Sometimes it takes an outsider to best articulate American culture. It helps explain why so many Brits and Aussies play such great American roles on TV, anyway. Hugh Acheson is a familiar face by now, with plenty of magazine appearances after his Food & Wine Best New Chef award and a recurring role as a judge on Top Chef. But it’s the Ottawa-born chef’s enthusiasm for Southern cuisine that has buoyed his reputation. He lives in the South with his wife and kids. His three restaurants in Georgia — Five & Ten and The National in Athens, and Empire State South in Atlanta — along with his cookbook, A New Turn in the South: Southern Flavors Reinvented for Your Kitchen, have earned him James Beard Foundation awards as a chef and as an author. We caught up with him to talk about scrambled eggs, opening restaurants, the things that piss him off, and what piques him about the land below of the Mason-Dixon line.
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Q. What’s one thing every man should know?
A. How to scramble an egg. Add a teaspoon of water and whip it lightly with a fork. Get a nonstick skillet going on low to medium heat. Melt a teaspoon of butter. Add some pepper and salt to the egg. Then cook it really slowly, breaking up the curds with a non-stick spatula. As soon as it sets up is when it’s done, because even after you put it on a plate it’s going to continue cooking. Most of America overcooks eggs, sadly. The one trick that we want to endow people with is the ability to feed themselves at a moment’s notice. Scrambling an egg is a good meal. Some people use cream but I think that’s too rich. I don’t like the taste of milk — I want to evoke the egg for what it is. I think water is pretty neutral.
Q. What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
A. Opening up restaurants is definitely a chore. It’s the daily routine for me now, but it’s still a matter of getting a lot of ducks in a row and preparing for the inevitable, which is difficult to plan for — everything goes wrong during a restaurant opening. I always hear people say, “I want to open up a restaurant”, and I ask them if they also want to drag their heads over gravel, because it’s kind of the same feeling. But when you’re successful and you’ve been open for six months it’s a pretty redeeming feeling.
Q. What are some of the biggest obstacles to opening a restaurant?
A. The pressure of signing things and the financial pressure of making sure things are in line. Every system is kind of different when you’re opening a restaurant; even though you’ve done it many times it’s all a little new. You can never plan for people’s expectations.
Q. How is it different now than when you opened your first one?
A. In the last ten years, we’ve seen an upswing in culinary quality across the board at a pretty rapid pace. We all have good visions, but it’s tough to execute them. I think that keeping up with the Joneses and making sure that the food is topical, interesting and authentic is probably the most difficult thing these days, but it makes for a rewarding challenge.
Q. Where do you get that inspiration?
A. I think you want to make sure that you’re paying credence to your ingredients. For me, it’s easier in Georgia because it’s such an agrarian place. We’re not led by the PR teams and marketing firms because we don’t employ them. To stay current, we read a lot and I travel a lot and eat out a lot. Sometimes you get ideas from eating a bad meal — you think about what you would do differently. You also go to places that are crafting new culinary dishes. I don’t think you want to get into the world of copying, but it’s a really difficult line: if I want to make a modern version of a cassoulet based on a recipe that’s been around for 300 years, is that culinary copying or is that just evoking a tradition? There is some new stuff that people have definitely done, but for the most part it’s tinkering with food that’s there.
I always hear people say, “I want to open up a restaurant”, and I ask them if they also want to drag their heads over gravel, because it’s kind of the same feeling.
Q. Name one thing you can’t live without.
A. Good coffee. In the restaurant we use Counter Culture. At home I get beans from a company out of LA called Tonx, and they do subscription-based coffee that’s great. At home I use the AeroPress a fair bit. I’ve used the Chemex. I also have a fairly basic coffee machine — the Mocha Master by Technivorm — and it’s pretty good for a standard cup of coffee.
Q. What are you reading right now?
A. It’s called The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives, by Sasha Abramsky. It’s about the state of poverty in the U.S., why it happens and how our current societal structure keeps people in it.
Q. It’s your last drink and meal on earth. What’ll it be?
A. It depends. How am I about to die?
Q. I don’t want to get too morbid.
A. Haha, I don’t know. A really good bottle of Burgundy, a great leg of lamb with fresh vegetables and a soft polenta.
Q. If you could go back and tell your 16-year-old self something, what would you say?
A. Read more, work less and always stay in shape.
Q. What’s your approach to fitness?
A. Cigarettes and coffee.
Q. What kind of knife do you use?
A. At home I use a variety. Primarily, though, I use a Misono. It’s a Japanese knife. I probably have acquired about 400 over the years. At the restaurant we use a couple of different Japanese knives. We’re really excited about a few knife companies right now — particularly a new knife broker called Chubo. They’re doing a really good job with really beautiful Japanese knives. You could spend an absurd amount of money on knives.
Q. Are there any other gadgets or tools of the trade that you lean on?
A. I think the pressure cooker is awesome. Slow cookers are really good. But you don’t need much to make great food. Everyone should be able to make great food without that many appliances. You need a 10-inch cast iron skillet, a cutting board, a pairing knife, a chef’s knife and a couple bowls.
Q. Is there one thing that really annoys you? And when was the last time you went off?
A. I’ve learned how to be a little calmer in the kitchen, which is good. I think when people ask me if they can ask a question it drives me nuts. That’s my job: to answer your questions. So that annoys the shit out of me. If I’m in the restaurant, I’m the guy who will answer your questions. You know that. So just come ask me the question.
Q. You’re originally from Canada and ended up in Georgia. Is there anything that surprises you about the South?
A. The South is changing, and I think it’s important to preserve some of the things about it that are really precious and need to be saved — the history and the culture — and there are a lot of things that need to be changed. Bigotry and a lot of that stuff that still remains. But at the same time it’s such a vividly beautiful place, and for me it strikes a chord. You come across little towns and they tear at your heartstrings when you think about what they’ve been through and how they got to where they are today. For me, I want to live in a place that has history, which often takes the form of food history. Down here in the South, you have an endless supply of food history. I never get bored of that topic.
Q. You’ve won the James Beard award, among others. How does that change your career?
A. You know, it’s funny. Some people love the idea of the Beard award. That year, I won two. But they don’t change much. I’m in a small town so they don’t bring a lot of people coming down to eat at the restaurant necessarily, but it’s an accolade within the industry that carries a lot of weight, and you always want to be in good standing among your peers. They’re nice accolades to have, but they don’t change much. Food & Wine Best New Chef, that changes things. That gets you catapulted to a different level. Media is a pretty small vacuum in food, so as soon as you’re in it, it’s hard to get out of out. They seem to circulate the same people. Until I get magically ejected and they pull someone else in, I’m still in that sphere.
Q. Any other places in the South where we’d want to eat?
A. There’s a lot of places these days. Going to Birmingham and eating at one of the Frank Stitt restaurants is really important to do. He runs such a seminal American restaurant that it’s really important to try. I love Lantern in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I think that Ashley Christensen in Raleigh is doing really good things. There’s places in Atlanta right now. The Optimist is doing a great job. There’s a really young chef there named Adam Evans who’s super talented. There’s a lot of choice out there right now. There’s good food everywhere; that’s a gift of the time we’re living in.