F&W Star Chef
Hugh Acheson cooks inspired neo-retro Southern food at his restaurants Empire State South, 5 & 10 and The National. Here, Acheson shares his top Atlanta and Athens attractions, his must-have cookbook and his grandmother-besting collard greens.
What’s the dish most requested by your fans?
Our collard greens. Collards are such a Southern staple, we tread on some recipes with a little trepidation, and that’s definitely one of them, because the age-old thing happens. People’s expectations are based on their grandmothers’ recipes, and you want to be better than their grandmother, but not that much better, because you don’t want to insult their grandmother. So it’s tricky. But I think that there are so many bad collards out there that when you treat them with care, and make them beautiful and not too cooked, so that there’s still a little resiliency in the green, and a little bite to them, they’re just so good for you, and they’re just fun. The recipe’s in my new book.
What’s your favorite cookbook of all time?
Fannie Farmer. To me, cookbooks are divided into ones that live in my office, and ones that live in my kitchen. I only have room in my kitchen for about 14 to 20 cookbooks, versus my office, which has about 2,000. The ones in the kitchen are the well-worn ones: Joy of Cooking, Fannie Farmer, books like that. If you need one cookbook in life, Fannie Farmer is the one that’ll get you through everything. Marion Cunningham, may she rest in peace, did a wonderful job with it.
What’s one cooking technique everyone should know?
Making chicken stock in a pressure cooker, since it saves so much time. It takes about an hour, versus traditional chicken stock, which takes about four hours. It also makes this crystal-clear stock that’s really good. You can roast the bones ahead of time or do it with straight-up-fresh chicken—just use large-cut onions and carrots, so that the vegetables don’t overcook and give too vegetal a base to things. You want it to be that foundational flavor, not that muddy flavor.
Top places not to miss on a trip to Atlanta and/or Athens?
- The High Museum of Art. Atlanta has never been known as a museum city, but in the heart of it is an amazing art museum, with great shows and an amazing collection. They do a great job detailing Southern art and artists like Radcliffe Bailey, whom I really like, and it’s only four blocks away from my Atlanta restaurant.
- A basketball game at the University of Georgia. UGA is getting better and better. The team is in Division 1, in the SEC (Southeastern Conference). This is such a football town, it’s important to realize that we have so many other sports here that excel. SEC basketball is always overshadowed [by] ACC basketball, teams like Georgia Tech, Duke and North Carolina. UGA doesn’t have as much of a basketball tradition, but they have a great coach and they’re fun to watch. We don’t get to many games because my daughter is scared of mascots, and their hairy dog is quite scary to Clementine. But she’s adjusting.
- Dinner at Bone’s in Atlanta. Bone’s is an old-school steakhouse in Buckhead, with a great wine list. Bone’s is never going to be the best restaurant in the world, but it’s a darn good steakhouse, and it’s always on the top 10 lists of steakhouses nationwide. To me it’s a place that we dress up for, and go and have an amazing dry-aged porterhouse with creamed spinach and roasted potatoes. And the service is great, so old school.
- A shopping splurge at Star Provisions. It’s got the best cheese selection in the South. Tim Gaddis does a really good job with cheese. The owner, Anne Quatrano, is the visionary behind it, and Anne can retail better than anyone I’ve seen. It’s premium-priced, but it’s worth every penny.
- A trip to Indie South Fair in Athens. Athens is such an interesting eclectic and artistic town. We don’t have Brooklyn Flea, but we have this. The selection changes every year, so you happen upon stuff like local pottery, an amazing array.
Why Because his idiosyncratic vision succeeds in merging soul food with Old World cuisine.
Born Ottawa, Canada, 1971.
Education He is a self-taught chef.
Experience Henri Burger, Montreal; Gary Danko, San Francisco.
How he describes his food Contemporary American with influences from France and Italy. "It's definitely not fusion."
First dish cooked Paprika toast. "I think I was 4. Don't even ask."
Why he became a chef He studied political philosophy in college. "If that won't make someone want to pursue something else, nothing will."
Where he would eat on a $1,000 budget Gordon Ramsay in London. "He's a nutcase but an absolutely amazing cook."
Where he would eat on a $10 budget La Taqueria, in San Francisco's Mission District.
What keeps him up at night "Things like, Are the fridges still working? Are the veal bones burning? God, everything keeps me up at night."
Favorite kitchen tool "Other than the stove? The Vita-Mix blender. And a good Japanese knife—a Masahiro."
About his recipe His Frogmore stew, named after an old South Carolina town, is a Southern version of bouillabaisse. "It's simple yet refined. We're not into foam yet."
Won Best New Chef at: Five & Ten, Athens, GA
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.