Zeb Stevenson’s Mission to Make Adulthood Awesome
The first thing you’ll probably notice about Chef Zebulon Stevenson is that he’s extraordinarily tall. And that he has an awesome name. If you were sitting in Miso Izakaya in the Old Fourth Ward the evening he came by to talk to me, the first thing you might have noticed is that he has his arm in a sling.
He explains that it’s from a cycling accident, his second this year, grinning sheepishly and pulling a seat up to the bar. This time it’s a broken shoulder blade (yes, the big kite-shaped bone that you ought not to be able to break), last time it was his collar bone. He cycles somewhere between 120 and 180 miles every week, and says, “It’s kind of a crazy activity but I really have to do it to stay centered. This injury has kept me off the bike for three weeks so there’s a good chance I’m going to end up in the papers pretty soon.” It’s the kind of quick, slightly dark, humor that colors the evening.
Stevenson, the executive chef at Livingston and Proof & Provision, has had quite a year. A win on Food Network’s Chopped, a trip to Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in California’s Napa Valley, and a new pit bull puppy named Oliver.
We begin by talking about Chopped. I’d interviewed Ria Pell a couple of weeks earlier about her experience on the show, and Zeb echoes much of what she said: The judges were as tough as he thought they’d be, and the ingredients as zany as he thought they’d be. “In the Chopped world,” he says, “they have one mission, and it’s to throw you off your game, and they’re really good at it. From getting you up and having you meet at a strange place in a strange city at 6 o’clock in the morning, to strange ingredients, stimulus, lights — there are people everywhere.”
And it’s a long day. On average it takes 16 hours to shoot an episode in the Chopped studio. “It’s ridiculous, it’s tiring, it’s stressful. I can’t imagine doing a show like Top Chef where you have to do it every day, being taped 14 or 16 hours a day, I’d go crazy. I can’t deal with that. One day on the set was enough for me,” he says.
His goal on Chopped was to win the $10,000 prize so he could take his (now ex) wife to French Laundry for dinner. I ask whether he’d managed to get out to California, and if French Laundry lived up to his expectations. For those who don’t know, French Laundry is one of the most exclusive restaurants in Napa, with a two month waiting list. Zeb tells me he did make it to Napa and ate at Thomas Keller’s famous restaurant. The thing about restaurants with that kind of reputation, he explains, is that you kind of have to go into them with diminished expectations. Too often they’re soulless, with all their character sucked out and staff who give you the impression that they’re doing you a favor even seating you. But his experience at French Laundry was unexpected: personable, friendly wait staff who were genuinely gracious and attentive.
For the last few months, Zeb has had a new companion waiting for him at home when he gets back from a long day at Livingston and Proof & Provision. Oliver, his pit bull puppy.
“Oliver has this dangerous combination of strength and stupidity,” Zeb beams like a new father, “so when I get home and I’m petting him, he rolls around on his back and his tail is wagging and hitting him in the face – he looks at me like ‘I don’t know what’s happening! Make it stop!'” Zeb shows me a picture of Oliver on his phone and, sure enough, Oliver is exactly as adorable as described. “He’s so sweet, we cuddle up at night — it’s kind of sickening.” He rolls his own eyes, the mother of all eye-rolls, knowing that he’s gushing like those people on Facebook whose every post is about their child. “Oliver is chewing me out of house and home, though. My personal possessions are dwindling down to nothing. Eventually it’s just going to be me and Oliver sitting in the middle of the floor, looking at each other: no rug, no couch, no nothing.”
An Awesome Adulthood
There’s a pause, and then Zeb asks, “So what else do you want to know about my life?”
He laughs loudly at my next question. I want to know about the mission to make adulthood awesome.
My mission: To make adulthood awesome. Side note: My head hurts.
— Zeb Stevenson (@the_chef_z) November 29, 2012
Zeb laughs his infectious laugh. “I think that’s from a night I was hanging out at Octopus Bar, which has ruined me many, many, many times,” he begins. All the best stories start that way. He was hanging out with his sous chef, and some other friends, when, he says, “I had one of those moments, having a great time, and I’m looking around and thinking this is actually pretty awesome. If this is what being a grown up is, I’m pretty okay with that. I mean, my life could be like Gummo.”
Tumbleweeds roll across the bar when I fail to get the reference, and Zeb notices my blank expression. “Okay, I highly advise anyone reading this interview to watch Gummo,” instructs the chef. “I love it, it’s like a Dada piece of film art about street kids. It’s a scream. It’s really kind of plotless but it’s beautiful.”
Since we’re thinking about what it’s like to be an adult, I ask what he’d be if he wasn’t a chef. “In reality, or what would I like to think I would do?” Which is a fair question, and he answers both. “My formal training is in the fine arts, so I like to think that I’d be doing something in that field. Either that or rock star. I’m only doing this until my rock star career takes off, which should be happening any day now. But in reality — I’m a pretty driven guy so I like to think I’d be successful at whatever I try, but maybe I’d be up in Indiana working in a factory or a foundry. I’d be an awesome foundry worker.”
In November, Stevenson got together with fellow chefs, Tyler Williams (Abattoir), Ryan Smith (Empire State South), and Josh Hopkins (STG Trattoria) to create one of the most talked about culinary events of the year: The Blood Dinner.
You can check out the menu and some wonderful photos of the Blood Dinner here.
I was much more interested in how it came about. As it happens, the answer is exactly what you’d expect from Stevenson: It was a dare.
Zeb tells me that Kate Abney, managing editor at Jezebel Magazine, told him that Atlanta isn’t ready for food made with blood.
“First of all, it was just a rad dinner,” says Zeb. “It was such a stupid idea that I couldn’t help but run with it. You have to understand the way my mind works, that was one of those things that originated and I did it simply because someone told me I couldn’t. I was just being a rebellious brat. People who I know, and who care for me, would tell me it was a really bad idea, but that was part of the appeal.”
But Abney wasn’t completely wrong: most American’s are still squeamish about cuts of meat they’re unfamiliar with. Zeb tells another story, it’s something he’s got a natural talent for. “It reminds me of an exchange with one of my servers at Proof & Provision a while ago. I was down in the butcher shop butchering a pig and some of my servers came down to see it because they wanted to see what was happening. I’m showing them where the various cuts come from, the tenderloin, the chops — and I have this one server from Eastern Europe, from Georgia, and he’s kind of looking bored. When I asked him if he wasn’t into it, which would have been completely cool, he said that he grew up doing this, it’s nothing new and exciting to him. I see where that separation between Europe and the US is. In Europe blood is part of the tradition of slaughter season — it’s the first part of the animal to come out, the first to be prepared, but in America we recoil from it.”
If you’re interested in trying one of Zeb’s blood dishes, head to Proof & Provision and try the English Breakfast Sandwich, it’s brittle black (blood) pudding, grilled tomato and fried egg between two crumpets. Zeb keeps it on the menu, despite its relatively low demand, because the people who love it, really love it.
So sure, Zeb is tall, he’s got an unusual name, and a shock of strawberry blond hair that makes him look like Tin Tin’s edgier older brother, but when you get to talk to him, those aren’t the things you notice. What you notice is that he’s one of the most genuinely likeable people you’re going to meet. He’s generous with his time, and effusive in his praise for his team at Livingston and Proof & Provision. He’s an eloquent and engaging story-teller, a daredevil chef, and an adventurer on a mission to make adulthood awesome.
You can catch his ramblings on Twitter. They’re very often amusing and/or inspired by dreams caused by his pain medications from the cycling accident.
Photo Credit: Eater.com Atlanta