Friday, July 16, 2010

A Watershed Moment

I've mentioned before that I worked at Watershed here in Atlanta.

What I didn't mention was how it happened.  Ready for the back story?

Watershed opened eleven-and-a-half years ago.  At the time, I read about its upcoming opening, noting that it was owned in part by Indigo Girl Emily Saliers.  "Okay," I thought.  "It's close to where we live.  It might be worth seeking out."  Little did I know how significant the place would become for me.

It was created out of an old gas station in Decatur (an intown "suburb" of Atlanta - contradiction in terms, I know).  It continues to be very cool space (designed by the very talented Dominick Coyne) but that's not my point.  On the day before it was scheduled to open, I got a phone call from my friend Scott Peacock.  Turned out he had been hired as a consultant and was calling to ask if I wanted to see the place in advance.

Of course I did!  I high-tailed it over there at breakneck speed, only to find myself stepping over boxes, electrical cords and unassembled furniture.  It was complete chaos.  And that was just the front of the house.  The kitchen was even worse.  I couldn't imagine how they would possibly be able to open their doors in less than twenty-four hours.

As we stumbled around the place, Scott asked if I would be willing to help out with the opening the next day.  Sure, why not?  Anything to help out a friend, right?  So I showed up the next day.  And the next, and the next and the next.  I ended up staying there for five years.  (Scott stayed for eleven).

When we opened, it was just a sandwich place.  You placed your order at the counter and I would scream out "Charlie -- your sandwich is ready."  It evolved into much, much more.  Today it is the quintessential restaurant of all things southern, fresh and local.  But I fondly remember its roots.

Let me be clear - I am not a trained chef.  What I am is a good cook.  Finding myself in a restaurant kitchen was daunting.  There were times when I wondered what the heck I was doing there and why no one had figured out that I was really just a two-year-old wandering around the kitchen.

In the early days, none of us knew what we were doing.  Especially me.  But I learned a lot and soon there wasn't much in that kitchen I couldn't handle.  I did it all, from desserts to the famous fried chicken.  Before I knew it, I was cooking on the line, running the saute station and turning out all the good stuff, like mussels in wine, pasta with wild mushrooms and shrimp grits.  Yum!

Who knew?  A fat housewife making her mark in a trendy restaurant.  I was five hundred years older than everyone else in the place so I was pretty much "mom" to them all.  Some of them were even classmates of my kids.  But we all got along, we all did our jobs and to this day I am still close to some of the owners and staff.  Watershed, you will always be in my heart! 

My mom and her boyfriend Ed (who is unfortunately no longer with us, we miss you Sweet Ed) were mussel fanatics.  They would hit every restaurant in town that had them in pursuit of the best version.  The ones that we (I!) made at Watershed won out every time!  The recipe below is similar.


1 leek, halved lengthwise then sliced
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 15-oz. can diced San Marzano tomatoes
1 cup dry white wine, such as sauvignon blanc
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 lbs. live mussels, cleaned with beards removed
1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley

Place sliced leeks in a large bowl of cool water.  Swish them around with your hand to allow any dirt or sediment to fall to the bottom of the bowl.  Scoop them out and place in a colander to drain (do not pour the dirty water back over them!).

In a large saute pan, melt butter over medium heat.  Add the leeks, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer the leeks in the butter until very tender, but not browned.  Add the garlic and tomato; season very generously with salt and pepper.  Bring to a simmer and continue to cook for another 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the wine to the pan then increase heat to high and bring to a rolling boil.  Boil uncovered for several minutes to burn off some of the alcohol, then add mussels.  Cover the pan and cook for 3 to 5 minutes, shaking the pan often so mussels don't burn on the bottom.  When all mussels are open, pour into a large serving bowl and stir in the parsley.  Discard any unopened mussels.

Serve with a heated baguette, bowls for the shells and lots of napkins.

Yield:  2 servings

If you want these to be outstanding, use high-fat European butter, such as Plugra.  Also, make sure you use a generous amount of salt - this dish needs it.  And finally, don't overcook your mussels.  Watch them carefully and remove from the heat as soon as they have opened.

Now if only we had some pomme frites.........

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