Hugh Acheson on the difference between “real” and “fake” Southern food

13 questions for the Empire State South chef
Photo by Emily B. Hall
Photo by Emily B. Hall

13 Questions is a weekly series where we ask chefs 13 questions to get to know them outside of the kitchen. Hugh Acheson is chef/partner at Atlanta’s Empire State South and Spiller Park, Athens’s 5 & 10 and  the National, and Savannah’s the Florence.

What’s one dish you wish you knew how to cook?
Truly authentic pad thai. We’ve made variations, but I think that sometimes true cultural immersion takes travel and time and lots of reading.

What do you do in your spare time?
I do a lot of consulting, a lot of food policy work, speeches, guest chef dinners in faraway places. I went to 22 cities in the last month. Otherwise, I’m reading or doodling, but it’s mostly work.

What was the last tattoo you got?
A suitcase with paper airplanes flying around it. I just travel a lot. It’s a permanent reminder to remember to get my bag. I went through a period of being a little too stressed and too busy and kept leaving my bag in the weirdest places, on the plane, at security.

Outside of your own restaurants, what are your favorite places in Athens?
I really like Branded Butcher. They do a fish fry on Sunday nights that’s a lot of fun. [Chef/owner] Matt [Palmerlee] does a really good job with charcuterie and concentrating on seasonal modern food. And Tlaloc is a Salvadoran restaurant with awesome pupusas.

Do your daughters help out at all in the kitchen?
They’re very engaged in food and avid cooks. Beatrice is very skilled at making a classic French omelet.

What’s your snack food guilty pleasure?
Dill pickle potato chips

What cookbooks have been most influential to you? (Acheson has authored three cookbooks.)
The River Cafe Cookbook was always very influential because it just revered simplicity in such a great way. Judy Rodgers Zuni Cafe Cookbook out of San Francisco was great. The original Chez Panisse Cooking, the second one written by Paul Bertolli, was such a seminal book. Now I am really excited by the all the Yotam Ottolenghi cookbooks and Michael Solomanov.

What was the last TV show you bingewatched?
Mr. Robot. It’s just a good escape and really well done.

What’s the weirdest thing about being on Top Chef?
Realizing very quickly that there’s hundreds of hours of tape that get edited into 42 minutes of TV, so it’s always going to be edited to a sort of story you’re not really seeing. It’s just important to be irreverent and have fun with it.

Is there one Southern classic dish you can’t stand?
Anything with Jell-O. There’s the fake Southern food and the real Southern food. The fake Southern food is bullshit Jim Crow convenience food, Jell-O and canned food. Real Southern food predates convenience food. It’s from scratch, low in fat, and low in meat because it was an agrarian economy.

If you were a kitchen utensil, what would you be?
A spoon. It’s multipurpose. It’s our spatula and our baster. It’s always in our hand, and it’s comforting.

What would be your dream foodie trip?
San Sebastian, Spain. It’s a great pedestrian city that’s really known as kind of the epicenter of the Spanish gastronomy movement, but it still has a reverence of traditional food. The cadence of life in Spain is beautiful and calming and reverent of food.

Who was your role model growing up?
My dad. He’s an economist, but he showed me if you love what you do and it gets you excited every day to go to work, then life is good.

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