Educating and Innovating: A Conversation With Hugh Acheson

James Beard award winner. Top Chef judge. Successful restauranteur. Despite his countless accolades and decades of experience in the food industry, Chef Hugh Acheson has a down to earth honesty and sense of humility that is immediately apparent. Supremely knowledgable on all things food, Chef Hugh is the author of multiple cookbooks and has a vast vocabulary that nearly matches his voracious appetite for inspired, high quality eats. We sat down with him to talk about what drives him to innovate, his approach to working with produce, and the importance of educating the next generation.

Q

What inspired you to become a chef?

A

It was a number of things, but it was the first thing that I was noticeably great at. I wasn’t great at school growing up, even though I come from a very academic family. School just wasn’t my thing, so I started working when I was really young and got into the science and study of food. The language of food was really important to me.

Q

You’re Canadian-born and have a background in Italian and French cuisine, but are known for your Southern cooking. What drives you to expand your culinary range?

A

I think in this day and age, food is what you make it wherever you are and I just happen to live in the American South. Contrasting and overlaying French and Italian technique onto the Southern larder is a really interesting thing to me. The history of Southern food has a lot of depth and dynamics to it; it’s almost an endless topic, which is great for my desire to always want to learn more.

Q

Can you tell us a little bit about your approach to working with fresh produce suppliers? How do you go about acquiring produce?

A

We broker through a smaller produce distributor based out of Atlanta called The Turnip Truck. We focus a lot on acquisition directly from small farms in our region. A lot of the basic and plate-centric stuff comes from larger distributors, but that’s generally more for onions and carrots and things like that. We’re in the South though, so if i need to buy stuff that’s not readily available depending on the season, I’ll broker from a larger distributor

Q

Your book The Broad Fork takes a deep dive into seasonal goodness and local produce. What inspired you to write a book that educates readers on how to cook with farmer’s market produce?

A

At that point in time, we were subscribed to a CSA box. Every week, an array of stuff would come from a local farm called Woodland Gardens. I was the chef around town, so a lot of people would constantly ask me what to do with a lot of the products. The subscription was about 250 strong, so it was a fairly substantial amount of people. They would ask questions like “what do you do with kohlrabi or Jerusalem artichokes?” or “at what point do you put up the white flag on lettuce or cabbages?” So I wanted to expand people’s ability on how they look at food; helping them to not hinge themselves to a recipe but to come up with an abundance of techniques around vegetables. The vegetable and produce world is constantly expanding, but somebody has got to steer the discussion on what to do with products that were once thrown out or composted. Someone needs to spearhead the campaign and say “these are the things you can do with it; this is the logic behind it.”

Q

What fruits and vegetables are you currently working with and why are you excited about using them?

A

It’s still winter, so {we’re using} a lot of citrus. Meyer lemons are bright and abundant on our menus right now. We love kumquats too even though the season just ended. We also use a lot of brassicas; cabbage is an amazing vegetable. There are a number of vegetables in the past ten years or so that are having a comeback because America has finally learned how to cook vegetables. Cabbage used to be that mushy vegetable that nobody liked, but now we can develop crispiness and texture that change how Americans perceive it. Brussels sprouts have changed abundantly; we’re still using a lot this time of year. Broccoli and cauliflower are great right now, but that will change when spring comes in. Then we’ll be into fava beans, asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes and the first blueberries and green strawberries.

Q

How do you go about keeping up with food trends? Do you like to go along with them?

A

I don’t think that we follow trends necessarily. I’m always going to be impressed by things I read, see, or eat that are impressive and different. I hope to always be ahead of the curve. For example, the trend of quinoa. We were cooking quinoa way back when because it’s rich in protein, really interesting, and easy to cook with. Trends in food change pretty quickly and I think the trends that people talk about in food are different in my perspective than those from mass market America. We’re immersed in it {food} all the time, so we’re not suddenly looking at green zebra tomatoes as being a new product because we’ve been using them for 15 years.

Q

So you’re making new trends and experimenting with new products then?

A

Yeah, experimenting with new products, reading about the history of food. So many “new” products were used in totally different ways years and years ago, but a lot food trends are pushed by the economics of food and running restaurants. When protein becomes outlandishly expensive and it’s beyond our capacity to serve a 14oz for under $35, which isn’t possible anymore, we had to learn to make a $14 carrot salad that we could sell to the world. That needs great carrots, but it also needs a lot of technical acumen to make it great.

Q

Your restaurants are all over the board because you do counter-service, casual, and fine dining. Can you talk a little bit about the challenges and parallels that chefs face in those environments?

A

I think that in the cooking culture you need to be inspiring and encouraging people while creating a great work environment. I don’t think that changes from high to low end restaurants or fast casual to fine dining. The impetus to do great and the desire to push the envelope are the main factors. Fast casual restaurants are built on equations of food that can make money to the bottom line. Fine-dining is a really similar idea. The biggest push for chefs in fast casual is to realize that fine-dining chefs are envious of fast casual restaurants these days. That’s why they’re trying to come up with the next sweet green or something like that.

Q

Can you give us a brief explanation on your Seed Life Skills program and why it started?

A

It started about four years ago. It’s an organization that I started through a foundation that seeks to better home economics curriculum in middle schools. We’re contemporizing and rewriting home economics curriculum for grades 6-8. There’s a full curriculum online, so people can download it anywhere and it’s been downloaded thousands of times around the world. Four middle schools in our county use it. It atomizes life skills down to building blocks. If I can teach a kid 12 points of culinary technique that they can then arrange in different ways throughout their life, I’m teaching them a life skill. Teaching them recipes is different; they’re predetermined and don’t make you think about how to adapt a skill set to be used in a slightly different way or how to combine two skills and techniques to come up with something different. When we’re talking about cooking skills, I mean “how do you roast a chicken?” or “how do you make a soup or salad?” Those are all technique based things. There’s also info about recycling, sustainability and the idea of growing and planting. This all boils down to the notion that I want to give kids retainable knowledge that can help get them over later hurdles in life. I want them to be able to say three magic words; “I got this.”

Q

A lot of adults don’t even have that knowledge. Do you think learning those skills can help them too?

A

So many people ask “can you make a course like that for adults?” Let’s say I teach someone how to poach an egg. Do you know how life changing it is to be able to properly cook a great piece of protein that costs 30 cents? It’s pulling the veil off of food. The food world has put this artificial fancy chef hat on everything, saying “food is complicated, let us do it.” The truth is, the most economical way of cooking is to do it from scratch. No matter how much a happy meal costs, I can make something better for you in half the time for half the price. People need to learn that convenience has taken a toll and that doing things from scratch isn’t that difficult.

Q

What do you have coming up next?

A

A lot actually! I have one podcast on the go right now, I’m doing some consulting, and I’m writing a book on sous vide cooking and another one that teaches kids how to cook! So lots of irons in the fire.