For almost three decades now, Stephanie Phares has been preparing fresh, healthy meals at Zeeland Street Market on Perkins Road.
She started out hosting potluck dinners, which transitioned to a deli, which finally led to her restaurant.
We caught up with Phares to talk about her path to owning her own restaurant, her best dishes and how the coronavirus pandemic has affected her business. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What made you aspire to open Zeeland Street Market?
I lived on Zeeland Avenue with my ex-husband, Haden, for many years while working at other restaurants and going to school at LSU. I always enjoyed cooking, so I began hosting potluck-style dinners for our neighbors the last Friday of the month. The dinners continued to grow in size, and after a year or two, Haden turned to me and said, “We need to open a restaurant.”
A small convenience store was in the same space as Zeeland and needed someone to run the deli. This was a great opportunity for us to have a trial run. We had an overwhelming amount of neighborhood and community support, so Haden and I opened up Zeeland Street in 1992.
Your focus is fresh, healthy food. Why did you believe this would be a good fit for Baton Rouge?
When I arrived in Baton Rouge to go to LSU, restaurants, for the most part, only offered burgers, fried food, steak, etc. I was raised in Mississippi by my grandmother, and every week, we cooked lima beans, black-eyed peas, pot roast — many of the items we offer at Zeeland today. Among all of the fried shrimp po-boys, I knew there was a space in Baton Rouge for real, home-cooked food. And I was right. … I have always been a proponent of eating to nourish your body and your soul. A healthy lifestyle starts with what fuel you put into your body. This sentiment is incredibly important so that we can keep a strong immune system or build it back up during this unprecedented time.
While your dining room has been closed, you've been preparing meals for your elderly neighbors. What did you learn from that?
I have learned the value of community during this crisis. Our customers came out in full force to support Zeeland Street, so I knew I needed to do as much as I could for them. I met one of our elderly neighbors when I noticed that he had a large rosemary bush in the front yard. We use fresh rosemary in a few of our recipes, so I made him a promise that whenever I take some rosemary, I would walk a plate lunch down to him. I learned that it is a privilege to be a part of this community, and I love and appreciate my neighbors.
How have you had to change your routine during the coronavirus shutdown?
I always take great pride in having a clean kitchen, so we didn’t have to make many adjustments, except getting masks and enough gloves. The transition to take out was a bit more difficult because sit-down is a large part of our atmosphere, and I personally get a lot of energy from interacting with the customers.
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Describe the perfect meal.
Right now, the best food is something cooked by someone else. My youngest daughter, Kirby, took control of dinner after she came home from college at Dartmouth, and she’s gotten to be almost as good as me. Almost.
What dish are you most proud of?
We make crabcakes from scratch almost every Friday. I recently created a crabcake Benedict with a crawfish cream sauce. Another one of my bestsellers is the Arlington Healthnut. It is a vegetarian sandwich that consists of warmed pecans, Swiss cheese, ripe avocados and dressed with alfalfa sprouts and tomatoes with a dash of Italian vinaigrette. This sandwich is perfect for lunch for people who want a nourishing meal without meat.
Tell us about your biggest disaster in the kitchen.
I don’t know about personal disasters, but natural disasters always provided a challenge for us. Zeeland Street opened as soon as possible after hurricanes Isaac, Gustav, Rita, Katrina and Andrew. Often the restaurant lost power, but we wanted to be there for the community when many of them did not have the supplies and equipment to cook at home.
What's your kitchen uniform?
Depending on the day, I wear my Zeeland Street T-shirt or my chef uniform. My daughters gave me a chef jacket for Christmas that they embroidered with “Chef Steph,” so I love it when I get to wear that to work. Probably for the last 20 years, I’ve purchased the Brooks tennis shoes from Varsity Sports for foot support. I have about five pairs that I rotate for work and exercise.
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Do you listen to music while in the kitchen?
No. I personally love jazz, R&B, indie and soul music. However, we communicate constantly in the kitchen, and you must be able to hear when someone says “on your left” or “hot pan,” for example.
If you couldn't be in the kitchen, what would be your second choice of dream job?
I think in my second phase of life, I would like to have a career in politics.