Telling it like it is on Top Chef: An interview with Hugh Acheson

I’ve written plenty about my love of food, and of cooking. Tied in to that is my love of watching others cook (yeah, I’m a voyeur like that!). So, like many a foodie, I am a fan of televised food competitions. My hands-down favorite is Top Chef, on Bravo.

Now, I know that what goes down on Top Chef isn’t really in-line with what goes on in a real kitchen. It’s likely a rare situation in a professional kitchen where a chef is asked to prepare a dish using mystery ingredients. “Oh, and by the way, you can’t use any cooking vessels either. Just this aluminum foil!” (I still want to know who the evil mind is behind these challenges. Looking at you, Lakshmi!) But, that just makes the dishes they turn out all the more impressive. As is always the case, though, it isn’t just about food. Top Chef is about people, and that is just as much part of the reason we watch as anything else.

One of my favorites on Top Chef has become one of the judges. Chef Hugh Acheson brings with him an impressive resume. He’s authored a James Beard Award Winning cookbook A NEW TURN IN THE SOUTH: Southern Flavors Reinvented for Your Kitchen and was awarded the James Beard Foundation Award for  Best Chef Southeast in 2012. He was named Best Chef in 2002 by Food & Wine Magazine. Not only is he a judge on Top Chef for the second consecutive season, but he’s gone through the ringer himself, having competed on season 3 of Top Chef: Masters. It doesn’t hurt that he comes across as a pretty genuine person, who gives a damn about good food.

I had the opportunity to check in with Hugh and find out a little more about how he got his start in cooking, what goes in to being a judge on Top Chef, and the simple secret behind southern grits.

Hugh Acheson - Photo by Rinne Allen
Hugh Acheson – Photo by Rinne Allen

Foodie Journal: When was it that you realized that you had a love and passion for food that would lead to you becoming a chef?
Hugh Acheson: It was in high school. I wasn’t very good at school, but when I was working I was really relied upon and cherished. I realized that it was something that I was quite good at.

FJ: Where did you get your start in the business?
HA: I started like many of us do… washing dishes.  I began at the Bank Street Cafe in Ottawa at age 15.

FJ: I know you spent a couple of years when you were younger living in the southern United States, but you’re originally from Canada. What was it about the south that made you decide that was were you want to set up shop?
HA: My wife is from the South, and I have fallen for the cadence of life down here.

FJ: What’s your favorite southern ingredient?
HA: Grains. There is such an abundance of great grains. Farro, grits, amaranth, cornmeal…

FJ: You’ve been on Top Chef: Masters, and also serve as one of the judges for Top Chef on Bravo. How do you approach judging on the show? What does it take to make a successful dish in your opinion?
HA: Judging is fun and easy. Sit and eat and comment. That ain’t hard.  To succeed at the show you have to bring great technique and once in a while make us, as judges say, “WOW. How did you do all that in that amount of time?”

FJ: Is it ever tough to call someone out when they put out a crappy dish?
HA: Not really. It’s food. It’s either Great, good or no so good.

FJ: One of my favorite comments from this season so far, “As a guy who makes grits pretty much every day of my life, those grits suck.” I think what made it so great was just how non-chalantly it came out. What’s your secret for making good grits?
HA: Add the grits to cold water and slowly bring up to a boil. Then simmer and cook them a long time. Finish with butter and a hint of cream.

FJ: Now for my favorite question – pretty much every food loving person has food memories to go with it. What’s your favorite food memory so far?
HA: Making tomato sandwiches at my cottage in Canada! It’s a simple one, but it’s a great one.

Chef Hugh Acheson is the chef/partner of the Athens, Georgia, restaurants Five and Ten and The National, and the Atlanta restaurant Empire State South. He is also an active supporter of Wholesome Wave Georgia, an organization dedicated to increasing access to fresh, healthy, locally grown food at producer-only farmers markets in Georgia.

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