Chef Zeb Stevenson's Food Lover's Guide to Atlanta
Take a trip around Atlanta's eateries with Redbird's Chef Zeb Stevenson! But first, let's get to know our tour guide.
Originally from Indiana, Zeb attended Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, before making his way to Atlanta in 2001 to pursue his dream of becoming a chef. His love of learning, coupled with a strong determination, led him to move up the ranks in the city’s best restaurants. Along the way, he was lucky enough to learn from great mentors like Harold Marmulstein (dick & harry's - Atlanta, Salty Sow – Austin, TX), Gary Mennie (Canoe, Taurus, Table 1280) and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. In 2015 he took the helm at the highly acclaimed Watershed restaurant, which was consistently ranked as one of the city’s very best during his tenure.
Redbird, which opened in August 2019, showcases his core values - let the ingredients drive the cooking, use great technique, keep things simple and, above all else, make everyone feel welcome. While Chef Zeb manages back of house and beyond, Redbird is one of 8,000 restaurants that relies on Bentobox as their digital front door. BentoBox empowers modern restaurants to build their online presence, diversify revenue, engage with diners, and increase operational efficiency. Visit getbento.com/chef today to get your first month free. BentoBox is a generous supporter of HRN and they're coming along for this delicious excursion.
HRN: What do you love about Atlanta’s food scene? How does your Food Lover's Guide capture that?
Chef Zeb: Atlanta has always felt, to me, like a place where an independent person with grit and the right stuff can really create something special. Many other places seem to be so dominated by large restaurant groups and corporate juggernauts that it’s impossible to compete. The spots on my list are all evidence of how Atlanta rallies around its own and supports businesses that truly give it identity.
HRN: You describe the food at Redbird as “free spirited cuisine.” What does that mean to you? How does it translate on the plate?
Chef Zeb: When I first started talking about Redbird the first question people would ask is, “what’s the concept?” and it really affected how I thought about restaurants. I wondered why it was so important for diners to identify with a concept to validate visiting the restaurant. It seemed odd to me that the “concept” couldn’t just be great ingredients allowed to be the best version of themselves. Why does it have to be Basque or French or Italian or Southern? To me, working within boundaries like that is just no fun.
The idea of “free spirited cuisine” simply means that we let the ingredients drive the finished dishes rather than staying in a box that’s dictated by a concept. It opens up a world of ingredients and techniques and keeps the process fun and engaging for the team.
HRN: Tell us about developing Birdy Biscuits during the pandemic and how the project has evolved.
Chef Zeb: When we first reopened the restaurant after Covid lockdowns we, just like everyone else, were severely limited on seating capacity and were struggling for sales and staff. After putting pen to paper, it was clear that opening the dining room for brunch would just compound the losses that we were dealing with at the time but we had to find a way to make a little bit of money on Saturdays and Sundays. We were desperate.
The restaurant, luckily, came equipped with two windows that open out to our covered patio and I thought that we could start a walk up “order at one window and pick up at the other” service with a pop-up feel.
I developed the recipe for a yeast-raised laminated biscuit that could be mixed the night before and rolled out the next morning so that I wouldn’t have to wake up at 4am after closing the night before. I tell customers that Birdy Biscuits was born out of sheer desperation, and they laugh like I’m being hyperbolic but it’s all true. Every part of it was designed because we were going broke and overworked.
Fast-forward to today and you’d see a runaway success that’s fun and super cool. It’s a brunch service that my staff and I actually look forward to working!
HRN: How would you categorize the state of hospitality right now? What is important for operators to bear in mind and prioritize?
For a long time we’ve talked, in the kitchen, about the idea of being broken down in order to be built back as a better version of ourselves. That was, as I was told 20 years ago, what a great chef would do for me. I don’t think any of us imagined that our industry would one day be living that process but that’s where we are.
We now must strengthen our foundations and build something that will last. As employers we have to value our people in ways that we weren’t valued and that goes far beyond wages (although that’s a great place to start). I look at now as the time to bring the restaurant business up to a higher level of professionalism and we need to prioritize cultivating a higher-minded culture. Retaining great people is directly dependent on creating an environment that they feel good about working in.
The era of the vulgar “pirate ship” restaurant needs to come to an end and as captains it’s our job to make sure that happens
HRN: How has BentoBox helped Redbird thrive?
BentoBox is intuitive, practical and easy for me to use and that has saved me a wealth of time. For a restaurant that changes its menu frequently it’s crucial that our website is nimble enough to manipulate quickly and that has always been a downfall of websites past.
With BentoBox I’ve been able to spend less time in the office and more time developing new dishes and coaching the team which is exactly where I need to be to keep the business growing.
Chef Zeb's Food Lover's Guide to Atlanta:
Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward (O4W) neighborhood represents so much of what makes Atlanta truly special. The area, most well-known for being the birthplace of Dr. King, is rich, historic and diverse. It’s a neighborhood teeming with entertainment and public art and it feels, in many ways, like “ground zero” for Atlanta’s deep entrepreneurial spirit.
The restaurant community in the Old Fourth Ward is home to fewer corporate outfits and instead features a cadre of scrappy “Do It Yourself” operators, bootstrappers, upstarts and independent businesses who started with very little and continue to find their way through sheer doggedness and high quality. I’m proud to live in a city that embraces places like these:
1. LottaFrutta (590 Auburn Ave) Owner Myrna Perez has run this tiny Fruteria for 16 years and it’s become not just a neighborhood gem but a bona fide Atlanta Institution. Try an exotic fruit smoothie and a fresh fruit cup (my favorite is the Cremolata with fresh coconut, lime juice and chili salt) and be sure to grab a pressed sandwich. You’ll be glad you did!
2. A Mano (587 Ralph McGill Blvd) Housed in what used to be ground zero for the Beltline’s yearly Lantern Parade (an O4W spectacle that is not to be missed), A Mano is a humble yet elegant trattoria that serves excellent food in a casual atmosphere. They also have acted as an incubator to numerous pop-ups giving a great springboard to many talented chefs.
3. Ruby Chow’s (620 Glen Iris Dr) Chef/Owner Guy Wong got his start further down the road in O4W at his now closed Miso Izakaya and it was a mournful day when it closed. He's a tenacious businessman and consummate host. He opened Ruby Chow’s in 2019 and blew us away with its delicious food and lively elegance and we were all happy to see him bring a Miso favorite, the Shoyu Tamago, back to the menu.
4. Glide Pizza (659 Auburn Ave) An Atlanta native lived in Brooklyn and had a vision to bring a great slice back to his hometown. That’s the story of Glide Pizza. Highest quality ingredients, no cutting corners, delivery via bicycle - all just a few steps off the beltline.
5. 8 Arm (710 Ponce de Leon Ave) Ok… this one is technically across the street from the outermost boundary of O4W but it epitomizes the spirit of what I love in Atlanta restaurants. It’s been through lots of changes and overcome challenges that would shut down less determined operators (notably the tragic loss of chef/co-founder Angus Brown in 2017) but this team keeps rolling up their sleeves and adapting like true champions. Be sure to dive into their carefully curated natural wine program.