Perhaps you know Georgia chef Hugh Acheson from his stints judging on “Top Chef,” or maybe you’re familiar with his cookbooks A New Turn in the South, The Broad Fork, and, most recently, The Chef and the Slow Cooker. In Atlanta, Hugh is best known as the man behind Empire State South, as well as a growing lineup of restaurants that make use of the bounty of Atlanta and its environs. We caught up with Acheson while he’s on book tour to talk Atlanta dining, his favorite sushi spot, and the history of Empire’s famous bocce courts.
Resy: How would you describe Empire State South to someone who has never been there?
Hugh Acheson: Empire is a breakfast, lunch, dinner and everything-in-between restaurant that focuses on local products and pulls at the larders of every culture around Georgia. We do a lot of historic style recipes, but everything’s pretty modern as well. Great coffee program, great wine program, and a really fun bar. So it’s a kind of multifaceted restaurant. It’s meant to really be vastly appealing to pretty much everyone, it’s really a classic wide spectrum restaurant. Come in for a coffee, that’s cool, come in for 10 courses, that’s cool too.
How does the food pay tribute to its surroundings, and where does it veer from tradition?
A good example is the farm egg, which has always been one of the most popular dishes, which is crisp Carolina gold rice with a nestled egg into it, and then the accompaniments change with every season. Right now it’s fall, so it’ll be butternut squash puree at the base of the plate. There’ll be roasted butternut squash and house-made kielbasa, finely, finely diced within the rice. It’s kind of an ode to Vietnamese fried rice, with this coddled egg, and it’s got a good amount of acid and crisp to it. It shows off the historical aspect of rice culture in Georgia, but also the modern immigrant population that has really laid claim to a lot of food in Georgia these days, really advanced it a great deal.
I think that’s a thing people outside Georgia might not know about Atlanta, that it has this really vibrant immigrant culture and there are traditions coming in from all over the place.
Yeah, Atlanta has been perceived as very white and very black. And in a lot of cases, historically it is—Atlanta is the center for black culture, which we love. Then it’s also got this huge, amazingly vibrant immigrant population around Buford Highway and really stretching all the way up to Suwanee on the north east side of Atlanta. There’s just an amazing amount of really cool food happening there because of it.
What’s the inspiration for the design of Empire State South?
The interior of the space is built from, really, recycled Georgia—it was an old house in Duluth, Georgia, which is right outside of Atlanta, that was pulled down and it was 150 years old. It was the largest house in Duluth, and it had all this beautiful hard pine—most all of the wood you see in there, from cypress to hard pine, is all from this one house that was pulled down and remilled to make the furniture, the floor, the walls, the shelves, all that sort of stuff.
Tell me about the building that houses the restaurant.
So Empire is at a very important corner of Atlanta. It’s at 10th and Peachtree, which is defined as sort of the center of Midtown and, because of the way the highways work, it really is the center of everything in the city. It was a pretty important building back in the day, it was the First Union building. Now, there [are] a lot of architect firms and lawyers offices, and things like that, upstairs. It’s 28 stories, which by New York standards is not that tall, but by Atlanta standards, it’s pretty towering.
What’s the story behind the restaurant’s bocce courts?
When we opened up, we wanted to create a place that would be kind of an oasis, and have a good amount of outdoor space. The huge bocce ball court outside…used to be this sort of strange memorial that was moved, and it was about the same size of the bocce court. So, I just talked to the landlord and I was like, “Why don’t we put in a bocce court?” And they were like, “Sounds great.” And surrounding it is all this shaded area, it looks over a bunch of beautiful modern buildings in midtown.
What else do you have going on in Atlanta?
I own two coffee shops in Atlanta, as well, both called Spiller Park. One is in Ponce City Market, the bustling Ponce City Market. The other one is in Toco Hills Shopping Center. They’re both fine coffee shops, focusing on really what we do everywhere: authentic feel, commitment to quality, commitment to skills and professionalism, and delivering a top notch product with consistency.
And there’s another restaurant on the way.
There is, there’s another restaurant on the way. We have a new place called Achie’s, which is in the Omni Hotel in the north part of the city. Achie’s is named after my paternal grandfather, who is a Canadian man who lived and worked for the majority of his life in the Caribbean. Mostly Cuba, where my dad was born. It’s a contemporary American restaurant with some Cuban influences, and an amazing beverage program. It’s a hotel restaurant, so it’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And it will be a fun place, it’s a beautiful hotel they’re building out.
When will Achie’s be opening?
Looks like early January, barring any stoppages, we should be good to go!
How have you seen Atlanta change since you first opened in the city?
You know, Atlanta went through a lot of sort of ’90’s…some of them were good restaurants, but it was a lot of sort of club-chic restaurants, you know? Valet parking and fancy signage, and not a ton of attention to what was on the plate or the quality drive towards amazing beverage programs [you see now]. There were some stalwarts who were doing really amazing quality throughout the years. I mean, Gunter Seeger was there for a long time, people like that. But what I’ve seen is a lot of what is happening nationwide, which is moving towards independent restaurants. A lot of chefs who’ve traveled and worked in New York, in LA, in San Francisco, coming back to where they’re from. Opening up their own small places and really having a go of it, and showing off what is locally available.
Of course, because Atlanta benefits from the longer Southern growing season.
[Atlanta has] a pretty rich agrarian vista right around it, so local for us really means what’s in two hours of Atlanta. There are a lot of really dedicated souls in the farming community doing a lot of amazing stuff. I think Empire orders from about 50 different farms. Same with Five & Ten [in Athens, Georgia], orders probably about from 30. So it really shows off a lot of amazing difference in production. You know, red dirt’s not the easiest stuff to farm in, but we’re in a shelf of dirt that’s actually really good from Atlanta to Athens.
Where in Atlanta are you a regular?
That’s a good question. There’s a pretty beautiful sushi place up in Buckhead called Umi. I go there a fair bit. It’s excellent, excellent sushi.
Stills from Hugh Acheson’s forthcoming book, The Chef and the Slow Cooker. Photo Credit: Andrew Thomas Lee
Tell me about your book that just came out.
It’s called The Chef and the Slow Cooker, and it’s published by Random House Clarkson Potter. We’re on book tour right now with it. It’s going well. The book is [about] how do you take a rudimentary piece of technology that most every household has but under-utilizes, and how do you use it as a gateway to getting to cook from-scratch? How do you take things that have the ability to free you up some time in the day but still result in really good meals?
Slow cookers aren’t exactly typical cookbook territory for a professional chef.
You know, the one push back on reviews and stuff, the criticism of the book, is well, they are more complex recipes for a slow cooker. But it is called The Chef and the Slow Cooker, not The Guy Who’s Never Cooked Before and Some Slow Cooker. So they’re contemporary recipes, but there’s a kimchi-braised chicken, and West African braised catfish, and amazing lentil soups, and artichoke barigoule. Things like that. Things that you can really pull off in long cooking times, that result in great, great tasting food. Some that needs to be finished with a flourish at the end, but overall they’re pretty straightforward.
And you’re still on book tour?
We’ll be on the road. We’re working in conjugation with Cholula Hot Sauce, Whole Foods Markets, and All-Clad. And we’re touring around in a 25-stop tour, and we’re about five cities, six cities into it. It’s that’s all on hughacheson.com, people can check it out.