Born and raised in Ottawa, Canada, Hugh Acheson realised from an early age that cooking would be his life. His early experience included time in San Francisco as chef de cuisine with chef Mike Fennelly at Mecca, before opening as sous chef with the renowned chef Gary Danko at his eponymous restaurant. Somewhere he found his calling for simple and pure dishes that have since become his hallmark at his Atlanta restaurants 5&10, The National and Empire State South.
The affable 45-year-old chef, noted for television work notably as a judge on the popular Top Chef, comes from a family of academics and is well known for his writing. He has a number of books to his name including the forthcoming The Chef and The Slow Cooker - scheduled for release on October 17 - which celebrates the art of one-pot slow cooking.
“The release of the book is a continuation of my quixotic journey to get people cooking from scratch again." explains the chef. "To me it just is a gateway to good eating and good health and is a ton of fun. The slow cooker has a place in small restaurants but not really in big ones. You don't have all the big equipment we have, but neither do I in my home kitchen... but most all of us have slow cookers!”
Seed Life Skills: basics of Home Economics
Teaching people to come back to basic cooking skills and understand food safety is one of Acheson’s greatest passions. This aspiration comes in the form of the organization he founded in 2015, Seed Life Skills, an initiative to provide students an early exposure to healthy eating, empowering them to become ‘self-sufficient, resilient and innovative stewards of local and global resources.’
As Hugh Acheson explains, “We’re admiring of convenient culture and food, we just forgot how to cook. Home Economics, it’s like, “We made red velvet cupcakes”. That’s not a life skill, that’s a treat. A life skill is “I have ten bucks and a family of four and I need to make dinner and I’m going to roast a chicken and some carrots and make a simple salad because that’s what we can afford, but I can do it really well and it’s going to taste awesome.”
The initiative has grown to encompass ‘life hacks’ on everything from financial literacy to ensuring young people know how not to get into trouble, but given Acheson’s expertise, nourishment remains a key pillar. “If every kid in the United States who is now seven years grows up knowing how to poach an egg and make a vinaigrette, we have immediately created a better society, whether that’s because they are more interested in the food, or understand the basics of food.”
The Fall 2017 curriculum is online on the Seed Life Skills website, and includes free resources about Food Foundations, Citizenship, Food Science and Systems and Money Matters.
Pioneering the cuisine of the Southern United States
Another of Acheson’s greatest passions is clearly for new experiences and travel, as borne out by his recent appearance on Windstar Cruises’ ‘Epicurean Exploration’, a nine-night gastronomic journey from Dublin to Lisbon held in association with the prestigious James Beard Foundation.
In a wide-ranging and frank discussion on board, he explained how parts of the United States have undergone a culinary epiphany in recent years: “Now, in the States, we finally got out of feeling like we need to capitulate to continental palates and globalization has meant that somebody in Wyoming now understands what kimchi is. The big leap for food is understanding the concept of umami and mixed new flavors, there’s a maturation of palates and spice and complexities that didn’t really exist before.”
As a great champion of cuisine from the Southern United States, Acheson is acutely-conscious of its history: “Southern food is very storied for America, written about and studied. But it comes from some place very, very difficult, it comes from the pockets of slaves and the recipes of West Africa which are only now being given the final credit they deserve, revealing the pain which it took to get here and what it went through.”
One thing is clear, namely that Acheson’s passion, both for his restaurants and effecting important change, only burns brighter over time.