Photo by Rinne Allen
Chef, author, restaurateur, television personality, and James Beard Foundation Award winner Hugh Acheson stays mighty busy these days. When he’s not at Five and Ten or the National in Athens, or Empire State South in Atlanta, he may be found working on his newest restaurant, an Italian spot in Savannah opening in March 2014. He’s also relocating Five and Ten from South Lumpkin Street to South Milledge Avenue, working on two new cookbooks and judging Top Chef. Below, he divulges plans for the Savannah restaurant—including a possible name, gives us a look into the offerings at the new Five and Ten, and shares some surprising news about Empire State South executive chef Ryan Smith.
Let’s talk about your new restaurant in Savannah. How did you decide on Italian?
Savannah has had iconic restaurants throughout the years but can use some new blood, and I wanted to stay in Georgia. Kyle Jacovino (the executive chef to-be) [whose currently at Five and Ten] is Italian by heritage and recently spent time in Italy. I believe in the Italian style of cooking and in the beauty of food. I’ve been cooking French for so long that it’s nice to break away and do something different. There’s a definite kinship between beautifully sourced Southern food and the way Italians have cooked for years. There’s a reverence for simplicity on both sides.
Think about restaurants like City House in Nashville and Il Buco Alimentari in New York …
What type of menu items will you serve?
A lot of local seafood because Tybee Island and Brunswick, Ga., are right there, and we can get some awesome product. Wood-fired oven cooking. Beautiful octopus. Local shrimp. Anson Mill southern grains like farro. Double Zero flour for pizzas. It’ll be a restaurant that appeals to you for a number of reasons. We’ll have 12-inch pizzas, pastas, and vegetable courses.
What will the restaurant be called?
We’re bouncing around names right now but thinking about Vittoria. It means victory in Italian and its the street that the building is on.
What will the atmosphere be like?
It’ll be about the same price point as the National and Five and Ten. If you want a tasting menu, I’ll give it to you, but you can also just get a cappuccino. I just want you to be there.
The building was an ice factory at one point. It’s two stories; the upstairs will have a bar, a patio and biergarten. We’ll be open starting at 4 p.m. for happy hour, dinner, and late night. Our idea boards right now are showing a lot of whitewashed walls and natural light—wood-topped tables but less farm-to-table-y looking than a lot of what you see right now.
Why is Five and Ten moving?
Eventually you grow out of a space. It’s 13 years old—not exactly a spring chicken anymore. I needed something a little bit bigger to house our offices. I’m constantly writing books, plus the TV stuff, and with three, soon to be four, restaurants, there’s a need for more space to organize. A building came available that was so beautiful—a turn-of-the-century, stunning place—I just wanted to take advantage it.
What will change once you move into the new space?
We’re building a separate kitchen and connecting it via a hallway; that’ll give us a little more prep space for curing, preservation, etc. It’ll be a very similar menu with just a little more complexity. You know, just curing hams and stuff.
We’re expanding the coffee program a bit. I really like coffee. I’ve been happy with the success of the program at Empire State South. It’s gotten lots of recognition nationwide and I want to follow that theme. It’ll be Counter Culture Coffee, and we’ll have a side area for a coffee bar. There’s a chance that we will open a little earlier in the day to service that, but I just don’t know yet.
The restaurant itself will seat about 22 people more than it does now.
Who is designing it?
We’re doing all of the design ourselves. There will a lot of wood, paintings, a zinc-topped bar, and sunny espresso area. It will look like the house its in, not the current restaurant.
When will the new location open?
It should be done by June. We’ll close the current restaurant about a week before the new one opens, but no grand openings or anything.
What’s new at Empire State South and the National?
The National is pretty much the same. At Empire State South, [executive chef] Ryan Smith is going to be departing within the year, but we have plenty of other people who can step into that role. [The split] is so amicable—Ryan’s going to open a culinary foundation restaurant with Ryan Hidinger. They’re very close. Ryan
is like a brother to me and I wish him great success.
Any more cookbooks, TV or touring for you?
I have two cookbook deadlines—one was a couple of days ago—for a small pickle book. The second is cooking for your CSA box, focused on vegetables obviously, that will come out in about 1 1/2 years. Season 11 of judging Top Chef starts soon.
I’m constantly working on new and fun projects. I have a pipe dream of starting a Southern food topics quarterly magazine with canning or moonshine essays. It’ll have a relatively serious tone to it. I don’t have a lot of time to devote to it, but it’ll get there some day.
What do you foresee for 2013 food trends?
There’s a pushback toward people putting bacon in everything. Vegetables continue to creep toward the center of the plate. There will be more influences from Korean and Indian cultures in food, and a constant re-evaluation of what southern food is, making sure it is current to what the South is now.
You speak a lot about your kids. Do you cook at home for them?
I’m raising two girls, and yes, I do cook a lot at home. Last night we had roasted pork with local carrots, turnips, pickled tomato salad, Carolina Gold rice, and gravy. The kids eat well but they still jones for Chick-fil-A. They’ve constantly been shown that vegetables are part of the diet you eat, so they’ll tear through okra and Brussels and all that jazz. The trick is to start them eating those things early. But they still like chocolate bars.
What’s the best restaurant you’ve been to this year?
In relatively fine dining, Next in Chicago is pretty amazing. I’ve had awesome meals at Son of a Gun in L.A and Il Buco Alimentari in New York. There’s so much good food out right now. Husk and McCrady’s in Charleston are killing it right now.
I don’t eat in Atlanta much because when I’m there I’m usually working. The Optimist is doing great work. Tomo was phenomenal. Miso Izakaya is doing great work. I’m excited to go to KR Steakbar, which is getting a lot of attention because Kevin’s really good at what he does. I never tire of eating pizza at Antico or a burger at H&F. Atlanta’s finally finding its own in authenticity, and its very exciting time to be around there.