Oui, Chef… Hugh Acheson




Hugh is one of my favorite restaurateurs in Atlanta. I can’t tell you how many fun nights we’ve had Empire State South when we are in town for the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival. I believe it was there that we witnessed Ed Lee hurling bocce balls across the lawn half naked; you know it’s been a fun night when Ed starts to strip.

Not only does Hugh have one of the most amazing bourbon collections I’ve seen in a restaurant, but his food never disappoints. Which is evident by his two James Beard Foundation awards both for Best Chef and his cookbook,  A NEW TURN IN THE SOUTH: Southern Flavors Reinvented for Your Kitchen. He is incredibly witty and his dry sense of humor is always entertaining… especially when he’s participating on Bravo’s Top Chef. Apparently it’s that sense of humor that lead to a fan sending him death threats. While that fan might not have found him entertaining, I sure do. Read on for more from my conversation with Hugh our last chef to be featured from our Memphis trip…


Q & A

What is the most important thing that you’ve learned as a restaurateur and chef?
Never be an expert, always be a learner. I think positioning yourself as constantly wanting to know more and learn about your craft. I think you put a cap on it when you claim to be an expert at anything.

That’s a great piece of advice, not just for a chef but really for anyone. You’ve been incredibly successful as a chef and restaurateur, how long have you been in the industry?
I’m 44 now, and I ve been doing this since I was 15, so a long time.

That is a long time to be in the restaurant business. I also know that you do a little TV…
I’m on TV a fair bit. I used to be on Top Chef a lot as a judge for five seasons. Now, I don’t do it quite as much but I do pop up on TV here and there…. Which is enough.

What was the most challenging part about being a TV chef and personality?  
Yeah, I don’t really think there is anything really challenging about being on TV… competing can be a little difficult, like when I was on top chef masters but really even that was pretty easy. Being on TV is a cake walk, unfortunately that means that everybody wants to be on TV and they can’t wall be on TV.

This is true. So with our foodie culture I’m sure you have had some interesting experiences with fans. Have you had any stalkers or any crazy fan stories?
Ummm… well, I do get some strange fan mail sometimes, but not too much…

I bet, what was the strangest one?
Ah, well you know, people are strange… I had one woman keep threatening to kill me for a while… I have no idea why…

She never gave you her reason?
Not really… this woman just didn’t like me. I’m a bit of a wit and quite the sarcastic person. You know, some people like it and some people definitely don’t.

Yeah, I personally love a dry sense of humor, so I can’t relate at all to that! Bryan once received a love letter from a man in prison, he had beautiful handwriting. We kept the letter and it’s in his desk now. I know that your restaurants are all pretty scattered throughout the South, that must come with it’s own unique set of challenges.
I think when you have one restaurant, you work all the time at that one spot. When you have two, you are pulled between the two and it can be difficult. When you get to three you begin to realize that you need to start staffing accordingly so that you don’t have to constantly be there. When you have four… pretty much have execs and they are self sustaining. I mean, I go to them all, all the time, I’m there, I help them write the menus and we figure things out.  As you know you can’t just open up restaurants and have them be compounded stress every time or you’ll explode. So you have to build your teams to be strong enough to deal with the stress.

Ah, the dreaded stress of being a chef/restaurateur… what do you do to keep from going mad? A glass or bourbon?
Yeah, drinkinging a bourbon and stuff like that… I mean, I work out. I try and get out. I read a lot. I actually read a lot of stuff that isn’t food related. I just try and make sure that I have other passions and interests other than the restaurants.


Rapid Fire

10 quick responses to a topic

  1. Iced tea: don’t fuck with it… keep it simple.
  2. Social media:  important these days, but only if you actually follow through on it.
  3. Okra: great when quickly cooked
  4. Line cook: hard to find.
  5. College football: love watching it but only from the confines of my home.
  6. Home: My home kitchen.
  7. Tipping: Let it continue.
  8. Booze: Not my favorite topic today because I drank a little too much last night. Yeah, last night was a little debaucherous. So, too much last night.
  9. Sous Vide: An amazing assist in the kitchen if you know what you’re doing. It’s extraordinarily risky. People don’t understand that You can kill people.
  10. Memphis: Very spread out… massive, but interesting. It’s like a little delta honky tonk type town. It’s kinda cool… I like the grit.

Thank you so much Hugh for taking a few minutes to chat before the Le Bon Appetite event! I know everyone was busy trying to set up, so it is very much appreciated! We look forward to our annual trip to ATL and of course visiting Empire State South! Everyone, stay tuned, next week I will be posting my chat with Julian Van Winkle owner of Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon… one of our favorites!  


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