On a picturesque, tree-lined Southern street, about a mile from downtown Athens, Ga., in a Victorian bungalow with a wraparound porch, chef Hugh Acheson makes dinner. It's like a scene plucked from a Southern Living spread: tall white cabinets set against a backsplash of tiles painted with burnt orange and white sunbursts, fine appliances, a vast island topped with smooth black stone. Only this kitchen isn't just a pretty room in a pretty house. It's Hugh Acheson HQ, the central nervous system for Acheson's entire life. It's the laboratory where he and his chefs invent new dishes for his restaurants, a test kitchen for cookbook recipes and magazine articles, the place he cooks dinner for his family. "What you see here, it's what we do here every day. This kitchen gets a lot of use," Acheson says. He buzzes about the space, tracing the familiar paths between the sink, the stove, and the refrigerator without raising his eyebrow. The only time he really looks up is to mind Daffy, the family's very active new rescue puppy, yipping away on the deck outside, and to check his equally active iPhone resting on the counter.
Born and raised in Ottawa, Canada, Acheson began working in restaurants at 15. At first, cooking was just a job. "I was just lucky enough to be in great French restaurants and learning a ton," he says. He was inspired by the talented Canadian chefs Jamie Kennedy and his mentor Rob MacDonald of Henri Burger in Ottawa. Chef life eventually became the thing he couldn't get enough of.
In 2000, Acheson opened Five & Ten in Athens. Two years later, he was named Best New Chef by Food and Wine magazine. He opened his second Athens restaurant, the National, in 2007, followed by Empire State South in Atlanta in 2010. In 2011, he was invited to compete on "Top Chef Masters" and later asked back to appear as a regular judge on "Top Chef" — the same year he published his first cookbook, A New Turn in the South, which won the James Beard Foundation award for Best Cookbook in American Cooking in 2012.
Nearly 30 years after that young kid started working in restaurants after school, Hugh Acheson is a household name. He is a chef — maybe not an executive chef anymore, he says — but certainly still a chef. He is an independent restaurateur and local food advocate. He is a father, a husband, an author. But on this sunny spring day in his home kitchen, he's just the guy who owns those restaurants.
The task at hand is to prepare a meal for less than $20. Standing over a tray brimming with pristine sliced carrots, spring onions, and avocado, Acheson seems to relish the challenge. The three-course menu he has planned, dubbed the "Super Dinner from the Supermercado," starts with a grilled salad of baby gem lettuces. Next, roasted chicken, cooked beneath a weight and served over a Latin-inspired hoppin' John with pinto beans and brown rice. For dessert, juicy slices of mango and yogurt sprinkled with ground chili pepper and maple syrup. He doesn't want it to be a "precious" meal. "I want it to be an achievable meal for a family of four, where both parents work 60 hours a week, or it's a single mom who works 65 hours a week as a nurse, or whatever it may be," he says.
He whisks a bowl of yogurt with ground cumin, salt, pepper, and lime juice and smears a dollop of the mixture on a nearby plate. He places stalks of lettuce in a cast iron pan for a quick sear, pulling them off one by one with a pair of tongs. Then, over the yogurt dressing, he builds a salad, arranging slices of radish and carrot here and there, humming and nibbling while he works.
"This meal probably has about a quarter of the amount of animal protein that most American meals would, but it's an utterly complete meal. So we need to teach people why this is good and the fact that it kicks ass in flavor, too," he says.
Acheson is one of the most visible figures in Southern cooking today, a position he hopes will allow him to effect positive change in the world: spread awareness of our ailing food system, help increase access to healthy food, and teach people the fundamentals they need to feed themselves in a healthy way.
But how did this Canadian-born, Southern transplant become the poster child for modern cooking in the South?
As a child and stepson of a traveling academic, Acheson lived for two years each in Atlanta and then Clemson, S.C., where he befriended his future wife, Mary. Acheson returned to Canada to finish high school, but he and Mary never lost touch. "We were just good friends, and pen pals when we were like, 11," he says. "And then we kind of got to be much closer in our early 20s, got married when we were 25, and came to live in Athens so she could do graduate work." The couple moved to San Francisco for two years while Mary worked in publishing at the University of California, Berkeley. Acheson continued to build his culinary résumé working under the likes of chef Mike Fennelly at Mecca and famed chef Gary Danko. They ultimately returned to Athens in 2000 to open Five & Ten. "We've been here ever since," Acheson says.
When asked what Southern food "is," he simply says, "I don't know. That's the beauty of it."
He pauses to glare at a barking Daffy and moves to the back door. "Come here. I'll let you in if you promise not to bark. I mean we like you, but no, you're buggin' out." The tiny dog saunters in and gobbles up a bit of stray lettuce off the floor.
Acheson continues: "What it's not, is a bucket of fried chicken and biscuits. That's just as popular in Minnesota as it is in the South," he says. "What it needs to be is a response to the agrarian community that exists around here and it needs to be a matter of celebrating that agrarian-ness and the reality of the history here."
He plates up pieces of golden-skinned chicken around a pile of rice and beans. "How's that look? Would you eat that? I would eat that." Bites of juicy chicken and creamy rice and beans wrapped in a soft tortilla explode with warm spices and the cool tang of homemade salsa.
Acheson's brand of cooking is a reflection of his own life experiences: French technique and know-how from his early days wrapped up in the history of Southern food. "If you don't get inspired by whatever community you're in, I think you're in the wrong place. I was just lucky enough to be in the South."
Acheson is currently brainstorming a new TV show, he's on deadline for a new cookbook, and in the midst of developing a new Italian-leaning restaurant in Savannah slated to open in spring 2014. "I don't know why anybody opens a restaurant. It's kind of like dragging your head along gravel," he says, although he does hope to open another one, or two, in the future. "There's a lot of thanklessness in this industry. I'm in the stage in my career where there's a lot of thanks, but I'm lucky. I'm not the best chef in the world, but I'm very thankful," he says.
Right on time and fresh from school, the ladies of the house, Mary and daughters Clementine and Beatrice, file in as we file out. Dad mode kicks in. "You girls have homework?" he asks as the front door closes behind us.Next: Four recipes from Empire State South's Hugh Acheson