You may know chef Hugh Acheson from his stints as a “Top Chef” judge or as a “Top Chef Masters” competitor. The 2002 Food & Wine “Best New Chef” and 2012 James Beard Award winner as “Best Chef Southeast” also has five thriving concepts in Georgia: 5&10 and The National in Athens and Empire State South, Spiller Park Coffee, and First & Third Hot Dog & Sausage Shack in Atlanta. Acheson is also the driving force behind Seed Life Skills, a non-profit with a goal of “empowering students to become self-sufficient, resilient, and innovative stewards of local and global resources.”
To promote his latest cookbook, The Chef & The Slow Cooker, Acheson embarked on a 25-city tour by Airstream, with a live culinary demo at each stop and taco sales benefitting the aforementioned Seed Life Skills. Prior to his tour, I asked Acheson questions about his restaurants, non-profit, eating plans and preferences, including slow-cooking.
Joshua Lurie: Did you always plan to cook in restaurants for a living, or did you consider other careers?
Hugh Acheson: I went to university and dropped out after 2 years, but I have been cooking in restos since I was 15. It just became the thing I loved, so I went down that path 100%.
JL: What do you find most satisfying about working in restaurants?
HA: Making a broad swath of people happy at one of our tables, and doing what we do with authenticity, true excitement and skill.
JL: If you spent a day eating entirely from your restaurant menus, what would you order beginning with morning coffee and concluding with dinner dessert?
HA: I’d start with a cortado from Spiller Park Coffee with a fresh cheese toast and jam. From there I’d order the superfood plate from Empire State South. It’s a simple but wonderful lunch with a vast array of vegetables and a hanger steak. For dinner, I would order the smoked duck breast plate from 5&10 with a glass of red burgundy. For dessert I’d meander over to The National for Portuguese custard tarts and an espresso.
JL: Going on a 25-city tour in an Airstream seems like a great opportunity experience some of America’s regional specialties. What are the restaurants you’re most looking forward to visiting and why? Also, how do you decide where to eat on the road?
HA: It is! We mostly decide where to eat based on where we are, what time it is, and how hungry we are. Kind of simple, but the route and travel times make things interesting.
But I am looking forward to eating at Eventide in Portland, Prices Fried Chicken in Charlotte, fine dining at Baston in Nashville, and hopefully Bacchanal in NOLA. From there we’ll see but the wonder and amazing part about our current America is that there is great food and restaurants in your backyard, you just gotta go find them.
JL: What are your favorite aspects of cooking with a slow cooker?
HA: It allows you to live life and do the things you need to do in your daily routine, but can result in a great home-cooked, from scratch meal.
JL: What would be on the table for a dream meal from your new cookbook, “The Chef & The Slow Cooker?” Also, where would you enjoy this meal, and who else would be at the table?
HA: I’d make the kimchi braised chicken with rice and a summer salad of tomatoes and mint with my two kids, my sisters and their kids. And we’d be at our cottage in Canada just north of Toronto.
JL: America already has hundreds of charities doing great work for the community. What motivated you to start Seed Life Skills?
HA: I found that there was a lot of focus on school lunches and school gardens (which are great programs), but I thought that we were remiss to not also teach skilled techniques for all kids to cook from scratch (and other life skills) to give them every chance to make their future lives better and easily jump over the hurdles that life throws at them.