This week’s Chef in the Spotlight is a finalist for two 2012 James Beard Foundation (JBF) Awards. Hugh Acheson has been given the nod for Best Chef in the Southeast for his work at Five and Ten, in Athens, Georgia and for his cookbook, A New Turn in the South [released in October 2011] in the American Cooking category. JBF nominations are nothing new to Acheson as 2012 marks his sixth go-round; having been nominated five times previous for Best Chef Southeast (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011). Fingers crossed, 6th times’ a charm! Acheson’s fresh approach to Southern food has earned him, not only recognition from the JBF but from Food & Wine magazine as Best New Chef in 2002, the Atlanta Journal Constitution dubbed Five & Ten Restaurant of the Year in 2007, and again in 2007 Acheson received a Rising Star award from StarChefs.com.
I had a chance to sit down and chat with amiable Hugh Acheson when he was in Fort Lauderdale as part of the Food & Wine/Buick Discovery lifestyle tour; a unique partnership that took their entertainment and message to 10-cities introducing Buick’s vehicle line-up of its 2012 models including the Enclave, Lacrosse, and Regal Turbo as well as spotlighting the talents and personalities of celebrity chefs through cooking demonstrations and wine seminars with Michael Green who facilitated wine 101 and pairing seminars.
Hugh Acheson is the chef/partner of Five & Ten and The National located in Athens, GA and Empire State South in Atlanta, GA. Acheson was born and raised in Ottawa, Canada; he started cooking at a young age and decided to make it his career after realizing that academics just weren’t his thing. Academics may not have been “his thing” but Acheson certainly has found his calling through culinary expression. I present this week’s Chef in the Spotlight, the gracious and very down to earth talent, Hugh Acheson.
South Florida Food and Wine: You’re a man wearing many aprons in many kitchens and beyond; your three properties, Empire State South in Atlanta, Georgia and Five & Ten and The National both in Athens, Georgia, keep you very busy in addition to your media and travel schedule. What is a typical day like for you?
Hugh Acheson: It really depends these days. I am honestly on the road about three-quarters of the time.
So if I am in Athens I wake up, cook eggs with the kids, walk them to school and then come back home. I work from home until about noon and then go to check up on the restaurants. I look over menus and bank accounts and talk to the crews. Then I work out some issues and plan the week with them. Then back home and work on future book projects and recipes and plan out engagements.
If I am in Atlanta I get up and go to Empire State South. There I just kind of surmise the whole place and talk things over with Ryan and his crew. It’s a newer restaurant so there is always a lot to address. Then, when I am not about to travel, I work the expo station and talk to guests, and guide the chefs to make their lives in cooking smarter and more efficient and better.
On the road I generally try to find a good coffee shop and get things done early before whatever media or cooking event I have to be at.
South Florida Food and Wine: The term “celebrity chef” has taken on a life and definition of its own. When did you realize you were on this rollercoaster ride?
Hugh Acheson: I don’t think I am a celebrity chef. I am just a guy who cooks food and happens to write books and appear on tv. I do get recognized at the airport a lot though.
South Florida Food and Wine: And what is the greatest opportunity that has come from it for you?
Hugh Acheson: I think the greatest opportunity is to have an audience who is open to me telling them how they can be better eaters for themselves and their families. That’s how we better community, one family at a time.
South Florida Food and Wine: What is the most challenging thing about being a chef entrepreneur?
Hugh Acheson: It’s challenging but easier by the fact that I love what I do. You just have to be aware and excited about all that’s going on. And trust people… you can’t do this all alone. You are only as strong as your team.
South Florida Food and Wine: Who is the one person you would love to cook with and why?
Hugh Acheson: Edna Lewis. She was so awesome. Her style of cooking Southern food was so smart and pure and seasonal.
South Florida Food and Wine: It’s your last day on earth, what would your final meal be?
Hugh Acheson: A big caesar salad, a perfect steak with salsa verde and a pile of vegetables.
South Florida Food and Wine: Where was the last place you ate at, other than your own restaurant?
Hugh Acheson: Other than home? Hearth, Marco Canora’s restaurant in the East Village in NYC. Amazing meal that clearly reminded me of the difference between modern chefs who work with gadgets and now techniques and old skool chefs who revel in the hostory of food done right, with few tricks and whirligigs. The latter is Marco. And an AMAZING wine program.
South Florida Food and Wine: Who is the one person you would love to cook for and why?
Hugh Acheson: My Dad. I just like cooking for him.
South Florida Food and Wine: This is not an easy business, what motivates you to be bigger, better, stronger?
Hugh Acheson: I like providing jobs in the communities I am in. That’s enough for me. And I have a lot of ideas that are fun to conceptualize into reality.
South Florida Food and Wine: It’s your day off, what do you do for fun?
Hugh Acheson: Hang out with my kids and my wife!
South Florida Food and Wine: What is the one piece of advice you would offer chef entrepreneurs starting out today?
Hugh Acheson: It’s a long road and you have to try hard every day. If you’re over it and become apathetic you will go out of business really fast.
Love the South Florida food scene? Check out our newly published book (Globe Pequot Press, $14.95), Food Lovers’ Guide to Miami & Fort Lauderdale