A Love for Local: Hugh Acheson’s Vision
He’s got the personality of a small-town short order cook, but the artistic vision and skill of a graduate of the Sorbonne. But he didn’t go to culinary school. Armed with a brief education in political philosophy and experiences in “really good kitchens,” he has created a cultural oxymoron with his restaurants. Infused with Georgia history, Hugh Acheson emphasizes the local color as he pursues his ideal of casual fine dining.
Acheson began his culinary career in his hometown of Ottawa, Canada. Growing up with his dad and three older sisters, Acheson says he was not accustomed to veal dinners like some other households. “My dad was an economist,” Acheson says, “so it was a lot of grilling steaks and yellow-waxed beans and rice. It was nothing gourmet, but there was an obvious love of food in the house.”
A love of food was then combined with the multi-cultural cuisines offered in the European-influenced city of Ottawa. Acheson recounts the great Indian and Lebanese influences as well as Italian restaurants and even a China town. “For me, it was more about trying to figure out what was, culturally, really interesting at the time,” Acheson says.
“Culturally interesting” is just the thematic angle that eventually gave Acheson his name as one of the world’s leading chefs. With French and Italian influences, Acheson’s creative cuisine can be described as an imaginative reinterpretation of traditional Southern food.
First introduced to the South at age 11, Acheson moved from Canada to Atlanta, Georgia, to live with his mom in Buckhead. Before settling permanently in Athens, however, he traveled intermittently, living in various cities across Canada and the U.S., including Montreal, Clemson, and San Francisco. These travels heavily influenced Acheson’s experimentation with different types of food.
It was a building with just the right price that brought Acheson to Athens to open his first restaurant, Five and Ten, in March of 2000. The building had been home to various businesses over the years including The Lighthouse, a restaurant that, believe it or not, had an actual, mock lighthouse at the storefront.
Restoring the spot’s small-town glory, Acheson named his restaurant after the building’s original form, an old five and dime store, and appropriately opened it on a “shoestring” budget. Seven years after the opening, The Atlanta Journal Constitution voted Five and Ten “Best Restaurant of the Year.”
“I’m not sure about chic, but [Five and Ten] is definitely shabby. It does what it’s meant to do. It is a very heartfelt, community restaurant . . . It’s about really good food and wine service, but there is nothing pompous about what we do.”
Off of the Five and Ten menu, Acheson is particularly fond of the simple yet full flavored lyonnaise salad. The dish mingles frisée (a bitter plant similar to lettuce), bacon vinaigrette, lardons (salty, rich pork fat popular in French cuisine), apples, grilled scallions, and a poached local egg.
Acheson says, “without wearing it as a badge, we buy as much as we can locally.” He works with a lot of farms around Athens including the beautiful, organic farm, Woodland Gardens, in Winterville.
“I want local first, sustainability second, and organic third,” Acheson replies in explaining his preference for produce and other ingredients. Because “organic” has become a “wishy-washy” term, Acheson says, he actually chooses local ingredients over organic ones. “It’s better, and I much prefer, knowing the name of the person that grew it and, then, buying it directly from them. That way, I am not dealing with the middlemen who often muddle things up.”
The National’s ever-changing menu, which features Spanish and North African influences, also revolves around the seasonal and local foods of Northeast Georgia. Opened in 2007 with chefs Peter Dale and Chris Luken, Acheson’s second restaurant was directly inspired by the travels the three chefs took.
“The airplane theme and the name are meant to evoke that we can go anywhere,” Acheson says. The National allows its customers to soar abroad through its Mediterranean cuisine while never going beyond the community to find ingredients.
Empire State South, Acheson says, is their “biggest net that [catches]” locally grown foods. Acheson says this is in large part because of the relationships his partner, chef Ryan Smith, maintains with several farms around Georgia. Specializing in “beautiful, old school” cooking methods, as Acheson calls it, such as charcuterie (a method of meat preparation); Smith also uses complex techniques and unique combinations of flavors that have never been done before.
Dine at Empire State South, Acheson’s newest restaurant in Atlanta, and you will have the true dining experience of award-winning chef Hugh Acheson. Walking in you may notice the granite-top bar and rich wood of the siding, floors, and walls. Rather than going to Home Depot, Acheson and designers used century-old Pecky Cypress wood as well as heartpine wood salvaged from the oldest house in Duluth, Ga. On the patio, you will see a bocce ball court handcrafted with crushed oyster shells.
The atmosphere of Empire State South got its fresh outlook on restaurant design from two local designers, whom Acheson collaborated with to create the feel of an indigenous Southern tavern. Susan Hable Smith, co-founder and creative director of New York-based design studio Hable Construction, and Lisa Fiscus, owner and principal of Hawthorne House Interiors & Antiques in Athens, both had never designed a restaurant before. Acheson a Canadian chef who has reinvented Southern food, similarly saw this as an advantage.
Acheson believes that it’s not about showing off, rather providing a comfortable, community hub for quality food and wine. “Every restaurant is based on how good your team is . . . We concentrate on the food on the plate, not how fancy the valet parking is,” Acheson says. “The hardest thing about Empire State South being in Atlanta is finding the type of service that we do here in Athens. In Atlanta, there aren’t, for a lack of a better term, really natural people who are just comfortable being themselves.”
Acheson is now approaching his first cookbook with this same business model of finding local talent to work with. The cookbook, entitled A Turn in the South: The Cuisine of Hugh Acheson, will be published in the fall of 2011 by Clarkson Potter, a division of Random House. Of course, who wouldn’t want to publish the 2010 winner of Best Chef Southeast? But Clarkson Potter was also impressed by the chosen photographer’s good eye. Freelance photographer, Rinne Allen, brings a fresh, yet natural touch that matches Acheson’s style with the original manuscript hand-stitched on parchment paper.
“I want it to be my interpretation of working with Southern food and Southern ingredients because I am Canadian,” Acheson says. The cookbook is intended to showcase Acheson’s modern approach to French and American traditions. Since he did not have a grandma passing down the family collards recipe, Acheson explains, it has left him free to experiment. “There are no blinders from culinary heritage. It’s left me with an open mind.”
The cookbook will have an iPad version, but Acheson is confident that passionate cooks alike are as inspired as he is when writing notes in the margin of a cookbook with stunning photos. With 500 cookbooks in his office and stacks of them on his countertop, Acheson says “there is something about holding a book, there is something about that worn copy of Joy of Cooking, that we should all have.”
Acheson is already thinking of a second cookbook as well as always looking for spaces for future restaurants. “I love this job and what I do because it’s an endless topic.” No matter what culinary masterpiece is yet to come from Acheson, it is clear that he will remain a humble, community chef. From staff members and ingredients to interior designers and photographers, Acheson has found his honest and genuinely talented team right here in our community.
“Athens is a wonderful city, a wonderfully small city, and I love the people that come into the restaurants,” Acheson says.