Interview with rising star Chef Hugh Atcheson from Empire State South

Chef Hugh AchesonHugh Acheson is the chef/partner of Five & Ten, the National and Empire State South in Athens, Georgia.  Born and raised in Ottawa, Canada he started cooking at a young age and decided to make it his career after taking a very long time to realize that academics weren’t his thing. At age 15, he began working in restaurants after school and learning as much as possible. Today, Acheson’s experience includes working under Chef Rob MacDonald at the renowned Henri Burger restaurant in Ottawa, and in San Francisco with Chef Mike Fennelly at Mecca, and later as opening sous-chef with famed Chef Gary Danko at his namesake restaurant. He’s been awarded many honors, including Food & Wine Magazine’s Best New Chef (2002), four time James Beard nominee for Best Chef Southeast (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010) and a 2007 Rising Star from

I had the honor of interviewing him.

Raymond Hook: You’re a busy guy, and only getting busier, how do you stay on top of your business?

Hugh Acheson: I hire well, trust my assistant and try to get lots of sleep.

RH: Your first restaurant, Five & Ten, is known for great, southern-inspired food and affordable wine; tell us about your newest restaurant?

HA: Empire State South is contemporary meat n’ three serving good, classic Southern food. It will have an extensive wine list focusing on red Burgundy and German Rieslings… It will have a coffee shop component serving great coffee and a fun community Bocce court.

RH: How is the new cookbook coming along, what’s the title, how would you describe it?

HA: It’s called A New Turn in the South, it will be published in the fall of 2011 by Clarkson Potter. It’s my experience with Southern foods and why the cooking down here means so much to me. I am working on my pickled collards greens recipe right now!

RH: How did a guy from Canada find his way to Athens, Georgia?

HA: Mary, my wife, was born in Athens and wanted to come back for graduate work years ago. I’d follow her anywhere.

RH: You have worked at some big time restaurants with renowned chefs, before starting your own. Who was a big influence?

HA: Rob MacDonald was the chef at Cafe Henri Burger (RIP) and also at Maplelawn Cafe. Very influential on my career. He was the guy who saw through my youthful attitude and saw that I loved the food.

RH: You are also a partner in a wine shop, Gosford Wine that sells high quality wines that are affordable, how hard is that to do?

HA: Finding great wine has nothing to do with price. A grumpy chef once taught me to not refer to things as cheap, but rather inexpensive and that’s true with wine. There is a glut of inexpensive, great wine out there.

RH: Gosford also sells cheese, what are some great wine and cheese pairings available from Gosford?

HA: Kabinett Riesling with cave-aged gruyère!

RH: You also use a lot of cheese in menu items, what is an easy recipe that includes cheese that an at home novice could make?

HA: To me, there are so many cheeses that just want further embellishment with food stuffs, like buratta and parmesan and even gruyère. I love the briny aspects of feta with watermelon right now. I am sharing our watermelon and feta salad recipe (below).

RH: I know wine is a big part of any restaurant, but when I last saw you, we drank beer. What are some of your favorite wines and beers to pair with your food?

HA: I have been all about the Italy these days. The COS wines from Sicily (read about Sicilian wines) are sensational. Very light but complex interpretations of Nero d’Avola. Great stuff. Dry rieslings from Germany are pretty cool to me right now — Karthauserfhof is a really cool, tiny winery. Beer-wise, I like Terrapin’s Side Project beer “The Iron Tankard”. Great Athens beer done right. And I like Riessdorff Kolsch. Quenching fun.

RH: So how do you see the future for food and cheese in Athens and Atlanta, the South and the U.S.?

HA: I still see southern dairies coming on strong from Sweetgrass to Bittersweet Plantation to Meadow Creek. I think we just need to continue to adopt some eating and drinking practices that have been normal in Europe for centuries, like going to one shop for our cheese, and another for our cured meats, and another for our wines. That’s how we used to shop in Montreal. I would love to see that happening more here. And it is, most noticeably, on the farmer’s market fronts.

Recipe: Watermelon Salad with Feta, Arugula and Serrano Chile Vinaigrette (by Hugh Acheson)

Hugh: This has got to be the simplest recipe ever but has been copied and manipulated more than anything I have ever come up with. The idea came from watching Latinos in the kitchens sprinkle mango with chile flake or cayenne which is a wonderful thing.  The explosion of sweet balanced with the explosion of spice.

I love Feta but soon our choices will be relegated to just the Greek stuff, all fine and good, love me some Greeks, but there were some great Bulgarian Fetas out there and also a French sheep’s milk feta that I loved… but due to EU mandate, all those cheeses are now called something else and Feta has to be Greek. Can’t we all just get along?

Serves 8

Serrano Chile Vinaigrette
1 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons champagne vinegar
1 shallot, minced
1 serrano chile, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
¼ teaspoon salt

Combine all in a mason jar, shake vigorously and let sit in fridge 24 hours.

Watermelon Salad
1 watermelon, seedless, skin and rind removed, cut into ¾ inch thick x 3 x 3 inch squares (you will need 24 squares)
½ pound baby arugula
1 serrano chile, thinly sliced
¾ pound of feta, cut into 16 slices
¼ tsp salt

Shake the vinaigrette vigorously. Place watermelon squares, Serrano slices and arugula in a large bowl, and dress with half of the vinaigrette. Season lightly with salt. Have the feta on hand.

Place eight plates on a counter. From the large bowl place a small amount of dressed arugula on each plate, followed by one slice of watermelon, then one slice of feta. Repeat. The last layer will be your last level of watermelon. Garnish with the dressed Serrano slices and then drizzle a touch of the vinaigrette around each plate. Serve.

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