Sitting Down At The Southerner In Saugatuck
A Conversation with Chef Matthew Millar
Sitting down at Saugatuck’s Southerner Restaurant and having a conversation with Chef Matthew Millar is a serious treat. After we settle in with a cup of coffee, Chef Millar speaks eloquently and passionately about the latest happenings at The Southerner.
“Everyone loves fried chicken. Don’t ever make it. Ever. Buy it from a place that makes good fried chicken.”
~ Nora Ephron
Q: What’s happening right now at The Southerner that you excites you?
A: We’re certainly known for our fried chicken, but what people may not know as much about is our Beverage Program. Ours rivals anyone in the state. Our Bourbon list is well-crafted and right-sized. If it’s rare, or vintage, we like it. This is the place to drink Bourbon, have a cocktail, or a unique craft beer. Katie doesn’t give herself enough credit, but I can. She does an amazing job tracking down the best Bourbon and beer that is out there. She seven pesters people for a pony keg so she can get something that’s not yet distributed. There’s always something new and interesting to sip on while you’re here.
Q: What’s the inspiration for the food at The Southerner?
A: The heart of The Southerner is the foothills of the Appalachians. Cooking is a serious business in the south, and The Southerner keeps the recipes and flavors alive for all those who migrate north to Michigan. We proudly serve Benton’s Bacon because Benton’s is made the same way as it was 300 years ago. Rice was introduced to this country through slaves who brought it in their pockets. We want to understand and honor the history with our food.
Beyond the southern United States, we widen our gaze and look at other influences for Southern cooking like Cuba, Mexico, Jamaica and Africa. Sausages, hot sauces, Chow Chow … there’s so much flavor and history that inspires what we put on the plate. Winter is a wonderful time to join us for a meal. Our fish fry and burger night are 2 specialties of the season. The Southerner works locally and seasonally whenever possible. The beef is grass fed. We get vegetable deliveries that are taller than I am. People who know my background sometimes ask, ‘Don’t you miss the accolades that came with your previous work?’ Not at all. I don’t need to try and find the next great gastronomy tool or texture. I enjoy the privilege of bringing American History onto a plate.
“The best comfort food will always be greens, cornbread, and fried chicken.”
~ Maya Angelou
Q: What are your dreams for The Southerner in the future?
A: Well, we’re kind of maxed out with what we can do in this location. Especially in the summer, we are full and there can be a long wait for a table. I’d love to open a separate barbecue joint. The chicken overshadows the BBQ. 75% of what we serve here is chicken, so I’d like a place where barbecue and smoked fish could be the centerpiece.
Q: What do you enjoy about having a restaurant in Saugatuck?
A: Being right here on Lake Michigan, the natural beauty is about as good as it gets! And, the town is full of some really wonderful people. We have some very loyal locals, and we’re very thankful for that.
Q: Is there anything more you want to talk about or share?
A: I’d love a minute to talk about the people who make The Southerner happen. This is a staff of friendly people, and Katie Fris is the star of the show. Southern hospitality is a real thing. Katie lives that honestly, and it translates to the entire staff. I credit her for the success of the genuine ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ environment we have in both the front and the back of the house.