Watershed had been a staple restaurant in the Decatur community for 13 years before it closed its doors and moved to a new location in Peachtree Hills. Veteran chef Joe Truex still remains at the helm of the kitchen, and his task of creating a new menu for the new space brought him back to his real Southern roots. Now, after one year on Peachtree Street, he talks about the appeal to a different clientele, keeping the ingredients locally-driven, and re-branding the neighborhood.
How was the move to Buckhead?
For me, it was a great feeling. It's a bold move to take an iconic restaurant and rebrand it. Looking back, I didn't think much about it, but now I realize it was a pretty big deal. Since day one when we opened, the look and feel of the new place just felt right.
Did you feel like the new location works better for you as a chef?
Well, the first year I joined the restaurant as a chef, Watershed was in Decatur. It was the worst year of my career professionally and personally— we ended up pissing a lot of people off. People that were used to seeing me do what I did at my old restaurant [Repast] weren't happy because they thought I was cooking someone else's food, and the people who liked Watershed for what it was weren't happy because I made changes. So it was a confusing time. It was hard to go into a 13-year restaurant establishment with things that had been so fixed and try to change it.
But then things turned around?
Yes! When we finally did move to Peachtree, the people who didn't like Watershed because it hadn't changed enough were re-energized because the restaurant menu really changed. One of the best things is the space because it's warm, and now the food has a point of view: soulful and delicious.
Was it hard convincing old Watershed fans to try the new concept?
Watershed has always been a chef-driven restaurant. We tried our best to let people know that this is a market change from what it was. It had to be that way. There are only two ways to go: preserve what it was and keep it unchanged or take it in a new direction.
You took the restaurant in a new direction in more ways than one, leaving the Decatur neighborhood. Why?
I lived in the city of Decatur for ten years, and I know that market really well. Watershed was great in Decatur as a neighborhood restaurant and the community supported it, but Decatur is more family-oriented. We were selling a lot of vegetable plates with sweet tea. I think people in Decatur go out to eat, whereas here in this new neighborhood, people go out to dine.
Is the crowd different?
Here, there is more business clientele than in Decatur. We're selling croquettes with a $70 bottle of wine. People from this area loved Watershed in Decatur but it was just hard to get there with traffic. This neighborhood offers us more exposure to zip codes that felt restricted driving to Decatur for a meal.
How are you distinguishing Watershed from Buckhead's other restaurants?
I don't feel like we are in Buckhead. Listen here: on Peachtree Street, you start in Downtown. Then you go farther North and you're in Midtown. And even farther North on Peachtree, where Watershed is, where should you be?
Yes! You're the first person who ever really got it. Because we aren't in Midtown, and we aren't really in Buckhead. Buckhead to me starts at Peachtree Battle. So we are in this pocket called the Uptown Corridor. I'm rebranding this area.
Let's talk about the rebranding of your new menu.
So everything is going good with the restaurant design and planning, and then I realized, I gotta write this menu. And I got writer's block. Because I can cook anything, but I just didn't really know where to start. A friend of mine told me, "You're scared. It's okay. Just make it personal, and make it something connected to you." And that opened it up. I had a narrative, and that's all I was missing. So I made it about my life. Where am I from? Louisiana. What about my training? European and French. Everything on that first menu had a connection to a location I had been or something in my life. And the message has been a distillation of Watershed's story and my story with a focus on my French-Louisiana culture.
Have you always been so connected to that culture?
Ever since I grew up in Louisiana, all I wanted to do was get out of there. And I finally did. I went to New York, Europe, Vegas, Vermont, and Atlanta. And now that experience has helped me to appreciate and experience what I couldn't see—I had to go see the world to appreciate my hometown. Now I'm in Atlanta to claim my Southern-ness. Because I grew up in the South and I'm not ashamed of it. I'm actually quite proud of it.
Another thing I hear you pride yourself on is a locally-sourced menu.
Watershed was farm-to-table before farm-to-table was cool. What sets the restaurant apart is where the ingredients come from. Local is about developing relationships with farmers so you can get the supply from them in the specifications that you need for your restaurant. I am inspired by the work that the local farm community does because of the care they put into their growing.
What are the standout dishes?
My Louisiana-inspired dishes. I do a jambalaya that is kind of deconstructed.
Jambalaya is typically a one-pot meal similar to risotto or paella, but after a few bites everything tastes the same. So I've created a seafood jambalaya where all the ingredients are cooked in different methods and flavors and it gives you a chance to enjoy each element separately or combine it. The plate features a rice croquette with red Creole rice and crab stick, then the finest catfish bronzed on the grilled, some locally made grilled andouille sausage, oysters, and crawfish etouffee with crabmeat on the bottom. Its flavorful and still on the lighter side.
How does your wine program play into Watershed's concept?
Wine is something I care a great deal about. When I meet a winemaker, it's like meeting a farmer. I try to work with small producers and align my program similar to how I source my products. Because the core of wine is good farming, and the measure of wine is the measure of who tends the grapes. The heart of wine is country.
Does it feel like it has been a year on Peachtree?
Some days I feel like we are really new, and other times I feel like we've been here forever. But this business is hard because you're only as good as your last bowl of soup. So you have to make sure you serve a good soup.
What are the ingredients to a good "soup?"
It's really about the guest experience. Working the restaurant industry in New York for several years helped teach me more about hospitality. Some chefs don't get that. Their focus is really more on the plate when that's only part of it. The other part is those people that walk through the door, what they experience. Nowadays everyone is a foodie. I hate that word, for the record. Everyone watches TV shows, so they are more exposed to what happens in the kitchen.
What are your plans for the future?
Year two, we're going to just keep getting better and strive for that exceptional customer experience. We are looking at possibly doing another concept more true to us. We don't plan on going any higher in fine dining; we want to do something more casual with a bit of quirky Southern attitude. The South has its own "feeling" and I would love to capture that in a new concept.
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