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.

From science to sizzle: A conversation with Chef Patricia Yeo

While many of the people I’ve had the opportunity to speak with were bitten by the cooking bug early on, I’m discovering more that started down one path in their lives only to realize they belonged on a different one. Take, for example, Chef Patricia Yeo. Many know her as an extremely talented chef, more so now after her run on season 4 of Bravo’s Top Chef: Masters. Patricia’s first path, thanks to her education, was science. She excelled at it, enough so that it led to a doctorate in biochemistry, and in all likelihood a long career in a laboratory. Who would have imagined that a cooking class would change all that.

I had the opportunity interview Chef Patricia, during which we talk a little about her love of food, her views on the industry now, and what’s on tap for her as she leaves Boston in her rear-view.

Patricia Yeo – Photo by Felix Cutillo

Foodie Journal: When was it that you really discovered you had a love and passion for food?
Patricia Yeo: I grew up in a large Chinese family. Food and cooking was always a part of my life.  I realized I liked cutting and dicing as an undergraduate at the university of Oregon. I’d cook and my three room mates, all guys, would clean. I think I got the better end of the deal. It wasn’t until much later that I thought of it as a profession.

FJ: How did you end up getting your start in the business?
PY: Pure luck!

FJ: Could you envision yourself doing anything besides being a chef, or at the very least being involved in some way with the food industry?
PY: I did not start cooking professionally until I was 30, so yes I did want to achieve other goals.  I still may!  They have changed since I was a starry eyed 20 year old when I wanted to discover the next wonder drug for cancer.  Now they are not so lofty.

FJ: The food industry is more popular now than it ever has been, causing a lot of people to think about it as a career choice. Is there any advice you’d give to someone just getting started in the food industry?
PY: The Food Network and shows like Top Chef have made cooking seem really glamorous. It isn’t.  For ever hour of celebrity we achieve there are as many years of hard work.  You sacrifice time with family and friends, personal time and your own physical and sometimes mental health.

To anyone thinking of going to culinary school I would say spend at least half a year working in the industry.  School isn’t for everyone.  Some people are autodidacts. They learn from watching, reading and doing. It depends on who you are and how disciplined you are.  If you are one of those people, use the money you would use for fees to pay for our living expenses, work for a chef you respect for free, and learn as much as you can.  In the long run you are better off because you have practical experience, you have started building your resume, and you don’t have school loans.  On the other hand some people like the structure of school.  I guess I am saying there is not one single path to reaching your goal, especially in the world of food and hospitality.

FJ: Maybe the one downside that comes from how popular food, restaurants and chefs have become is people looking for a fast track to becoming rich and famous. Everyone wants a shortcut! To me that seems detrimental  Can you speak a little about why the traditional methods, like stages and mentors, are better for the industry?
PY: That is the best joke! This is not a business where you become rich and famous.  For every successful chef there are 1000 times as many struggling cooks and chefs.  Don’t get into this business searching for money, fame and celebrity.  The most successful people in the business do it because they love it, the rest just follows.   As a chef, having credibility is your best asset. The only way to do that is to know how to do things and not be afraid of doing everything in the restaurant.  It takes years!  There is no fast track in this business. You are more likely to become  rich buying a lottery ticket.

FJ: It’s been reported that you’re going to be leaving the Boston area, heading to Chicago. Can you tell us what’s next for you?
PY: I had a lot of fun and met some super wonderful people in Boston. However, I need a larger playing field.  I am going to focus on restaurant development.  I still love the adrenalin of working the line and being in the kitchen, but physically it is getting impossible. This is the best of both worlds.  I am still involved in developing menus, and the culture of the restaurant, but I am removed from the daily grind of getting to work at 7 am and staying until 10 pm.

FJ: Now, for my favorite question. Anyone that loves food has really fond memories and experiences where food was involved. Do you have a particular food memory that you’d like to share?
PY: I’ve had far too many food memories; my favourite by far is a meal I had just outside San Germignamo in Italy.  Cooking professionally wasn’t even on my radar at the time.  It was a lunch at a tiny restaurant. There was no menu.  We were served a simple tomato and bread soup followed by rabbit stew.  Our very rustic red wine was served in jelly jars.  I am not actually sure if it was the food or the romance of being in this little restaurant. It was probably a combination of both.  It is never just the food exclusively, the company, your surroundings, the wine all combine to form these memories.

Chatting with a master: An interview with Chef Clark Frasier

There’s nothing quite like New England. Mind you, I am biased due to living here my entire life, but there is something really special about this region. It’s historic. Quaint.

A friend of mine constantly trumpets the virtues of the most northern state of the northeast, Maine, and with good reason. It’s beautiful, with scenery for all tastes. From a culinary standpoint, Maine is an amazing place for seafood, it’s crown jewel being the Maine lobster.

But, there is more to the Maine culinary scene than meets the eye. On the outskirts of Ogunquit, you’ll find one of the finest restaurants I’ve ever had the pleasure to dine in. Arrows, the flagship restaurant of James Beard Award winning Chefs, Clark Frasier and Mark Gaier, is enchanting. The grounds, which include a garden that falls just shy of an acre, make you feel like you’re stopping by a friend’s house.

I had a chance to sit and speak with Chef Clark about his love of food, his start in the industry, and his upcoming appearance on Bravo’s fourth season of Top Chef: Masters.

Clark Frasier and Mark Gaier – Photo by Ron Manville

Foodie Journalist: Where did your love of food come from?
Clark Frasier: Like a lot of chefs, I grew up with parents who were very much in to food. I grew up in California, and my parents loved wine, loved to cook, and loved to entertain. We always had a house full of people. I enjoyed all that, but at the time I didn’t see myself going in to the restaurant business. I did work in restaurants from a young age, and enjoyed it. It was a good way to make money. I always enjoyed the strong environment and the camaraderie, but it didn’t really dawn on me that it would be a career choice, though. My parents were academics, so there was always the thought of college and what not. So I went in to Chinese language. I studied the Chinese language and ended up eating my way through Beijing. As an interesting side note: at that time in China there wasn’t really much in the way of refrigeration. You couldn’t get cheese to go with crackers or anything like that. So, I spent a winter eating cabbage! When it got to be Spring and things started to grow again, it was like, “Oh my God, these vegetables taste so great!” I never wanted to see a cabbage again! It was that Spring that kind of awakened that in me again, reminding me of having grown up in northern California. Being able to get at amazing ingredients right when they’re in season. It was a great reminder of how much I loved it.

FJ: So obviously you aren’t making the Chinese language your life’s work now. How did you eventually end up in the restaurant business?
CF: Yeah, when I came back it was like, “Ok. Great. So you speak Chinese. So do a billion other people. Now what?” [LAUGHS] One of my professors was a man by the name of Jonathan Tower and he said to me, “My brother Jeremiah is opening a restaurant in San Francisco called Stars”. At the time I kind of had this vision of opening an import/export business, but he said, “Well, why don’t you go work for him for a little while so you can just pay your rent.” I thought, great! I had always worked in restaurants growing up so why not.

It was an incredibly difficult place to work, and Jeremiah was a difficult man to work for. But, it was such an amazing group of people, and such a ground breaking restaurant. A lot of what we really take for granted in restaurants today really started there. The big open kitchen. The huge bar. The lively bar. You know before that it was kind of always a quiet, white table cloth, continental cuisine type atmosphere. Everything brought in from France or maybe Italy. Very formal. That was fine dining. Jeremiah totally revolutionized that, and threw the rest out the window! Now you go in to a place and everyone has an open kitchen. But, back then it was like, “Oh my god! What’s going on here?” Wide open kitchens. Piano playing during service. You could stop in for a hamburger or a hot dog after a night out at the opera. I mean, no body did that at the time.

FJ: In a tough working environment, what was it that made you want to keep at it and stay in the industry?
CF: Well, the team there was amazing. It was a group of really bright people. A lot of them have gone on to become really well known chefs. The starting team there was just a blast. We’d work all night, and then go out all night and all that regular restaurant nonsense. It was very exciting, and I felt really comfortable. I realized “I like doing this”. When you find something that you’re good at and it just feels natural to you, then you wonder why would you do anything else? Why should I try to become an import/export person? At that point, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.

FJ: And now here you are at Arrows, and really it is an amazing set up you have here. You have been here since when? Early 1990s?
CF: 1988 actually. Mark Gaier and I left Stars and wanted to open a restaurant in Carmel. There were a ton of people interested in backing us, but once they’d see the cost involved, at the time it was like a little over a million dollars, things always seemed to fall through. It was really depressing. Well, Mark used to live out here, and he kept on talking about Maine. For me, growing up a kid in California, I remember thinking, “Where the eff is Maine?” [LAUGH] But, he kept talking about it. So, we took a trip out here just for fun, his brothers lived out here. We came by this property completely by chance. Some friends of his actually bought it, and they had been running a couple of restaurants at the time. They called us one day and said, “Hey, do you want to buy Arrows?” We said, “Sure. We’ve got, like, $50 to spare.” So they just said, “Well, if you aren’t really doing anything solid right now, why don’t you just lease it from us for a season and see how it goes? Then we’ll give you the option to buy.” The nice part of being young is that we had the flexibility to give it a try. We packed up the car, raised enough money to lease it for you a year, came out here and that was that. But, there was a lot to do. It was sort of dark and cold.
FJ: Yeah, that’s the trade off of being in this area!
CF: I know, right! But, that was it. So we set to work on it. With every year that passed we made it better, a bit more beautiful.
FJ: It’s really a beautiful grounds you’ve created here. It’s amazing!
CF: Thank you!

FJ: Do you feel that what you’ve been able to do here, with the garden and everything you have on site, really sets you apart from other restaurants?
CF: Well, we started the garden in 1992. We started it because we couldn’t find what we really wanted to use in our kitchen. We came from the Bay Area where you could get pretty much anything you wanted, and then we get out here, and it just wasn’t the same. Things here have changed quite a bit around here, but in those days… there were some local folks growing stuff, but it wasn’t necessarily what we were looking for.

The thing about gardens is that you really have to have someone willing to do it, otherwise you end up like other restaurants that say they have a “garden” which ends up being just a weed patch with some herb plants. So there was a person that worked with Mark and was a good friend that said, “Look, I don’t really know a ton about gardens. I’ve taken care of my own garden, so if you want I can give it a try.” So we came out and we rototilled this front portion [by the pebble walkway near the restaurant], and that was the garden the first year. Then we realized we needed to at least double it if we really wanted it to work. Then we tripled it. Then quadrupled it. Then we realized that if we wanted to extend the season we’d need to build a greenhouse, so we did that. So this garden here is probably one of the most densely used restaurant gardens you’ll ever find. It will produce most of the product you see in the restaurant here. And, as we get deeper in to the summer, we can also produce for our other restaurant, MC Perkins Cove. Having the garden really ensures for us that we’re getting great product, and that’s key. So many people ask, “Well, do you save money?” No.
FJ: Right. Just the amount of work that has to go in to maintaining it has to bring a cost.
CF: Exactly. It’s huge labor. We have one guy that is a full-time guy, and he has some other part-time workers that some time become full-time depending on how busy things get.

FJ: So coming up at the end of July is the fourth season of Top Chef: Masters. You and Mark were invited to compete. Mind if I ask a couple of questions?
CF: Sure! Go ahead.
FJ: What was the overall experience like? Can it be likened at all to working in a regular restaurant kitchen?
CF: The pressure on the show is certainly akin to the kind we feel in our restaurant kitchens. That said, at our restaurants we do our best to avoid a lot of the chaos you see on the show. With the right team work, we try to create a smooth, functional flow in our kitchens; we even like to have a bit of fun back there!

FJ: There is an interesting angle that comes with both you and Chef Mark being on the show. The two of you helm three restaurants together as partners – what was it like to now be in a situation where you would compete against someone that you are so used to working with?
CF: At first it was quite strange and a bit of a challenge because we’ve been collaborating for over 27 years! Occasionally we couldn’t resist helping one another out. Once we were on a team together which was a real relief during the competition. The hardest part wasn’t competing with one another, but not being able to collaborate on techniques, taste and simply bouncing ideas off one another.

FJ: Looking forward to seeing it! So now, my final question: we talked a little about your love of food and how you got started. With that comes memories and experiences that people like to think back on. Is there a particular food memory that stands out for you?
CF: There are so many, it’s tough to pick one. My experience with working and living with Mark has actually been really interesting. HIs family is from the mid-west, so going to his mom’s house was always really different. He’s one of seven kids, so it’s very different from how I grew up as an only child. When we’d go over there, his mom would basically kick us all out of the kitchen, telling us to go make drinks or something. So then there would be Mark, myself, maybe one of his brothers and his parents. On the table, though, would be this enormous pile of food and she’d be like, “Do you think six chickens is enough?” [LAUGHS] I’d be like, “Are you kidding me?!” It was really cool, and I enjoyed that a lot!

Chef Clark Frasier is chef/co-owner, along with Chef Mark Gaier, of Arrows Restaurant, MC Perkins Cove and Summer Winter Restaurant. Both will be competing on season 4 of Top Chef: Masters premiering July 25th on Bravo.