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Great Scott 

A conversation with nationally renowned Southern chef Scott Peacock

I met Scott Peacock, executive chef of Watershed in Decatur, GA, and co-author with Edna Lewis of The Gift of Southern Cooking, around 1991, just after he was laid off from his job as chef at the Georgia governor's mansion. We were both at turning points in our lives, considerably depressed and idle enough to spend many hours over coffee at the old Royal Bagel in Ansley Mall. Since then, I have watched Peacock evolve into one of the nation's foremost Southern chefs. His story is a lesson in the pain and rewards of finding and following one's authentic calling.

Creative Loafing: Although you are a native of Alabama, you weren't always into Southern cooking.

Scott Peacock: No, not at all. I became obsessed with cooking as a music and communications student at Florida State in the early 80s. This was about the time Martha Stewart and Alice Waters were revolutionizing American cooking. I had grown up watching Julia Child. So, no, I wasn't interested in Southern cooking and, honestly, neither was anyone else. But this was part of a general theme in my life of always wanting to be someone else... and always experiencing some kind epiphany that led me back to myself.

I know you were doing an internship in the Florida governor's office when a cook didn't show up for a party. You got drafted to help out and did well enough that you started working regularly with them. But how did you decide to make cooking your career?

It was difficult. I had to make this choice between what I thought I should be doing — cooking — and what I thought people would find respectful, working in Washington. That seems hysterical now, considering how little respect Washington commands these days.

My first job was pastry chef at the Golden Pheasant in Tallahassee. It was the 80s but this was very 70s leisure-suit-style French cooking. There was a lot of puff pastry in that restaurant! Every dish had three sauces. I thought I was doing Julia Child proud. Although it seems funny now, it did give me an excellent foundation. The restaurant only used fresh produce, for example.

When did you first get the idea you were meant to cook Southern?

It was a slow evolution because, remember, nobody wanted Southern food. Even when I ended up as chef at the Georgia governor's mansion for four years, nobody cared about it. The seed was actually planted earlier when I went home for my grandmother's funeral while I was working at the Golden Pheasant. In small towns, people show their respect by cooking for the family of the deceased. Here I was, on the way to becoming a fancy French chef, and a woman named Sue Weeks brought my mother a lemon chess pie. Feeling very smug because it wasn't chocolate mousse, I took a bite. It's hard to describe the effect on me. It was completely humbling. It did not immediately inspire me to become a Southern cook, but I did realize that this pie could hold its own with anything anywhere. I also knew the pie was closer to my own experience than the food I was cooking.

What do you think it was in that pie that captivated you?

There was skill, of course, but, more than that, there was heart — a feeling for my family's grief. I'm not the most skilled chef myself, but I do think I cook with my heart. It's a completely personal experience for me. I'm wholly involved and there is a conversation between me and the food. I've made millions of biscuits, but none has been exactly the same. When you cook with your heart, you see this difference clearly.

The actual turning point for you was meeting Edna Lewis, who is always called the grand dame of Southern cooking, right?

Yes. Toward the end of my stint at the governor's mansion, a national magazine wanted to feature a dinner at the mansion. I had met Miss Lewis and was fascinated with her.

I visited her in New York and asked her what she thought I should cook for the magazine piece. She kept saying, "It should be very Southern." I thought to myself, "This woman is brilliant but she needs to get off this Southern thing." My greatest epiphany was in the shower the next day. I was thinking about how in awe of Alice Waters I was and then it hit me. She had been all tied up in French cooking herself and then looked around and realized she had this remarkable California food available. I had grown up picking okra and corn in the garden. If we didn't cook it the day it was picked, it was considered unfit to eat. I realized I needed to make the same kind of move Alice Waters did — back home, so to speak.

After the governor's mansion, you became the founding chef of Horseradish Grill. Even then, about 1991, you met resistance, right?

Yes, some of the owners were afraid I was going to create "Mary Mac's North." But I refused to take the job until they agreed. It was immediately successful, maybe too much so. I burned out after two years. I was incredibly idealistic. I would have been happy to spend a dollar for each egg. I wasn't going to be happy until White Lily began making organic flour.

Then you received a book contract.

It gave me the courage to leave the restaurant, but I entered a pretty dark period. I was drinking too much. I would get so depressed I couldn't get out of the bed for weeks at a time.

It's funny how often people get depressed when they set foot on the path of their calling. It always seems to intimidate us because it takes us off the beaten path.

Yes, I ended up taking handfuls of antidepressants and doing lots of talk therapy, but nothing seemed to help too much. I ended up becoming chef at Watershed and that was helpful — to be cooking again, feeling productive. But what really made the difference for me was my relationship with Miss Lewis. She's 89 now and very frail. When she started to get frail, I had to make a decision: Do I stay in bed or do I show up to take care of this woman who has meant so much to me. I decided to show up and it has been the most healing thing I've ever done. I really found myself by helping her. I couldn't have finished the book — it took seven years — without this happening.

So what is next for you?

Another book. Not a cookbook this time. But I'm not talking about it.

CLIFF.BOSTOCK@CREATIVELOAFING.COM

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