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$20 Dinner with Hugh Acheson

The celebrated chef shares an accessible meal on a budget

Thursday May 30, 2013 04:00 am EDT

On a picturesque, tree-lined Southern street, about a mile from downtown Athens, Ga., in a Victorian bungalow with a wraparound porch, chef Hugh Acheson makes dinner. It’s like a scene plucked from a Southern Living spread: tall white cabinets set against a backsplash of tiles painted with burnt orange and white sunbursts, fine appliances, a vast island topped with smooth black stone. Only this kitchen isn’t just a pretty room in a pretty house. It’s Hugh Acheson HQ, the central nervous system for Acheson’s entire life. It’s the laboratory where he and his chefs invent new dishes for his restaurants, a test kitchen for cookbook recipes and magazine articles, the place he cooks dinner for his family. “What you see here, it’s what we do here every day. This kitchen gets a lot of use,” Acheson says. He buzzes about the space, tracing the familiar paths between the sink, the stove, and the refrigerator without raising his eyebrow. The only time he really looks up is to mind Daffy, the family’s very active new rescue puppy, yipping away on the deck outside, and to check his equally active iPhone resting on the counter.


Born and raised in Ottawa, Canada, Acheson began working in restaurants at 15. At first, cooking was just a job. “I was just lucky enough to be in great French restaurants and learning a ton,” he says. He was inspired by the talented Canadian chefs Jamie Kennedy and his mentor Rob MacDonald of Henri Burger in Ottawa. Chef life eventually became the thing he couldn’t get enough of.

In 2000, Acheson opened Five & Ten in Athens. Two years later, he was named Best New Chef by Food and Wine magazine. He opened his second Athens restaurant, the National, in 2007, followed by Empire State South in Atlanta in 2010. In 2011, he was invited to compete on “Top Chef Masters” and later asked back to appear as a regular judge on “Top Chef” — the same year he published his first cookbook, A New Turn in the South, which won the James Beard Foundation award for Best Cookbook in American Cooking in 2012.

Nearly 30 years after that young kid started working in restaurants after school, Hugh Acheson is a household name. He is a chef — maybe not an executive chef anymore, he says — but certainly still a chef. He is an independent restaurateur and local food advocate. He is a father, a husband, an author. But on this sunny spring day in his home kitchen, he’s just the guy who owns those restaurants.

The task at hand is to prepare a meal for less than $20. Standing over a tray brimming with pristine sliced carrots, spring onions, and avocado, Acheson seems to relish the challenge. The three-course menu he has planned, dubbed the “Super Dinner from the Supermercado,” starts with a grilled salad of baby gem lettuces. Next, roasted chicken, cooked beneath a weight and served over a Latin-inspired hoppin’ John with pinto beans and brown rice. For dessert, juicy slices of mango and yogurt sprinkled with ground chili pepper and maple syrup. He doesn’t want it to be a “precious” meal. “I want it to be an achievable meal for a family of four, where both parents work 60 hours a week, or it’s a single mom who works 65 hours a week as a nurse, or whatever it may be,” he says.

He whisks a bowl of yogurt with ground cumin, salt, pepper, and lime juice and smears a dollop of the mixture on a nearby plate. He places stalks of lettuce in a cast iron pan for a quick sear, pulling them off one by one with a pair of tongs. Then, over the yogurt dressing, he builds a salad, arranging slices of radish and carrot here and there, humming and nibbling while he works.

“This meal probably has about a quarter of the amount of animal protein that most American meals would, but it’s an utterly complete meal. So we need to teach people why this is good and the fact that it kicks ass in flavor, too,” he says.

Acheson is one of the most visible figures in Southern cooking today, a position he hopes will allow him to effect positive change in the world: spread awareness of our ailing food system, help increase access to healthy food, and teach people the fundamentals they need to feed themselves in a healthy way.

But how did this Canadian-born, Southern transplant become the poster child for modern cooking in the South?

As a child and stepson of a traveling academic, Acheson lived for two years each in Atlanta and then Clemson, S.C., where he befriended his future wife, Mary. Acheson returned to Canada to finish high school, but he and Mary never lost touch. “We were just good friends, and pen pals when we were like, 11,” he says. “And then we kind of got to be much closer in our early 20s, got married when we were 25, and came to live in Athens so she could do graduate work.” The couple moved to San Francisco for two years while Mary worked in publishing at the University of California, Berkeley. Acheson continued to build his culinary résumé working under the likes of chef Mike Fennelly at Mecca and famed chef Gary Danko. They ultimately returned to Athens in 2000 to open Five & Ten. “We’ve been here ever since,” Acheson says.

When asked what Southern food “is,” he simply says, “I don’t know. That’s the beauty of it.”

He pauses to glare at a barking Daffy and moves to the back door. “Come here. I’ll let you in if you promise not to bark. I mean we like you, but no, you’re buggin’ out.” The tiny dog saunters in and gobbles up a bit of stray lettuce off the floor.

Acheson continues: “What it’s not, is a bucket of fried chicken and biscuits. That’s just as popular in Minnesota as it is in the South,” he says. “What it needs to be is a response to the agrarian community that exists around here and it needs to be a matter of celebrating that agrarian-ness and the reality of the history here.”

He plates up pieces of golden-skinned chicken around a pile of rice and beans. “How’s that look? Would you eat that? I would eat that.” Bites of juicy chicken and creamy rice and beans wrapped in a soft tortilla explode with warm spices and the cool tang of homemade salsa.

Acheson’s brand of cooking is a reflection of his own life experiences: French technique and know-how from his early days wrapped up in the history of Southern food. “If you don’t get inspired by whatever community you’re in, I think you’re in the wrong place. I was just lucky enough to be in the South.”

Acheson is currently brainstorming a new TV show, he’s on deadline for a new cookbook, and in the midst of developing a new Italian-leaning restaurant in Savannah slated to open in spring 2014. “I don’t know why anybody opens a restaurant. It’s kind of like dragging your head along gravel,” he says, although he does hope to open another one, or two, in the future. “There’s a lot of thanklessness in this industry. I’m in the stage in my career where there’s a lot of thanks, but I’m lucky. I’m not the best chef in the world, but I’m very thankful,” he says.

Right on time and fresh from school, the ladies of the house, Mary and daughters Clementine and Beatrice, file in as we file out. Dad mode kicks in. “You girls have homework?” he asks as the front door closes behind us.

??Next: Four recipes from Empire State South’s Hugh Acheson??

Seared lettuces with queso fresco, radish, carrot, pepitas, and yogurt dressing

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(Serves 4)

Ingredients

• 1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt (can use Mexican crema)
?• 1/4 teaspoon cumin
?• 1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt
?• Freshly cracked black pepper
?• 2 limes, juiced
?• 2 heads of little gem lettuces, quartered from the core
?• 1 tablespoon olive oil
?• 4 carrots, sliced into thin strips
?• 4 radishes, sliced 1/8-inch thick
?• 1/4 cup pepitas, toasted
?• 1/3 cup queso fresco

Directions: To make the dressing, whisk yogurt, cumin, salt, pepper, and 1 tablespoon of lime juice. Set aside.

Slice the lettuces in half lengthwise and sear in a large, heavy-bottom skillet with 1 tablespoon olive oil over high heat. Sear for 2 minutes, and then turn. Sear for 1 minute longer and remove from the pan.

Toss the carrots and radishes with remaining lime juice.

Place a dollop of the dressing on the plate and spread it out into a circle. Build the salad by placing the lettuce on the plate first. Then place the carrots and radishes around and on top. Finish with a sprinkle of the pepitas and the queso fresco cheese.

??

Rice and beans

Ingredients
?• 1 cup brown rice
?• 4 cups water
?• 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
?• 2 small spring onions, thinly sliced
?• 1 15-ounce can whole pinto beans, drained
?• 2 tablespoons salsa (recipe included)
?• 2 tablespoons water
?• 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
?• Pinch hot chile powder
?• 1 tablespoon fresh cilantro stems

Directions: In a small pot combine the rice and the water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Once a boil has been reached, reduce heat to low and cover. Cook for 20 to 25 minutes, or until done. Set aside.

Meanwhile, melt the butter in a medium pot over medium-high heat. Add the onions and sauté for 3 minutes. Add the beans, salsa, water, and reduce heat to low and simmer for 2 minutes. Add the cooked rice to the pot, and more water, if needed. Mix to combine. Finish with a sprinkle of cilantro stems.

??

Roasted chicken with carrots, spring onions, radish, avocado, and salsa verde

?
(Serves 4)

Ingredients

• 2 whole chicken legs
?• 1 teaspoon Kosher salt
?• 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
?• 1 cup salsa verde (recipe included)
?• 4 spring onions, sliced in half, lengthwise
?• 4 small carrots, cut on the bias
?• 2 radishes, cut into eighths, pole to pole
?• 4 cups rice and beans (recipe included)
?• 1 cup salsa (recipe included)
?• 1 California avocado
?• 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
?• 8 tortillas

Directions: Preheat the oven to 400°F.

Separate the chicken into 2 legs and 2 thighs. Coat each piece with the vegetable oil and sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon of the salt. Place the chicken in a large cast iron pan and place another heavy cast-iron pan or a brick lined with aluminum foil over the top to weigh the chicken down. Cook in oven for 35 minutes. Set aside to cool. Coat each piece with the salsa verde. Pull the chicken from the bones, and slice.

In a large, heavy-bottom skillet, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onions and sear for 5 to 10 minutes, or until they have a nice char. Add the carrots and radish and season with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Cook for 5 minutes more, tossing occasionally.

To plate, spread out about 1 cup of the rice and beans on each plate. Place the vegetables alongside. Place a 1/4 cup dollop of salsa also alongside the rice and beans. Top the rice and beans with the sliced chicken. Finish with slices of avocado and sprig of cilantro and a drizzle of olive oil. Serve with warm tortillas.

??

Salsa verde

?
Makes 1/2 cup

Ingredients

• 1/2 cup cilantro stems?• 1/2 cup cilantro leaves
?• 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil?• Pinch chile powder
?• 1/4 teaspoon cumin
?• 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

Directions: Put all the ingredients into a blender (I like Vitamix) and process until smooth.

??

Salsa

Ingredients

• 5 Roma tomatoes
?• 1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
?• 2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
?• 2 whole garlic gloves
?• 1 jalapeño, sliced in half, lengthwise
?• 1 spring onion
?• 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

Directions: Preheat oven to 450°F.

Toss the tomatoes, garlic, jalapeño, and onion with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and 1/4 teaspoon salt, and place in a large cast-iron skillet. Place in the oven and roast for 10 minutes. The vegetables should begin to blacken. Remove the pan from the oven, and let cool slightly.

Combine all the ingredients in a blender with the remaining olive oil and salt. Pulse, but leave the vegetables slightly chunky.

??

Mango with chile

Ingredients

• 2 mangos
?• 1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt
?• 4 tablespoons maple syrup
?• 4 pinches chile pepper
?• 2 tablespoons mint leaves, chopped

Directions: Using a pairing knife or a peeler, remove the skin from the mango. To slice, remove each pole just enough to reveal the pit. It is shaped like an almond, so slice the 2 large, flat sides off first, and then remove any additional fruit from the sides. Slice the fruit into thin slices.

Place a dollop of yogurt in each bowl and drizzle 1 tablespoon of maple syrup over each. Arrange 1/2 a mango per bowl, sprinkle with a pinch of chile pepper and 1/2 tablespoon of mint.