Hugh Acheson is a practical man. He’s witty and inventive, too, but he has the ability to cut through nonsense like a hot knife through butter. Hugh opened his Athens, Georgia-based flagship restaurant 5 & 10 in 2000 and followed in 2007 with a second space, The National. He has since opened the Atlanta-based Empire State South and Spiller Park Coffee, and The Florence in Savannah, Georgia. He is a six-time James Beard nominee for Best Chef Southeast and the 2012 winner of that award. His wry humor, paired with a natural storytelling ability, makes him unintimidating to the at-home cook—resulting in a growing library of cookbooks, including A New Turn in the South and The Broad Fork, two of our favorites from recent years.
A New Turn in the South won the James Beard Foundation’s award for Best Cookbook in the field of “American Cooking” in 2012—and we often reference the book’s “Message About Community”. Hugh wrote:
“The small steps that you take as a consumer are multifold: Shop at your farmer’s market, buy local crafts and art, frequent local independent restaurants, buy locally roasted coffee, buy native plants, learn how to garden, don’t eat overly processed foods, know the person who raises your eggs. This has nothing to do with a political stance and everything to do with a community stance. I am not a fanatic, just a believer. I believe in the place we live and in finding ways to make it great every day. I am endlessly enamored of my local sphere, my community.”
When we spoke with Hugh recently, we asked him to expand a bit on the roles of sustainability and community in his life. “I think the idea of sustainability should be compared to a life of hiking and camping: ‘Pack it in, pack it out. Leave it as nice as when you went in.’ I think we need to think about generations way beyond our own and think what legacy we can leave them. As for my food journey as it relates to my community, I am constantly intrigued by being involved. If I was a dentist I would feel the same way but as a chef, I have a connection to the community through food and can highlight the importance of sustenance and availability in many different ways. I like that ongoing journey.”
Though he is a native of Ottawa, Canada, Hugh has lived in Athens for over two decades and is more knowledgeable of Southern food history and traditions than most born-and-bred Southerners. His thoughts on Southern food culture speak to its potential and its true history, and he is quick to point out the differences between “real” and “fake” Southern foods. “We honor Southern food by cataloging the stories and recipes of the past and the present. We pay homage by realizing that the vast majority of Southern food came here as a product of slavery. It is a painful history of food and nourishment but it is a story that should be told. I think the Jim Crow era of Southern food with the Aunties and the Pitty Pat Porches is luckily coming to an end and has been replaced by a truly intellectual look at tradition and legacy. Southern food is not a bucket of fried chicken and biscuits, but rather a celebration of the agrarian richness that has provided for us in a seasonal way for so long. I would rather hear about Southern food from Edna Lewis than Paula Deen.”
Our dear friend, collaborator, and sometime-muse Rinne Allen has worked with Hugh on several projects and she clearly has a deep admiration for him. She remembers, “We all really bonded over this project [A New Turn in the South], as corny as that sounds—we worked on it for a very long time which normally does not happen in the world of cookbooks. (Normally, they are condensed into a very short time frame.) Our group met every other week for almost a year at Hugh’s home kitchen to cook and take photographs. And then most days we would sit down and enjoy the food afterward and that, really, was the best part of the project…that kind of camaraderie that comes from sharing food, as well as sharing in such a good project.” She speaks of her experiences working with Hugh as incredibly collaborative. His thoughts on collaborating with her are equally as fond. “Rinne is the most delightful collaborator. She is an endlessly fascinating person with so many skills and mediums to express her art. Collaboration should be about a meeting of minds and ideas that work together. Always collaborate with people you think are smarter and better than you! Leave your ego at the door and listen and appreciate what they bring to the table.”
A couple of years ago Hugh unexpectedly took on yet another project when one of his daughters shared with him what she’d been learning in her Family and Consumer Sciences class: how to take prenatal vitamins, baking Red Velvet cupcakes from a boxed mix, cooking canned pastry dough wrapped in bacon. Hugh saw what he considered to be a missed opportunity, mostly resulting from a lack of resources. As a strong advocate for his adopted hometown and a supporter of public schools, he saw a chance to partner with his local school district and help revamp curriculum to address real-life issues and provide students with practical skills for living and succeeding that they could carry into adulthood. That collaboration resulted in the creation of Seed Life Skills, a non-profit designed to teach concepts that students can retain and employ throughout their lives. “Seed Life Skills is a rewriting of curriculum to make it contemporary and retainable. It is like life skill merit badges of urban homesteading: poaching an egg, making a vinaigrette, reading a lease, sewing on a button, fixing a toaster, debating a simple premise, understanding debt. It is meant to empower kids to be better suited to tackle the endless hurdles in life. A Happy Meal doesn’t really require skills.”
After years of advocating for more education in the “living arts”, we understand Hugh’s frustration that most people don’t know how to do things or make things anymore. Part of our mission at Alabama Chanin has been to support the reintroduction of those practical skills that were once essential to life but have become casualties of convenience. We want to renew and instill respect for these skills (sewing, farming, cooking, etc.) and demonstrate their true value. We asked Hugh to share some thoughts and advice on how to continue that journey—and whether programs like Seed Life Skills could be applicable to other disciplines, like ours. “Just realize that everything is STEAM and STEM applicable. List out the ten most important skills that you use daily that have fallen by the wayside in current culture and then whittle those down to basic lessons that engage with a kid who really, despite everything we hear and are told, just wants to LEARN. Teach them what you know.”
Because of his growing expertise in this area, Hugh has partnered with the National Head Start Association to serve as their Healthy Living Ambassador—visiting Head Start programs nationwide to speak with children and families about the importance of preparing nutritious meals and raise funds to enable Head Start centers to build their own gardens. All of this AND he is finishing up work on his fourth cookbook, The Chef and the Slow Cooker which, in a way, is extending his Seed Life Skills curriculum into the adult kitchen sphere. “People want to get back in the kitchen, but they’re terrified of getting back in the kitchen; they’re terrified of cooking from scratch” he recently said. “So we need them to find the tools that make that easier for them and it’s kind of a segue. It’s getting them back in there, slowly but surely.”
We tossed a few more questions Hugh’s way, so enjoy…
AC: You are the chef/partner at five different restaurants. How do you balance your roles at each of them? And what parts of your personality or POV does each reflect?
HA: My POV and personality matters little hopefully. Restaurants are run by a team of people, assembling together to produce great food and beverage with great service and style. I merely curate the ideas, and then triage the daily routine. As you grow in business you have to hire people better and smarter than yourself and trust them with responsibility and leadership. And naps. Naps are important.
AC: Your second cookbook, The Broad Fork, celebrates vegetables and offers home cooks ways to use ingredients from their CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) box that they might not be familiar with. What are your favorite vegetables to highlight each season?
AC: What sort of advice do you have for CSA subscribers working with unfamiliar or challenging ingredients (other than purchasing The Broad Fork)?
HA: Google it! The web is a resource for ideas and information.
AC: What are the best ways to engage kids in the home kitchen?
HA: Cook with them from scratch. Kids are sponges. Talk about where and why and how.
AC: What is your earliest food-related memory? Do you remember the first dish you cooked by yourself?
HA: I made paprika-cheese toast when I was 4. Wasn’t very good. But I was proud.
AC: What was your last true great dining experience?
HA: At home. Roasted chicken with local rice, turnips and chow chow. It made the family smile.
AC: At Alabama Chanin, you can often find music influencing the mood and the workflow in the studio. What is your favorite music to cook by?
HA: Depends on the day, but I have been listening to a lot of Archie Shepp these days. Jazz is great to cook to.