hugh-acheson

Hugh Acheson: Southern food is the only American cuisine with 'depth'

May 16, 2012 at 2:42 PM ET

Linnea Covington /

Chef Hugh Acheson was busy last week. On Monday, the "Top Chef" judge won two James Beard Awards — one for his cookbook “A New Turn in the South: Southern Flavors Reinvented for Your Kitchen,” and the other for Best Chef: Southeast for his restaurant Five and Ten in Athens, Ga. By the end of the week, he was back at his Atlanta eatery Empire State South, a party hotspot for last weekend’s Atlanta Food and Wine Festival (which Time magazine food writer Josh Ozersky calls the only “indispensable” food event). As Southern food makes its way into the limelight, we wanted to get schooled by its newly minted spokesman.

Your award-winning cookbook is about reinventing Southern food — how are you doing that?

I think it’s as much about reinventing it through my recipes as about changing the view of Southern food. While Southern food is hip, interesting and gets replicated in New York and other places these days, it’s reviled as being lard-rich, fattening and unhealthy. I think that’s where the misnomer is because Southern food, in its true form, is not putting a pork chop between two Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

It’s about having a small amount of fried chicken on the plate and on the table serving succotash, roasted Vidalia onions, summer tomatoes, shaved corn with basil, and hominy grits. That’s sort of the abundance of Southern food. You have to remember, it’s such an agrarian society, and I think real Southern food is based on those things.

Why does Southern food have such an unhealthy stereotype?

Food of convenience has gotten perpetrated as real Southern food over the last 50 years as processed foods became more common. You can look at one local cookbook like a Junior League one from the 1960s and one from 1970s. The difference in the cooking was the market. There were so many convenience foods like pre-packaged soups and sauces used in the recipes, where as the early edition of the book had recipes where you cook purely from scratch and there was nothing unhealthy about it.

This idea that Southerners have a bucket of fried chicken with a salty biscuit for dinner is not true. That’s the American dilemma, not a Southern dilemma. It’s a diet problem across the States that somehow gets sucked into being defined as Southern food but that’s a load of BS.

Why do you think Southern food is having its moment right now?

I think Americans are constantly looking back historically to what they can latch on to to be hip in the future. When you look at the history of food and you are talking about finding something that is trend- and hip-worthy, you have to have depth. Southern food is the only one that has that depth. Other regions in the United States — I equate it to veneer and hardwood. It’s not that the cuisine of the Pacific Northwest isn’t vibrant right now and laden with amazing ingredients, but outside the native populations, it just doesn’t have a culinary heritage that runs all that deep.

When you go to the South, you can read for the rest of your life the history of Southern food, its impact and the effects of slavery on food. There is just this treasury of information that helps bring the hipness out. But, it has to be the properly defined Southern food with a reverence for ingredients that is really, really there. The food that doesn’t have that reverence is just crappy American food, it’s not Southern food.

Can you give an example of some of the Southern dishes that exemplify your ideal?

This is what I want to see: beautifully stewed zipper cream peas with a little chicken dashi and some thinly sliced chicken on top with a little Georgian olive oil…

Also, a Korean influence is becoming apparent and Southern food that is getting noted isn’t being defined. Can I take [these ingredients] … and incorporate it into my dishes? Absolutely — like taking kimchee and adding it to my rice.

How is the food scene in Atlanta?

Atlanta is such a storied city, but I think it’s finally found itself out. It doesn’t want to be anything except Atlanta. For years it wanted to be something else. It’s our age of food authenticity, from the Busy Bee Café which is an old meat place, to Bocado for burgers on the West Side, to Umaido, which is an amazing ramen place. People are realizing we don’t have to put on a bunch of pomp, we just want to do good food, and that’s great.

How do you feel about winning two James Beard awards?

I think I was most touched about the cookbook because it was a lot of work. And the Best Chefs: Southeast, I tied with Linton Hopkins and people were like, ‘Do you mind you tied?’ and I don’t care in the least. Linton is an awesome guy and the funny thing was that it was so loud in there that I sort of just got up onstage and I was like, ‘Did they really call my name? How am I supposed to get off stage?’

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