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When he decided to embrace his childhood roots, he and his diners were rewarded.
By Dorie Turner, Associated Press
Published January 2, 2008
DECATUR, Ga. - Scott Peacock spent most of his early career as a chef hiding from his roots.
Growing up in rural southeast Alabama, Peacock and his family cooked their vegetables straight out of the garden. Okra and corn that lingered longer than a day without touching a pot ended up in the cattle feed.
After stumbling into a couple of catering gigs while a college intern at the Florida governor's office, Peacock set his sights on being a pastry chef. He wanted to go to Italy and France and make exotic, beautiful dishes far from the fried chicken and banana pudding of his youth.
"I wanted to be anything but what I was," said Peacock, whose work in Southern cuisine earned him the James Beard Foundation award for the best cook in the Southeast last year.
Then came the earth-shattering piece of lemon chess pie, a Southern staple with creamy lemon filling. Peacock, in his mid 20s at the time and working as a pastry chef at a Florida restaurant, was back home for his grandmother's funeral.
Feeling smug about his fancy mousses and crepes, he tried a piece of pie brought by a woman from his family's church.
"I had a moment where I realized that this pie is as good as anything I was making in that restaurant," he said while sitting in Watershed, the metro Atlanta restaurant where he has been the chef for nine years.
He didn't act on his revelation immediately, instead cooking foreign dishes at hunting lodges and fundraisers, eventually landing in the Georgia governor's mansion stirring up French cuisine. A national magazine called, wanting to feature one of his dinners.
Needing advice on what to cook, Peacock turned to Edna Lewis - a famed Southern cook who championed the food of her Virginia upbringing in the kitchens of New York City - whom he had met at a Southern food festival in the 1980s.
She gently nudged, and then outright dragged, him toward preparing a Southern meal. And he has been serving up the flavors of his childhood ever since.
Not that it was easy. In the early 1990s, Southern food wasn't exactly chic, so deciding to start an upscale restaurant in Atlanta's posh Buckhead neighborhood that served delicacies from below the Mason-Dixon Line was a bit risky.
"People had this notion of it being greasy, overcooked and bad for you," Peacock said. "Any food can be that. That's just bad cooking."
He was head chef at Horseradish Grill for two years before he burned out and decided to take a break to write. That's when he and Lewis, who had become his mentor, penned The Gift of Southern Cooking and founded the Society for the Revival and Preservation of Southern Cooking.
A few years later, Peacock's friend Emily Saliers, half of the folk group Indigo Girls, called with a plea for help. She and some friends wanted to open a retail space with at small takeout food counter in the Atlanta suburb of Decatur and desperately needed his help.
He promised them four weeks.
That turned into four months, and then four years. Customers liked the food so much that Peacock expanded the menu, closed in the kitchen and replaced the retail space with tables.
Nine years later, Peacock is the self-proclaimed "ambassador of pimento cheese," taking a container of his homemade cheddar spread on every trip. Food directors for the Today show now make special requests for the Southern dish whenever Peacock is on the schedule.
As for Watershed, the restaurant has been a wild success, selling out nearly every week on fried chicken Tuesdays. Dinner at the restaurant usually means a wait, and forget about squeezing in during Sunday brunch without a reservation.
The menu features Southern favorites like fried catfish, pimento cheese and fried okra.The shrimp grits appetizer is a bowl of piping hot stone-ground grits blended with shrimp paste for a rich, buttery taste that sits heavy on the tongue.
Regulars make sure to get a hug from the chef when he emerges from the kitchen. "This is just like my grandmother's dish," they tell him.
"I used to be offended by that remark," Peacock says with a laugh. "But it's absolutely the highest praise you can get now."
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Creamy Grits with Shrimp Paste
For the shrimp paste:
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter
1 pound fresh shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup sherry
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
For the grits:
2 cups water
2 cups milk, or more
1 cup stone-ground grits
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- To make the shrimp paste: In a large skillet over medium-high heat, melt 6 tablespoons of the butter until foaming.
-Add the shrimp, salt and pepper. Increase heat to high and cook, stirring often, 4 to 7 minutes, or until the shrimp are pink and just cooked through.
- Remove the skillet from the heat and use a slotted spoon to transfer the shrimp to the bowl of a food processor. Leave the cooking liquid in the skillet.
-Return the skillet to the stove and add the sherry, lemon juice and cayenne pepper. Cook over high heat until the liquid is reduced to about 3 tablespoons and is quite syrupy.
- Immediately add this liquid to the shrimp in the food processor, then puree until smooth.
- With the motor running, add the remaining butter in pieces and process until thoroughly blended. Taste the paste for seasoning, adjusting with salt, pepper or lemon juice as needed.
- Transfer the shrimp paste to a ceramic crock and allow to cool.
- To make the grits: In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine 2 cups of water and the milk. Heat over medium until just simmering.
- Meanwhile, place the grits in a large bowl and add enough cool water to just cover. Stir the grits assertively so that any chaff (husks) floats to the top. Skim the surface of the water to remove the chaff.
-With a mesh strainer, drain the grits, then stir them into the simmering water and milk. Cook at low heat, stirring often, until the grits are tender and have the consistency of thick oatmeal.
- Regular grits are done in about 20 minutes, but stone-ground grits can take more than an hour to cook completely.
- As grits thicken, it's important to stir them more often to prevent sticking and scorching on the bottom of the pan. If the grits become too thick, stir in a little extra water and milk to thin.
- Season the grits generously with salt, then stir in the cream and butter. Remove from heat and let rest, covered, until ready to serve. When ready, mix 1 cup (or more, to taste) of the shrimp paste into the grits. Ladle into bowls.
Serves 6 to 8.
Source: Scott Peacock
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406 W Ponce De Leon Ave., Decatur, Ga.; (404) 378-4900. To get more information or to make reservations, go to www.watershedrestaurant.com.
[Last modified December 31, 2007, 14:59:08]