Our #FamiliarFaces are people in the food scene whose faces you might recognize but whose stories you probably don’t know. They are good at what they do, fun to talk to and just seem interesting—people we all want to know more about. So we’re starting the conversation for you!
Photography by Kim Thomas
Stef Watkins was living and working in Mississippi when a friend’s chance encounter with Ben Smith, owner of Tsunami restaurant in Cooper-Young, led her to the Memphis area, where her family recently has settled in Collierville.
Ben says having a pastry chef on staff has been a game changer for the restaurant, with patrons coming specifically to sample the desserts. Plus, says Ben, she’s a pleasure to work with. “She’s a steady, cool-headed, level and emotionally stabilizing person on the staff—a tremendous asset from the get-go,” he says.
Stef has been expanding her repertoire outside of pastry too. “She’s on the fast track to being sous-chef on the savory side,” Ben says. “I see her as someone who could be running the kitchen one day.”
Get to know Stef here, and then head to Tsunami to sample her sweet and savory dishes. Tell her Edible Memphis sent you.
Edible Memphis: Where did you grow up?
Stef Watkins: I grew up in Mississippi, mostly in Courtland, which is a really small town. Growing up in a Southern family, we always had gardens and fresh produce. I would go to my grandmother’s house, and that’s where I started cooking. I would look at her old recipe books—and she cooked a lot too. She would let me pull a chair up to the stove so I could see the top of the stove and cook. My cousins were night owls and I would be bored waiting for them to wake up in the mornings so I would watch Julia Child and Jacques Pépin until they got up.
How did you become a pastry chef?
I went to school for culinary arts and found out I was pregnant and dropped out. But I eventually made it back to school and graduated just a few years ago from MUW [Mississippi University for Women]. They have one of the only bachelor’s programs [in culinary arts] around. The classrooms are small, you get to know your professors, and it’s really nice.
As part of my final semester, I had to do an internship. I went to City Grocery in Oxford. I stayed with them for about four years. I worked the line for a little while, and then they needed help in their pastry department. I moved over there and started learning a lot. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last five years.
How did you land at Tsunami?
I heard about Ben through a mutual friend. A quick interview turned into chatting for an hour. I really like the feel of Tsunami, and I really like Ben. I commuted for about a year from Mississippi before moving to Collierville. On those late night drives, I listened to a lot of podcasts, like Crime Junkie.
What are your responsibilities at Tsunami?
I have a spoon in every pot up here; I step in wherever they need me. I work sauté and grill. I take Thursday to plan and get everything made for pastry. I do dessert specials every weekend, but I’m a lot more on the hot line. I like learning and trying new things, and Donny Graham and Ben Smith are incredible about explaining things. I’ve learned a lot in the last couple of months. It has made me a lot more confident cooking seafood at home.
What’s cool about your current job?
I have a lot of creative freedom. The unique thing about this kitchen is that we joke around; we talk shit all the time, but it’s respectful—and that’s a huge departure from my previous experience in kitchens. There’s respect to and from everyone, from dishwashers to Ben Smith. If someone is aggravated or tempers flare, we calm down and talk about it and it’s not personal. And I do enjoy that there’s huge respect for women in this kitchen because that’s not always the case.
Does anything in particular stress you out at work?
I wouldn’t say anything is super stressful. Even when we’re super busy, we’re prepared. We have a very small crew in the kitchen so if someone calls in sick, we’re all picking up for someone else. But it’s nice knowing that, if you do need to call out, there are people that are going to pick up the slack for you and it’s not a lot of pressure. You can feel safe to take care of yourself and the things you need to take care of.
What’s your favorite thing you make?
I really enjoy making ice creams. One of my favorite things to make here, though, is pavlova. I like how you can really change them up and make them fresh and bright summery or great for fall—like Black Forest pavlova with cherries and dark chocolate. My favorite part about making them is watching all the pieces come together to make a beautiful dessert and then watching people’s reactions and seeing them really enjoy their experience.
What’s your dream job?
When I was growing up, I loved exploring in the woods growing up and finding fossils. I still love doing that. If I could do a combination of pastry and Indiana Jones…
Do you have a side hustle?
I do a lot of birthday cakes, desserts and holiday baking. Last year I began offering cheesecakes around the holidays. Also, I have a lot of houseplants and have been preparing them for winter, breaking off babies. So I’ve gotten into selling those. I’ve gotten to meet more people in the area because of that kind of stuff.
What’s a typical meal for you at home?
I try to keep them fast and low carb. One of my favorite breakfasts is Eggs in Purgatory—a spicy tomato sauce that I add chickpeas to, to bump up the protein. During the summer we eat lots of fresh produce and fruit. I like salads but get bored so I add grains. I like making homemade pasta but don’t get to make that as often because it’s time-consuming. My daughter is good at folding tortellini so that helps. Now that I work evenings, I make more Crock-Pot meals. That way my daughter and girlfriend can have something to eat when they get off school and off work.
Do you cook desserts at home?
I really love making cheesecakes. As long as you’re patient with them and let them cool down properly, they’re not going to crack on you. And they freeze really well, so it’s easy to make them ahead and store them.
Right now a perfect day would be waking up early, taking my daughter and my girlfriend to a lake, maybe with a small sailboat. Have a nice picnic. Go horseback riding. Go out to dinner—I don’t feel like cooking after a long day in the sun. Just going on a mini adventure.
Tell us something no one else knows about you.
I am absolutely terrified of heights, but I love to fly and I want to go skydiving. I think that would be terrifying, but I want to do it. It seems exhilarating.
What are you reading, watching or listening to right now?
I always have about five or six books in rotation. I just recently ordered the Momofuku Milk Bar recipe book; I have that one beside the bed. I have Breakfast at Tiffany’s here [at Tsunami] with me. I have In Cold Blood in my bag. I try not to watch too much TV, but lately I’ve been watching Orphan Black, which is super dramatic and packed with action.
Have you ever been to Graceland?
No, I’m not really into super touristy sites.
I do occasionally. But generally Saturday mornings are doing baking, bike rides when it cools off and kickboxing. And I’ve been really working on getting my plants ready for winter.
Ridden a Bird?
No, I haven’t. I’m really uncoordinated, and there are a lot of cracks in the sidewalk. And people in Midtown and downtown drive crazy.
Favorite thing about the Memphis area?
I love Memphis culture and how it just all mixes together—the art, music. I love the historical neighborhoods and the actual look of it. I love the safety of Collierville and how convenient it is for me to bike wherever I need to go. The excellent school system is really what took us out there. And it’s quiet; our neighborhood is so quiet. Everyone goes to bed super early. Everyone minds their own business, and it’s nice. With a busy schedule, it’s nice to go home and do your own thing.
When a friend visits Memphis, where do you take them?
There’s a nice trail through the woods called the Peterson Lake Nature Center Loop. They have a boardwalk out there too. That’s nice to go on in the morning. I have a great family pass to the zoo. There are a lot of little hole in the wall places that I like, like Kwik Chek. I love taking people there because they’re weirded out by it. I like taking people to the Winchester Farmer’s Market. When it’s not really hot, the botanic gardens. I like outdoor activities as much as possible, like zip lines and renting paddle boats at Shelby Farms.
Personal style philosophy?
I generally dress pretty simply. I want to be comfortable. I tend not to wear a lot of jewelry because I’m working with my hands all the time. I generally find a few favorite articles of clothing and wear them out.
Who’s your mentor?
Ben Smith is the closest thing I have to a mentor. He’s teaching me a lot about savory cooking, specifically the Pacific Rim-style cooking and lots of seafood, which I didn’t have as much experience in.
One of my most influential mentors passed away in 2015. It was my ex-husband’s grandmother, and I really miss her. She was one of those no-nonsense Southern women who told it like it was, whether you wanted to hear it or not.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
It may be longer than five years, but I would really like to travel and experience other cultures and cook with other people from other cultures. But I think my daughter is going to have to be on her own before I do that. And I would eventually like to open my own bakery.
Manda Gibson is copy editor at Edible Memphis. Most days you can find her running on the streets of Memphis, cooking “real food” meals for her family and silently judging the grammar of everyone she meets.
Kim Thomas is a lifestyle blogger and photographer based in Memphis. Launched in September 2010, her blog KP Fusion provides of-the-moment fashion, style and beauty tips and trends with a little Memphis flavor thrown in. @kpfusion