At a renovated, 100-year-old warehouse in Athens, Georgia, some friends are setting brightly colored, mismatched chairs around a long and beaten-up wooden table, a chef is grilling a rack of lamb and two rock stars are shelling a big bag of beans. "It's good to get famous people back to shucking," says chef Hugh Acheson, who is putting together a homecoming menu of sorts for a group that includes singer Michael Stipe and bassist Mike Mills of R.E.M. The two musicians are shelling a toddler-size sack of butter beans (a.k.a. limas) for a succotash-like gratin that Acheson will top with Parmesan cheese and buttery bread crumbs.
Acheson can treat the rock stars like sous-chefs because they are old friends; the musicians have been loyal customers since the chef's first restaurant, Five & Ten, opened in 2000. Stipe was there on opening night. "It was exciting to see him eating my food," says Acheson. "I still get a little starstruck." Tonight, the R.E.M. guys are back in Athens for dinner (they've been on the road promoting their 15th studio album, Collapse Into Now) with other members of the local creative class, including textile designer Susan Hable Smith of Hable Construction and Doug Booher, who sources vintage building materials for architects and designers from around the country.
The party reminds Acheson of why he lives in Athens, even though a college town of 100,000 or so (most of whom could fit inside the football stadium to watch their beloved University of Georgia Bulldogs) seems like a small stage for someone with a national reputation. After all, Acheson is an F&W Best New Chef 2002 and an on-the-cusp Top Chef star who will appear as a judge on Season 9. "Athens has this amazing array of very smart, successful people who could live in Paris or New Yorkbut they choose Athens," he says.
Acheson certainly seems to like it here. In addition to Five & Ten, he has a Mediterranean small-plates spot, The National, which he launched in 2007. But he did expand to Atlanta last year with the opening of Empire State South, a modern version of the traditional "meat and three" soul food restaurant. Tonight's dinner menu draws from the styles of all his restaurants, as well as his just-released cookbook, A New Turn in the South. It's also designed to please a couple of his famous guests. "I'm pretty familiar with what the R.E.M. guys want to eat," Acheson says. "Mike's more the guy who will order the roasted lamb, while Michael's going to want a bunch of small plates to try. He's close with Mario Batali and has an amazing palate from eating all over the world."
Though Acheson is very much rooted in Georgia now, he is not a native Southerner. Born and raised in Ottawa, he did most of his training at old-guard French restaurants north of the border and at Mecca and Gary Danko in San Francisco. He followed his wife to Athens and became a convert to every element of the Southern lifestyle, from the front porches to the bluegrass music. A voracious reader of old Southern cookbooks, he works deeply researched dishes into the menus of all of his restaurants. Currently on his desk: a 1952 Junior League cookbook from Jackson, Mississippi, with a recipe for chile-smoked fish with horseradish sauce that he's dying to try. "I have virtually no interest in molecular gastronomy," he says. "But I do have an interest in showing the difference between how people fried chicken 20 years ago and how they do it now."
Yet Acheson is no Southern cooking purist: At tonight's dinner, he mixes a good amount of kimchi into collard greens, which adds a funky, low-level heat. He grills fat Gulf Coast shrimp and dresses them with a smoky paprika vinaigrette. Mixed with green apples, scallions and toasted sesame seeds, the dish conjures up Louisiana shrimp boils, Barcelona tapas bars and Korean barbecue joints all at once. "It's not that I don't have reverence for the food," Acheson says. "But I have the ability not to be so influenced by Grandma's collard greens, say, or Uncle Dave's biscuits. I can do whatever I want with this stuff."
This perspectivecerebral, even a bit scholarly, but with a pinpoint sense of what Southerners want to eatis behind Acheson's best cooking. At dinner, Stipe samples recipes that have decades-old pedigrees. Instead of honey, Acheson uses sorghum syrup, a 19th-century sweetener, in the whipped butter he spreads over warm biscuits studded with bacon and scallions. He tosses a grilled vegetable salad with boiled dressing: A mainstay of church potlucks for half a century, the puckery sauce is whisked with butter instead of oil, lightly cooked on the stove and then cooled. And then there's Acheson's "New Southern" dishes, like a rack of lamb with caramelized onion jamthe earthy, salty meat delicious with the sweet-and-sour spread. And a dessert that mixes two standards of the Southern table, grits and sweet tea, into a silky pudding topped with butternut squash, apples and pecans.
"Southern cuisine has been around for more than 200 years," Acheson says. "I just want to take the past and make it more current, with beautiful ingredients and straightforward flavors." That's appealing, whether you're a rock star or just another fan.
Wine Pairings for Southern Cooking
Collards & Beans
Porky sides like slow-cooked black-eyed peas or collard greens need a wine with some grit. "A Beaujolais from Morgon has an earthiness that pairs really well," Acheson says.
With rich dishes like fried chicken, Acheson skips heavily oaked whites in favor of bright, zippy ones. "The puckery acidity of a dry German Riesling would be awesome," he says.
Acheson opts for Loire reds when faced with a platter of sliced meat. The French region is also a source for well-priced whites, "especially areas like Quincy, Touraine and Reuilly."
Acheson's pick for everything from salads to fried pork chops: "Champagne can be ethereally light or else a yeasty beastthe biggies can go with the full range of proteins."