strawberries and fiddlehead ferns. Fermented and dehydrated and fried sauerkraut. Stevenson had even illustrated and printed his own menus by hand with linoleum blocks.
The supper itself came to twelve plus courses, served family style. Friends, foodies, fellow restaurateurs all communed for Stevenson and his stories and his food. And he was every bit the storyteller at the head of the table as he was the cook in the kitchen. Did you know he was a preacher’s son? That the lamb had been nicknamed Kelly Kapowski (don’t ask)? That the honeysuckle gracing the turnips came from Stevenson’s own backyard?
The stories and the supper were inseparable. And the sharing of plates turned into sharing of more stories around the table as well, which was exactly what the chef had intended.
And the food? The pickled fiddlehead ferns tasted like the outdoors, a sweet and sharp distillation of forest floor. The warm, crusty oat and blackberry bread with soft butter was simply everything you hope for when bread is brought to the table – happiness. The dishes started coming and kept on coming, passed from person to person, sparking questions and chatter and oohs and aahs. Tender corned beef tongue with feta and pickled strawberries and fruity mustard, then the springtime joy of firm fava beans with pickled peas, then kale with beets and yogurt and a clever dressing built off sous vide peanuts. Thick sausages and fatty pork belly showed up in a choucroute garnis with celery root sauerkraut, then the spit-roasted lamb(s) and a “ham in hay” that had been baked in an alfalfa and salt shell commanded the room’s attention. The chef and his team carved and served with a gleeful camaraderie that you simply don’t see often enough during meals out.
A series of sweets soon arrived, crème fraiche with rhubarb, strawberry cheesecake, a crispy sugar cookie dipped in a runny pecan pudding. And then Stevenson stood in front of the room and wrapped things up, his Last Supper coming to a close. Coffee was served, beans he had roasted himself. Smiles and applause filled the room. I had asked Stevenson what it was he wanted to do next, after Livingston and Proof & Provision. All he said was, “I want to cook food that touches something in people.”