Whitney Otawka talks Athens’ Cinco y Diez

Former Farm 255 executive chef will partner with Hugh Acheson, shifting focus to Mexican
Whitney Otawka

Photo courtesy of Twitter

Whitney Otawka, former executive chef of the now shuttered Farm 255 in Athens, will helm the kitchen at Hugh Acheson’s Mexican restaurant, Cinco y Diez, opening this winter. Cinco y Diez takes over the space previously home to Acheson’s Five & Ten, which recently moved from Lumpkin Street to Milledge Avenue.

Cinco y Diez will serve dinner and possibly Sunday brunch, starting sometime between mid-November and early January. Below, Otawka shares her plans for the restaurant.

So what happened with Farm 255?
When I got into it about a year and eight months ago, I knew some of the partners had moved. We had four at the time, one or two were in Athens, and the rest had moved on. [Partner and Farm Burger founder] Jason Mann moved to San Diego about six months ago, and I thought about purchasing Farm 255 but decided against it because I wanted to start something fresh. The others had already invested their souls. No one was left to manage, so it seemed like a good idea to sell. It came along quicker than I expected. I was a little sad, but it was for the best.

How did you connect (or re-connect) with Hugh Acheson?
Hugh and I have a long history. I worked at Five & Ten for three years. Then I left to go work at Greyfield Inn. It takes a little time to develop your own sense of style and food. I came back [to Athens] for Farm 255 because I knew one of the partners. Hugh and I had talked earlier this year, and he reached out to me about when the Farm 255 sale was becoming public. He asked if I was interested in the spot Five & Ten was vacating. I had considered moving to Atlanta but partnering with Hugh is a no-brainer. He has so much to teach me about running a business.

How will the division of labor between you and Hugh work for Cinco y Diez?
We haven’t gotten into the nuts and bolts of things yet. Ultimately, I’ll be the one in charge of the menu and the day to day. He’s cultivating amazing chefs. He has the business mind with the restaurant experience, but the creative side of the menu will fall to me.

What do you envision for the menu?
I grew up in Southern California around amazing Mexican cooking. I totally wanted to do Mexican and bring in what I’ve grown up around to the place where I’ve grown to love cooking. [Cinco y Diez] will focus on Mexican with Latin influences, such as Cuba, and our own regional influences for the produce. There’s a whole world out there. Look at regional cooking in Mexico—some regions have French influences! For example, mushroom foraging is a huge thing in Oaxaca. You don’t always think of things like that. I want to change the perception of what Mexican [cooking] is.

I want to focus on spices and peppers. We’ll have a lot of shared plates and some entrees. I want it to be more playful than just an appetizer, an entree, and a dessert. We’re looking at restaurant menus like that of ABC Kitchen in New York.

I’m planning on going to Mexico for as long as I can in September. I’m also going to spend more time in California, going to great restaurants in San Francisco.

What specific items do plan to serve?
I operate seasonally and we’ll be opening in the winter, so we’ll have braised meats and tortilla soup. And fish—I love fish! Avocados will be all over the menu. I’m an avocado hound. There will be some play with the tacos but there will be more than that—more focus on the proteins, not just the quesadilla or enchilada. I also want to highlight an amazing selection of really beautiful local vegetables and build a plate around it.

And at the bar?
We’ll have a strong beverage program with great mezcal, tequilas, beer, paired wine, and cocktails made with fresh juice. Obviously we’ll have bourbons as well since we’re in the South.

What will the atmosphere be like?
There’s no plan for aesthetics yet, but I know it will be beautiful. I want it to be accessible—a place where everyone wants to come eat, not just a special occasion place.