Q&A with Hugh Acheson

Athens’s star chef comes to Atlanta
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.

Why did you choose Southern fare for your specialty?
In this country, it’s the only regional cuisine with a true, distinct, and enduring identity. There’s history there, and memory—strife, pain, massive divisions of race, as well as beauty, wholesomeness, and nourishment. The history is not always pretty, but it’s there and needs to be acknowledged, and it all shows up in the food, which ultimately can be a unifying principle that brings people together. It soothes; it comforts. It has a restful quality, the sense of a Sunday supper, a ritual reward for a week of hard work.

The kitchens where I worked in Canada relied on the European model of going to market and to local fishmongers and small vendors for seasonal ingredients, and the South, with its agriculture all around us, lends itself to that approach. The South and Europe have much more in common than most people realize. These wonderful ingredients are growing all around us—I mean, these came from two miles down the road [brandishes some mushrooms]—and we need to show them off. It’s a cuisine that is resistant to trends and fads, showing reverence for the things your grandmother made. That first bite of succotash or cornbread dipped in potlikker can flood you with happy memories; that’s the point. I never thought of farm-to-table as a “movement” or a marketing tactic. It’s simply the way things used to be done and ought to be done, and it’s finally coming back around. Staying local empowers the entire community, makes the landscape more vibrant, begets organics that make all of our efforts more sustainable. So when I moved here, that was what I did reflexively, and Southern food was the natural end result. I was simply doing what I’ve always done, and now the culture has shifted in my direction. Of course, it helps that I’m married to a very Southern girl whose father is a professor of Southern literature.

Does this cuisine, which evolved to fuel long days of manual labor with cheap ingredients and without chefy fussiness, really work in an upscale format?
Does the process ever seem counterintuitive in a “country come to town” sense when you’re in the middle of deep-frying and delicate drizzling? What is “upscale”? I’ve never really understood what that means. It puts a classist viewpoint on what hopefully will be an inclusive community. Yes, people can eat Georgia caviar, but they also could order a pimento cheese sandwich or have some oysters and beer at the bar. A pan-roasted porterhouse smothered in gravy—is that upscale? No. I’m always fighting against the label of “high-end,” which evokes a persnickety place with $300,000 bathrooms. I’m not averse to high-end destination dining, but it’s waning; we’re increasingly getting back to mom-and-pop joints. I mean, I run restaurants in Athens, Georgia. If I touted myself as upscale and high-end, I wouldn’t last two weeks here. People would rightfully laugh me out of town. Besides, Southern cooking is a mosaic of different foods, open to innovative interpretations and reinvention. With all of its nostalgia, it is highly personal in its nature. Everyone has visions of how the perfect biscuit should be, and contentious moments arise from that. Like all of the arguments surrounding barbecue. It’s not that one approach is better than another; it’s more a matter of “great,” “different,” “other.” With a judicious palate, you can take anything to another level.

How will Empire State South be different from similarly themed restaurants in town?
My cooking is not as time-rich as Southern cooking traditionally is. I prefer more al dente textures in the vegetables; I like some crispness to my green beans and asparagus. I essentially re-create Southern food with a French nuance. For example, Five & Ten is known for its Frogmore stew, which is a Lowcountry boil that I turned into a bouillabaisse. At Empire State South, we also will offer tiffins, which come from this old idea of a classic Indian lunch box of layered, metal compartments—do not call it a “lunch pail”—which we will deliver to Downtown office workers. So many people I know in that area are lawyers who are very busy, and this is a way to provide them and their staff with a wholesome, satisfying, forward-thinking meal with sides such as cucumber gazpacho and a simple dessert for, say, twelve bucks or so. It’ll be good for them and help our cash flow.

The place itself will have a Southern look, drawing from the era of its name, without the feel of Cracker Barrel. It will be bespoke, although, God, I hate that word. Servers will be simply dressed—I’m not big on “The Uniform.” I usually wear khakis. Also, because my food tends to be very vinegar-heavy, I’m going to push pairings of deep red Burgundies, maybe some Piedmont reds, which will be a hard sell in Atlanta, but I think I’m up to the challenge. I believe in a wine list without condescension or intimidation. It shouldn’t have pomp. It shouldn’t read like a Shakespeare text. We’ll offer a large selection of American whiskeys, too, and juleps. I intend to avoid the ridiculously high markup on wines and cocktails that is so common across Atlanta.

Bless your heart for that. Anything special about your iced tea?
It comes from the only tea plantation left in the United States, a division of Bigelow in South Carolina.

So you believe Atlanta as food city is a bit of a gawky late bloomer that is in the process of “filling out.” How does it stack up against its rivals? Is it a “food city” or a city that offers some good food? It’s hard to lump Atlanta in with other “food cities” like Charleston and New Orleans. There has always been this rich vein of talent, character, and culture locked away from outside view in African American kitchens, and those traditions are finally enjoying more respect and reverence, thanks in part to the growing body of literature by food writers such as John T. Edge and Clyde Edgerton. And of course there’s the amazing wealth of ethnic restaurants on Buford Highway, which rivals what is found in bigger cities, but it still falls under the radar despite the fact that so many blogs have popped up devoted to them. So the city hasn’t developed one cohesive identity that can be quickly and easily summed up. It still needs more small, independent places on the corners. Also, Atlanta has always had trouble hanging on to its amazing chefs—Guenter Seeger and Joël Antunes and others. In some cases, it was a matter of not figuring out their audience. C’mon, this is the South! They gotta love you and love eating with you to come back. People want to be hugged by a restaurant.

So, ideally, a chef here should be cuddly?
Well, accessible and congenial, not hiding out in the kitchen and occasionally peeking out at the dining room. This is a social business. If you don’t like to talk to people, don’t become a chef.

How far do your seasonings extend beyond fatback?
Not limited to fatback whatsoever. I love big chili flakes; I enjoy adding heat. And sumac, which brings an astringency, a sourness to balance out sweet flavors. I also enjoy cumin and all of the old, Lowcountry influences that come to us from the Gullah culture. Lately, I’ve had fun playing around with all of the different salts, especially the big, flaky sea salts. Southern food is simplified to its betterment, but we still have a wider range of herbs and seasonings to draw from than some people might assume.

Do you worship the lard?
No lard, but lots of good, high-quality bacon fat and Benton’s ham from Georgia. We say the bacon fat is good for you, but we lie. [chuckles] What I am doing, though, is limiting the amount of protein on a plate, serving smart, thought-out portions in balance with vegetables. Face it, the days of twelve-ounce slabs of steak are behind us. It all goes back to the old line about all things in moderation. We try to prepare our dishes in a way that is not so heavy, so that people can feel genuinely comfortable eating this kind of food several times a week.

Without ending up in a cardiologist’s office?

And diners can burn off calories at Empire State South’s . . . bocce ball court? Yes, there was this expanse of yard there, and I thought that would be a way to foster community and relaxation for people coming off a long day at the office. Something different. It all goes back to community.

Increasingly, chefs have attained a sort of rock-star status. How do you feel about the rise of the “celebrity chef”? Does sensational fame detract from the artistic purity of the mission? I think if it helps people to eat better, to make more informed choices, then it’s a good thing. I welcome the phenomenon. And it makes sense, because cooking is a creative, ever-changing, interesting occupation that people can follow endlessly.

Would you tell us about the tattoos on your arms?
This one is a radish, which is the first vegetable I ever grew. And the other is a dead fish tossed up in the waves. I honestly have no idea what it means. I think I was fifteen or sixteen when I got it, so don’t read too much into it. Tattoos were not prevalent in the cooking world when I first started.

Does your down-home cooking style also function as your home cooking?
Yes, but we eat anything and everything, from sushi to hot dogs. We also grill steaks outside a lot during the summer. In my downtime, I like to read cookbooks. I don’t watch TV anymore. I just read, drink wine, and write during the rare times when I’m not in front of a stove.

How do you develop your menus and balance the old “art versus commerce” conundrum? Are they guided more by your personal passions or by market research? Ha, there is no marketing research! I am in the very lucky position of being an arbiter of tastes. I’m the curator. What matters is whether I like it or not—if I like it, then I assume others will. I’ve staked my reputation on my palate. If I put something on the menu and it doesn’t sell, well, I’ll still leave it on there because I am one stubborn son of a bitch. When someone asks me to predict what will be hip and hot next season, it drives me insane. I leave the marketing research to the big corporations. I don’t care what’s hip. I just do the cooking with what I have at hand, and it works. We don’t make a huge amount of money, but we make enough at this point that I can fix whatever I like. I introduced sweetbreads to the menu many years ago and told people that they would be absolutely the best chicken [nuggets] they’d ever eaten. I probably still have some customers who think that’s what they are.

Do you fear you will encounter that “pearls before swine” syndrome in Atlanta? It’s more like I’m casting swine before pearls. Atlanta diners have been faddy and drawn to flash and hype in the past, but I think they are ready for something different, for a casual, community restaurant where they can feel comfortable enough to, I hope, linger for hours. Comfort is very important. I don’t like pomp. I do like smooth tables that invite you to lean into them, food that you want to savor with friends and discuss. I like to employ friendly servers who are genuinely excited to be bringing this food to the table, not just feigning their enthusiasm. I think diners will recognize that we do not take any shortcuts or skimp on quality, that above all else, we try. We try hard.