The name of Hugh Acheson’s new restaurant—his first in Atlanta—sounds retro and progressive at the same time, winking at the city’s history of preening boosterism: Empire State South.
“It’s a shortened version of ‘Empire State of the South,’ which was a down-from-the-top, Reconstruction-era nickname,” he says. “It speaks to what Atlanta can morph into, which is a powerhouse of arts, culture, and food. And it has a nicer ring than ‘Peach State.’”
Hugh Acheson / Zach Wolfe
Very “New South,” in other words—a gourmet, countrypolitan meat-and-three restaurant that revels in its earthy, soul-food roots, with furnishings made from reclaimed wood and a high-minded emphasis on “community.” Its opening this month on Tenth and Peachtree, likely the city’s most celebrated culinary event this year, is regarded as another sign that Atlanta’s dining scene is undergoing an overdue, corn-fed growth spurt—in the direction of its past.
“Atlanta’s food identity is just emerging from puberty into an awkward adolescence, all arms and legs,” he says, pausing over his cutting board to wave around a knife. “It has been very faddy, very desperate to look au courant, with an emphasis on the big—big spaces with lots of signage, valet parking, chefs who wouldn’t dream of venturing out of the kitchen to mingle with diners. But it seems to be scaling down a bit toward smaller, independent operators with different values. We don’t do veneer; we do hardwood.”
Acheson brings this militant disdain for showy pretensions to his work in Athens, where he operates Five & Ten, an award-winning Southern bistro with Francophile flourishes, as well as the National, which is known for its Mediterranean-inspired small plates. He was named Best New Chef by Food & Wine
in 2002 and has been a James Beard finalist the past four years. A zealous, longtime locavore, he is a featured chef in the growing academic cult of greens and gravy centered around the Southern Foodways Alliance. Acheson also is working on a cookbook, A New Turn in the South
Acheson grew up in Ottawa, Canada, where he developed his skills and flinty sensibility in mostly French kitchens. His marriage to Athens native Mary Koon brought him to this region, where he happily discovered acres of farm-fresh ingredients. At thirty-eight, he looks very much the college-town hipster, trim with short-cropped hair, unassailable self-confidence, and sinewy arms. His intense, Scottish mien is cleaved by a unibrow that he likes to joke about, and he seems always to be in motion, galvanized by an epic, democratic vision of what food can do.
“I believe we are really the first to do this here, in this way,” he says of his latest venture, which will serve fare such as fried catfish, grilled Georgia quail, Sea Island peas and rice, zipper cream pea succotash, and, of course, old-fashioned Red Mule grits with sunny pats of butter. Dilly beans and chowchow round out the condiments. “Diners can build their own plates, but we’ll be showcasing local ingredients in historically interesting and fun ways, with the goal of thought-out goodness. You will crave okra.”
At his home in Athens, he juggles spatulas, chanterelle mushrooms, and two pixieish daughters while he explains his uncompromising food ethic—“simple, pure, and disciplined”—with fatback sizzling in the background.