It might come as a surprise to most that one of the leading faces and voices of Southern cuisine is actually a tall, lanky fellow from Canada — Ottawa, in fact. But for Hugh Acheson, no matter where he was born or raised, the South has become his unimpeachable home, both businesswise and for his family. Oh, and you'd better start rethinking your definition of what Southern food is.
In its simplest terms, Acheson declared that his definition of true Southern cuisine is "a celebration of seasons and a celebration of the abundance that's here given the growing situations that we have." Championing that notion is near and dear to Acheson's heart, and has become standard practice at his trifecta of Georgia restaurants: Empire State South in Atlanta (not far from Coke's headquarters), as well as Five & Ten and The National in Athens. It's the lack of outsider curiosity as well as schlocky-fried-fatty-everything food TV that pains Acheson and other Southern food purists.
"I think people get confused on ultra-rich food — empty-calorie-type foods and foods of convenience, and they kind of wrap that into the idea of Southern food," says Acheson.
Video: Creating a Signature Salad
Think 25% Southern-Fried, 75% Southern-Grown
Yes, the chef loves nothing more than to tear into some righteous fried chicken, but there's a balance to it. "If I eat a fried chicken dinner, it's not fried chicken and a mound of biscuits. It's a small amount of fried chicken with succotash and fresh tomatoes, spinach and okra. . ." says Acheson. "The protein part of it is generally 25 percent of what's on the plate. We're constantly trying to fight against this whole American thing really, where the protein is 80 percent of the plate, which is way more than an average human should consume. But that's not just Southern food."
If an outsider were interested in getting an honest impression of his approach to Southern cooking, Acheson — who has gained some major exposure recently as a contestant on Top Chef Masters, which he parlayed into a judging gig on Top Chef proper — applauds the work of "matriarchal chef" Edna Lewis. "Her writing on Southern food, it's more reverential about blackberries and making the perfect salad with a light vinaigrette than it is about meatloaf or making a burger and slamming it between two donuts and calling it Southern food."
Acheson's biggest pet peeve? "Marshmallows in Southern food," he says with equal parts remorse and sorrow.
The Farm-to-Table Phenomenon
Interestingly enough, his farm-based culinary roots in Canada primed him nicely for setting up shop in Georgia, and his preference to lean toward local and seasonal has made him a champion of the farm-to-table movement, which he admits is "marketing beyond anything else."
"We were farm to table [in Canada] before it was a term and before sustainability was a term .... We knew the guy who raised our lambs, and we knew where the cheeses come from, and in all seasons where the vegetables are coming from. There was no other way 100 years ago to eat in the South. The ham you put up in the fall that cured through winter was what you ate in the spring. Collard green season, you ate collard greens. That's the way the world worked."
There's an overriding sense of respect and fondness for the way things were when Acheson talks about the South and food, and even though "it's not always happy history" there, the intrigue doesn't waver. "A lot of other areas have interesting foodstuffs and culture, but it's not as deep. I could research Southern food culture every day and not get bored and always learn something new."
Agriculture and Artisans Aplenty
That movement and mentality has thrived in recent years, with more chefs turning toward seasonal cooking, and artisans of all stripes producing products that aren't just good in Southern terms, they're up there with top-shelf producers across the world — even products you wouldn't suspect. One of Acheson's favorites is Georgia Olive Farms, an olive oil producer in Lakeland, Georgia, who is putting out world-class pressings.
"I think that's how artisan movements really get up to speed and really improve on what they can do, it's seeing that genuine competitiveness between farms and producers and cheese makers and things like that, of raising the ante. We see that in the restaurant world when a good restaurant moves into town, and then suddenly there's a good competition of others who have to step up their game and be strong to complement that."
And lumping all things Southern together just doesn't cut it. The variances in produce, climate and agriculture from state to state isn't dissimilar to, say, how Spain, France and Italy all produce vastly different (and delicious) foodstuffs. Even just in different areas within Georgia, there's plenty of diversity a car ride away.
"From apple country to the coastal areas around Savannah and everything in between, you have completely different stuff down in south Georgia," says Acheson. "Then you can go get heirloom apples up in Ellijay, and you can get some of the most amazing peaches in Bishop. It's a really amazing place."
To learn more about Acheson and his approach to food, tune into Top Chef, visit one of his three restaurants, or buy his James Beard Foundation Award-winning cookbook A New Turn in the South: Southern Flavors Reinvented for Your Kitchen.