The culinary equivalent of Michael Stipe stepped out of a silver Volkswagen with a tennis racket in one hand and his keys in the other.
“Sorry I’m late,” Acheson said, unlocking the door to his house.
He entered his spacious Boulevard residence and made a beeline from the front door, through the purposefully decorated living area and was sitting at the island in the middle of his kitchen in just seconds. The energy from his tennis practice was still bubbling inside him.
Acheson’s angular face and silver-blue eyes were set under a proudly unmaintained singular brow and occasionally his mouth turned upward into thin smirk during conversation.
In general celebrity chefs’ kitchens are pictured as a headquarters for gustatory inspiration – full of expensive copper pans strung along the walls and stainless steal appliances humming with potential. This kitchen was a tasteful mélange of high performance equipment and family photos. The truth is that Acheson is first and foremost dedicated to his family, particularly his two daughters Beatrice, 9, and Clementine, 7. A pink hairbrush next to the sink, Beatrice’s height penciled on a door frame and the two fuchsia and purple bicycles left in the front walkway make clear this house is not just where a celebrity chef sleeps, but instead where a close knit family lives.
Finding his way to Athens
Acheson explained in a metallic, Canadian accent how he started his career as a dishwasher at Bank Street Café in Ottawa, Canada watching cooks slug around food such as fried zucchini and burgers.
From washing dishes, Acheson found himself working in higher class Italian establishments in Montreal, soaking up as much of the cooking savoir-faire as possible. After experimenting with college, Acheson moved back to Ottawa in 1994 with Mary Koon, now his wife, to work in other haute cuisine establishments. The two met when Acheson was living with his mother and stepfather for two years in Clemson, S.C., while he was in middle school. In college they reconnected and were married two years later in Charleston, S.C. Six months later and the couple moved to Athens, Koon’s birthplace, where she intended to complete her Master’s degree in art history at the University of Georgia.
With high-end French and Italian cuisine experience on his Rolodex of culinary skill sets, Acheson became the head chef and manager of the local Last Resort Grill. But the experience there was too far from what Acheson wanted.
“It was a different style of restaurant than what I was used to. It was fantastically busy … It’s just not really my style of food … They have very good ownership and they make a lot of money but sometimes that’s the complete antithesis of what I want to do in life,” Acheson said.
When Koon completed her studies, the couple took up residence in San Francisco for just less than two years. Acheson worked in several top-tier restaurants while there and further established his name as a professional chef after helping to open Gary Danko under the renowned chef of the same name. Then he answered a call from Melissa Clegg, owner of Last Resort.
Acheson had been fidgeting with his keys flicking them back and forth on the countertop, occasionally leaving them alone to play with a piece of yarn. Acheson’s newly adopted Italian Greyhound, Claire, had come to investigate. Always on the move, Acheson used this as an opportunity to get up and see if she needed to be fed.
Return to the Classic City
Clegg wanted Acheson to come back to Athens and help her open what would become 5&10 in Five Points. Acheson, growing tired of the big city, jumped at the opportunity to have a small establishment that he could run exactly the way he wanted. Acheson brought an old friend onto the project, Chuck Ramsey. The pair worked tirelessly for the first year to bring together a consistent staff of highly trained waiters and cooks.
Acheson has now left the day-to-day operation of 5&10 to Ramsey, who is now a partner in the restaurant. Their goals for the restaurant are so homogeneous that to have one of the men in the kitchen is enough to direct the operation the way they wanted it to go.
Ramsey remembers the arduous start up process well. The chief complaint from customers at the beginning was never the food. Acheson made sure the food that went out was new and exciting every time. It was the heat. The Georgia summer and lack of adequate air conditioning led one customer to complain that it was “hot as Malaysia” inside.
The desire to please the customer pervaded everything from the indoor temperature to the carefully chosen nightly specials. People noticed.
“So we started getting notoriety as being this sort of little restaurant with this guy who was trying hard in the South and we were all trying hard in the restaurant and we just started getting accolades,” Acheson said.
Indeed, Acheson’s little restaurant in the South became a magnet for favorable reviews. In what Acheson said was a ballsy move at the time, he emailed chief dining critic John Kessler at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to request a review. The result was a raving three out of four stars and eventually winning the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Restaurant of the Year award in 2007.
“We started having this weird phenomenon of people traveling over from Atlanta to have dinner in Athens, which was new for Athens. I mean, Athens had never really had a great restaurant. We did good food – we did some great food – at Last Resort,” Acheson said. Acheson said that he did owe a lot to the Last Resort and it was apparent his comments were meant less as slights and more as differentiating characteristics between establishments.
“Over time what I’ve done is be a relatively smart practitioner of community restaurants from the stand point of running restaurants that care about food and wine and with not too much pomp and circumstance. The fanciness is what you make of it.” Acheson explained. He comes from a background of fine dining, and the caliber of restaurant he was trained in just would not fit into the community of Athens.
“The popularity of that style of dining, outside Chicago and New York, is a waning concept in North America – so we do things like the National,” Acheson said.
The National combines the exotic and the familiar in a way that the experienced palate cannot foresee and the unseasoned tongue can savor. Pairings of mussels and pineapple or dates and cheese are not strangers to the menu. The cultural cornucopia of Athens could be described in a similar fashion, which is perhaps why Acheson’s theory is not so far off the mark.
“There’s an Athens reality, and as many things as I want to bring to Athens some are just not going to be economically viable,” Acheson said. The best example of this, perhaps, Acheson said is Gosford Wine, the wine shop he recently closed down due to lack of patronage.
“But I think that Athens is maturing in food, and has been for a long time, not just due to us but also due to better and better food products, better grocers and the farmers market and people like Farm 255 and the great ethnic backbone of…” He paused as if to admit something revelatory, “I think Athens has better Mexican food than anywhere I’ve been in the Southeast. I mean awesome,” Acheson said.
Later in the interview Acheson revealed that he had tentative plans to start a Mexican barbecue place.
The hard work pays off
These formulas Acheson had come up with were and are working. The prestige his establishments carry now is the evidence of that. Acheson himself is not immune to the critics’ goodwill. Food & Wine named him its Best New Chef in 2002 and he has been nominated for a James Beard Award every year since 2007.
Also that year, The National, opened in downtown Athens and a third restaurant, Empire State South, graced Atlanta’s cooking landscape in 2010. Now, Acheson is making television appearances regularly on Bravo’s wildly popular show “Top Chef.” He started as a contestant playing for charity on “Top Chef: Masters” and was invited back to be a guest judge on “Top Chef: Just Desserts.”
“It’s been exciting a lot of the time, but also stressful. Hugh has worked long hours since we were together in Ottawa, so it’s been nice to see him gain recognition. He’s working harder than ever now, but it’s different. There’s a little more flexibility, somehow,” his wife said.
The move to television is a natural one. Anyone could see that after talking to Acheson. He speaks in a direct fashion with concision and the honesty necessary for the “character” he plays on “Top Chef”.
“It was fun to compete [on “Top Chef: Masters”] I think I was treating it with a lot less severity than most people were. I was just meant to be the jackass,” he said with a glint in his eye. “I’m good at that.”
Acheson was milling around his kitchen, not having been able to sit back down again.
His assistant appeared from the back of the house and handed him a jar of caviar he needed to approve for the restaurant. After a glance at the price tag and a few spoonfuls doled out on Triscuits with a smear of cream cheese he deemed the batch over priced for the quality and turned his attention back to me.
In trying to glean some extra information about the new season of “Top Chef” that premiered earlier this month, his assistant piped up with the reminder that Bravo keeps details about its show under legal lock and contractual key to prevent spoilers.
Despite that, Acheson did not mind sharing that he really enjoys working with his fellow judges Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons, Padma Lakshmi and the rest of the crew on the show.
He prefers being a judge on the original “Top Chef” because the sweet deserts on “Top Chef: Just Deserts” were harsh on his savory-friendly taste buds.
Texas, he said, will prove to be a great spot for the show because the food in the cities that hosted the show (San Antonio, Austin and Dallas) is superb. From the affordable to high end, he saw and tasted great food on every point of the spectrum while he was there, which is something he appreciates in a city’s food offerings. It seems that “everything is bigger in Texas” will have an effect on what sort of food themes will air during the course of the season.
A tattoo, a way of life
An enormous radish is tattooed on his left forearm, just under the tattoo of his wife’s name on his bicep. It is a reminder of the first vegetable he successfully planted as well as the radish sandwiches of his childhood, which launched him into a discussion on sustainability and community in Athens. Talking about it made his eyes narrow and flicker with the intense beliefs he holds on the subject. Acheson first and foremost recommended signing up to receive CSA boxes.
Crates arrive regularly at your door stocked with local, seasonal produce for a monthly fee. The program supports local farmers and promotes a sustainable food source. He also recommended starting a small garden if for nothing else but to save on the price gouging he said goes on in the fresh herb business.
Hugh in writing
Acheson’s recent book “A New Turn in the South” reflects his dedication to community. As his assistant enthusiastically thumped the tome, previously unseen by the press, down on the counter. She boasted that every part of production, excluding the publishing done in New York City, was done by local professionals including the photography by Rinne Allen. Bread ‘n’ butter pickles and saffron braised celery flipped by as the pages were turned.
Accompanying the “food-tography” in the book are Acheson’s scrawling handwritten notes about the recipes. The fusion between haute cuisine and southern comfort are as illustrated there as they are on his restaurants’ menus. Regional ingredients are king. The book is one step toward not only a cultural food fusion, but also a cultural maturation. It is a statement that Southern fare is not just for picnics and tailgating.
The recipes in the book are all Acheson originals. The inspiration for a new dish comes primarily from what is in season he explained. When that fails though, he uses the example of chicken thighs; Acheson will turn to his plethora of old cookbooks he keeps in his office. His assistant shows me an example that was published in 1943 and has seen noticeable use since then.
The books contain ideas and a way of doing things that are often forgotten about in today’s cooking world.
The title of Acheson’s book is an ode to previous literature. “A Turn in the South” by Nobel Prize winning author V.S. Naipaul explores the cultivation of the American south in the late twentieth century.
He might have been born in Canada, but he is now without question a Georgia boy. His commitment to the community is what keeps him local even when many other chefs who have gotten a taste of celebrity moved to the nation’s culinary capitals as fast as they could pack their knives and aprons.
Acheson at home
Acheson stays in a small town such as Athens because of the community. He can buy local produce from area farmers and enjoys walking his daughters to school every morning. Beatrice and Clementine bring a packed lunch that must sparkle next to the standard school cafeteria food even if on most days Beatrice prefers a simple ham and unsalted butter sandwich.
“Compared to the average American diet, my kids are stellar eaters… They revel in vegetables, but they still like their plain pasta with butter – the staple of American kids’ diets,” Acheson said.
His values erect a fence that refuses to let the celebrity of being on television affect what he holds dearest – his family and his community. Acheson juggles both public and private aspects of his life with the timing and precision it takes to execute a five-course meal.
He may travel far and frequently for his career, but those movements will never be more than vibrations around the nucleus of Athens. Here is where he calls home. To his kids he is just “Daddy” and to Athens he is just that guy who owns restaurants and has a T-shirt that proclaims his membership to the Monobrow Preservation Society. Those titles, more than any restaurant or TV show, are what make him the proudest.
“It’s not a bad life I have — I just ate caviar and now I’m about to go out and get tacos.”
As suddenly as he arrived, Acheson had to go. He was on the move again.