There's something special about Hugh Acheson. Maybe it's his incredible talent in the kitchen. Maybe it's his gift for creating remarkable dining experiences that stand the test of time. Maybe it's the unibrow, a marker of his singular style and personality.
Acheson is one of those hands-in-everything creative types. He won the prestigious James Beard Award for "Best Chef: Southeast" in 2012. He’s written three cookbooks. He’s a regular on Bravo—or a Bravolebrity, as the network calls its stars.
He’s the culinary force behind four Georgia restaurants: Five & Ten and The National in Athens, Empire State South in Atlanta, and The Florence in Savannah. And he’s a passionate advocate for sustainable food practices in an era when so many plant species are headed for extinction.
We couldn't help but sit down with one of the nation’s culinary geniuses to learn about Atlanta’s food culture, its best up-and-coming chefs, and what to do with kohlrabi.
You recently held a lunch that drew a lot of attention—it claimed to use endangered species in each dish. The species turned out to be heirloom tomatoes. How did the idea for this event come about?
Seeds of Change approached us with the idea and we got excited about it. I think it’s really important thing to bring that lens back to it and say, “Look, when we talk about endangered species it’s a much bigger conversation than a lot of people want to have, but we have to have it.”
Why is it important to eat endangered plant species?
You look at the history of food and you look at the history of what the Southern ardor used to be and we’ve really lost a lot of that. There used to be over 300 varieties of Southern apples—I mean, there are books dedicated to the subject—and now we have like 12. I think Seeds of Change is trying to show the message, which is that we have a lot of flavors to save and we don’t do it unless we plant these seeds and make sure they’re beautiful, certified-organic seeds that really can promote a message of diversity in our food culture.
When did you move to Georgia?
I moved to Athens in 1996 right as the Summer Olympics were in the middle of [Atlanta].
Is that what brought you there?
I was not competing in the Olympics, no. But thank you.
[laughs] Is there even a food component to the Olympics?
If there was, I’d do the culinary decathlon.
We were moving there so my wife could do her master’s in art history. We stayed there for two years, she did her master’s then we moved to San Francisco. Then we realized that we love San Francisco but it’s really expensive to live there, so we moved back to Athens and opened the first restaurant, which is Five & Ten.
You’re originally from Canada—what drew you to Southern food and how did you develop such an expertise with this cuisine?
I would want to be an expert and really immersed in wherever I was culinarily. So if I lived in Cincinnati, I would hope that I would know everything about the food and foodways around that area.
I just happen to live in this place that has such a deep history of food that I’ll never get bored by researching it every day and looking into it. It’s kind of the hardwood of American food culture. Everything else is amazingly interesting, but it’s very thin the amount of knowledge that you’ll learn about it. This is just deep and it’s an amazing history—it’s a painful history in a lot of ways, but it’s a really interesting food history.
What do you like to cook for your family?
It’s usually a mix. It’s a smaller amount of protein than it used to be. If it’s a steak, then it’s around three to four ounces per person and next to that is, in the summer, a raw carrot salad and maybe a kohlrabi puree and grilled leeks and sliced tomatoes and a little bit of farro or quinoa. That spread and that diversity on the plate is what we’re looking to show. And I think the only way that my kids, who are 10 and 12, have learned to love vegetables is by having those vegetables in front of them all of the time. Vegetables aren’t an oddity on the plate in my house, it’s just dinner.
What are your kids’ favorite dishes that you make?
Probably a roasted local chicken with Carolina gold rice and gravy and sauteed spinach and carrots and sliced tomatoes. A simple, Southern-at-the-core meal. Not too complicated. We use a really simple chicken recipe by salting it 12 hours before, leaving it in the fridge, trusting it and roasting it. That’s about it. Pretty simple pan gravy with homemade stock.
What do you like to do in Athens with your family?
I travel so much that when I’m at home, I’m usually at home. We live right in town. We garden a lot and hang out at the house or go to Bishop Park and run around or play tennis.
There are great little restaurants to go to in Athens now. There’s amazing Mexican food that’s really abundant and I think that’s an amazing part of Athens cuisine now. There’s a little taqueria in front of a Mexican grocery store called Los Amigos. It’s great—amazing, really simple carnitas tacos with homemade salsas.
There’s also a place called Tlaloc that’s Mexican and El Salvadorian food, so amazing pupusas, really vinegary slaws and things like that. There’s a lot of truly amazing family-run restaurants like that that are popping up.
You spend a lot of time in Atlanta. What are some of your favorite restaurants in the city?
I don’t think you can ever go wrong with a pizza from Antico Pizza Napoletana, which I think is arguably the best pizza in North America. Bacchanalia for fine dining is just a phenomenal restaurant. I’m really anxious to try the little one they’re opening downstairs called Little Bach.
Annie Quatrano is one of my longtime friends and mentors. She’s just an awesome person. Steven Satterfield at Miller Union is always going to be putting his best foot forward for Atlanta in everything he does. He takes the flavors of the South and does them more simply and better than pretty much anyone else. I really like Billy Allin at Cakes & Ale in Decatur.
What Kimball House is doing with oysters and beautiful cocktails—could be my favorite last meal on earth. Just a great place to enjoy life, and Mike Gallagher and his team are just awesome people.
Where do you love to spend time in Atlanta?
There are so many things in Atlanta that are just awesome these days—from wandering around Piedmont Park to going to a game at Turner Field—there’s a lot going on. You can go to Krog Street Market and get a great sandwich at Yalla and hang out. There’s a cultural explosion in Atlanta. It’s just a great city to be in.
How would you describe Atlanta to someone who’s never been?
Finding its soul very successfully.
How do you think that is?
I think for years Atlanta was innocuous. It didn’t really understand the dense amount of history and coming to terms with that dense amount of history. But I think it finally has.
We’ve got amazing universities and we’ve got amazing … neighborhoods that have restaurants to you wander up to. There’s an amazing quality of life living in Decatur, Virginia-Highland or Inman Park that you don’t see in a lot of major cities and those are amazing, culturally diverse and interesting neighborhoods that have really become amazing places to be.
When Atlanta wanted to be Dallas 20 years ago it kind of lost its footing. Now Atlanta really wants to be Atlanta.
Where do you take your family when visiting Atlanta?
What do you never leave home without when traveling?
A copy of a current New Yorker. My phone with a lot of podcasts—the Southern Foodways Alliance’s Gravy is awesome right now. Tina Antolini is not just a good friend but also a brilliant radio personality. I’m still trying to figure out Serial.
What do you do to relax?
The people who know me say that I’m not really a very relaxed person. I’m relaxed when I sleep.
Where do you see Atlanta’s dining scene going in the next few years?
I think we’ll see a consistent move toward independent restaurants being stronger and stronger. There’s a strength to the independent and third-rail dining scene that’s evolving, and I think it’s an amazing time to be here.
You’re going to see amazing chefs coming up the ranks and moving back to Atlanta. The third rail happens when young chefs go off and work under great chefs in New York and then they move back to Atlanta or Cleveland or Minneapolis, and they open their own places. And then the dining scene changes. Well, we’re in that time right now and we have been for the last 10 years.
So, the next 20 years are going to be another generational shift or kids coming up from other decades doing amazing things and pushing the envelope of what great and authentic restaurants really feel like.
I just think Atlanta is in a great spot to do that and succeed in it. The smaller neighborhoods are becoming amazing bastions and supporters of smaller, independent restaurants and making community life or neighborhood life really viable in Atlanta. I think that trajectory continues.
Which chefs are currently helping to make that shift happen?
Ryan Smith, who is one of our partners at Empire State South, is opening up Staplehouse and completely embodies that ethos.
There are so many people who embody that spirit of young community and doing this for all the right reasons.
Tell me about your newest book.
It’s called “The Broad Fork” and it came out in early May . It is a look at how to use everything at the farmer’s market or in your CSA [Community Supported Agriculture] box, and answering that age-old question, “What the hell do I do with kohlrabi?”
So, what do you do with kohlrabi?
I think some sort of a mayonnaise-less coleslaw is great with just lime and olive oil and cilantro or parsley. There’s a lot of amazingly different things you can do with this. And braising it with butter. We puree it. We roast it. You can shave it into salads raw. It’s a really versatile vegetable.
That’s the thing, the American consumer and eater tends to cook what they know and so I think that we just need to realize that food is such a beautiful, endless topic that I think you want to learn something new about it every day. And that’s where cookbooks come into play—to find a new technique or a new way of using something that you maybe wouldn’t have been comfortable with and it helps to make you comfortable.
The book is meant to empower you. It’s meant to be cooked from, it’s not meant to be over your head and it’s not really complicated. And I think that’s the way to not get overwhelmed with food is to make sure you feel empowered and when you walk into the kitchen that you’re not confused or perplexed by a recipe. And realize the time in the kitchen should be time hanging out with your family and having fun.
What’s next for you?
We opened up The Florence in Savannah [in 2014], so the first year of a restaurant is a wonderful time that feels like dragging your head over gravel. It’s fun, it’s just arduous. So, getting through that and enjoying watching it grow. I’m working on another couple book ideas. We’re in the middle of a book tour for “The Broad Fork.”
What else am I doing? Trying to raise my family. You know, do all that. Too much time in the Delta lounge.