When “To Kill a Mockingbird” author Harper Lee’s long awaited second book, “Go Set a Watchman,” is released this summer, Equus and Jack’s Lounge executive chef Stephen Dunn should host the mother of all book club dinners at the restaurant. Dunn cooked for “Miss Nelle,” as Lee is known in Monroeville, Ala., when he lived there for a short spell before returning to Louisville in 2013 and his former job at Corbett’s: An American Place.
Despite Lee’s small stature, Dunn said the wealthy recluse ate hearty portions and combinations more befitting a teen footballer than a fragile octogenarian. Per her legend, Dunn said she wasn’t much of a talker, yet I thought it was worth talking to him about their interactions and the chance to cook for the Pulitzer-winning legend.
Insider Louisville: How did you wind up in Monroeville, Ala.?
Stephen Dunn: My ex-wife is from there, and she got tired of the hours I was working on top of school. I was taking 20 hours at Sullivan culinary school and working well over full time at Corbett’s — so who would blame her? So this restaurant was opening in Monroeville, and we got this idea that if we moved nearer to her family that, maybe, somehow I’d work less. Well, that was insane, of course, and it didn’t work out like we thought.
I went to work at the restaurant, which was called Prop & Gavel (the husband and wife who owned it were a pilot and a judge, respectively). It was in the early summer (of 2013) there when Tonja Carter, who was the Gavel in the name, tells me she wants to do a birthday dinner for four people, including someone “who’s very close to me, more like my godmother.” She wanted a coursed meal. No problem. I’m on it.
The next day she comes when I’m working on it, and she says, “You know who you’re cooking for?” And said I didn’t, and then she mouths, “Harper Lee.” I said, “No way!” I was a creative writing major once in college, so I knew who she was. I knew it was a big deal. The book is about all Monroeville is known for.
So I went out to this little retirement home and did the meal for Miss Nelle, my boss and two of her colleagues. I got to meet Miss Nelle, but there wasn’t a lot of interaction. She wasn’t really talkative or seemingly able to hold a long conversation. But after that, I was cooking her dinner a couple of times a week.
IL: I gather she liked your food.
SD: Apparently. She ate like a horse. I’d bring her a double order of mashed potatoes, squash, zucchini, a filet cooked mid-rare, a half-dozen fried oysters with extra horseradish and tomato jam, and bread pudding. Oh, and extra butter on everything. This was an 83-year-old woman who was tiny, but crushing it. … Not many people there eat their meat cooked less than well done, so that was something that she ate her steak mid-rare.
IL: Did you get to develop a relationship at all with her?
SD: Not really. The family was very guarded when it came to Miss Nelle. They rarely got her out. I always thought they could have brought her to the restaurant privately just as easily, but they didn’t.
IL: Have you given any thought to doing a themed dinner when “Go Set a Watchman” is released this summer?
SD: (He laughs.) Oh, maybe, maybe.
IL: It would be huge, don’t you think? You could do the menu based on what you served Lee, but put some of your own twists on each dish.
SD: Oh, I don’t know.
IL: Oh, come on. Mashed potatoes, fried oysters, filet mignon — what’s not to like? People would love it, and you could tell your stories and someone could lead a discussion of the new book.
SD: (Dunn’s silent, grins and shakes his head.)
IL: What was Monroeville like?
SD: Nothing down there is too modern — and I came from a small town, Princeton, Ky., so I understand some of that. It’s definitely a slower pace and a tight-knit community. Not much in the way of restaurants.
There’s no middle class. You have the working class living below the poverty line, and then you have every other person in town with more. There’s a big gap between the two groups. I’ve never been in a small town where people told me to avoid going to certain neighborhoods. That was weird.
IL: So how did you get from Princeton to Louisville?
SD: I played football at Kentucky Wesleyan in Owensboro for awhile, and then transferred to UK. I had a great time there, but I didn’t have the greatest GPA. I wasn’t really getting anywhere, so I eventually moved to Louisville, where my sister was, and that’s when I started cooking.
I’d always wanted to go to culinary school, but my parents didn’t think it was “real school.” They both had advanced degrees, so maybe they just didn’t understand it. I’d been in college off and on for about six years and didn’t even have an associate’s degree, so mostly I needed to point myself in a single direction and stick with it. So I started culinary school and started working at ZiaLaLa Café in Middletown. Later I went and worked in Birmingham, Ala., for about a year and a half and then came back to school. That’s when I started working at Corbett’s, in 2011.
Working at Corbett’s is a pretty big step up for a culinary student.
It was serious. But I was working with really cool chefs: (Jeff) Dailey and (Michael) Dunbar, and Dean (Corbett), of course. The young guys were always trying outdo each other by coming in hours before our shifts and working on anything we could. It was a great experience.
And you worked there until last November, when you took over the kitchen here at Equus and Jack’s?
Yeah, and here I am, working on a new spring menu. Should be cool.
But no Harper Lee book party menu?
I don’t know. Maybe. We’ll see.
Side note: There’s no shortage of odd stories surrounding Harper Lee, and the announcement of her new book served to stir up a new controversy. For fun reading, check out this piece on the website at The New Yorker written last month. It contains some of the characters Dunn mentioned above.