On last week’s episode of Top Chef Masters, Atlanta’s Hugh Acheson packed his knives and left for the second time. I recently had the chance to catch up with the Empire State South chef about his time on the show and what is next for the 5-time James Beard nominee.
How did you first become involved with TC masters? How were you first asked to be on the show.
Well, they called me and there are no tryouts for Top Chef Masters. And I’ve said no to a lot of reality TV in the past, but I was really excited about the concept of trying to do something for charity.
Speaking of which, congratulations on raising $15K for Wholesome Wave. How did you get involved with Wholesome Wave and why did you choose them as your charity?
You know, they have been doing farmers markets for a couple of years now. The pure aspect of getting great food on the table for the less fortunate is such a noble pursuit. The thing that you run into with the altruistic idea of great food is that localized food is expensive. It isn’t really fair to say “you shouldn’t eat that Wendy’s burger, you should eat that bundle of beets,” but the bundle of beets is $8. Wholesome Wave cutting that price in half for people with food stamps is a game changer when it comes to diet for the less fortunate in society.
Top chef is known for their outlandish challenges, and you actually succeeded quite well in some of the more ridiculous quickfires, specifically the bug challenge and the most recent microwave-only challenge. What was your favorite quickfire or challenge that you had to cook in?
Obviously the bug challenge is completely ridiculous, but it was fun because I won. I won three quickfires, and they were the most ridiculous ones on the season. So I guess I excel at ridiculous! The most arduous challenge was the elimination challenge in the Mad Men episode with Christina Hendricks. It was just a tortuous kitchen to work in. We were all so new to the show and I had just come back on, it was a really hard situation to work under. It was a complete mess.
Your situation was unique b/c you left early on and then were brought back onto the show after John Rivera Sedler left. Did that change your approach when you returned to the show?
It changed my approach a fair bit. I was going to have a lot more fun on it when I came back. One thing I could do was just me enjoying myself and cooking food. It allowed me to be more relaxed than a lot of the participants on the show, and I think that is how I approach life. I wanted to enjoy it while I could, and I think that played in well and my food showed that.
In a couple of the judges tables, especially your final one, you really stood up for your food. Specifically, you contended that your mayo wasn’t broken. Now that you are past it, be honest…were you just putting up a strong front, or do you still stand by the fact that it was tomato water and that the mayo didn’t break?
I don’t think it had broken, and I think that they were off base. I am the most honest person with my kitchens and my food, hopefully one of the most honest in the food industry. If something that I cook isn’t good, I’m more than in agreement that it isn’t good and will make amends to make it better. Most of the time in all of the events, I agreed with most of the commentary, but there were some times when I felt like they HAD to come up with something. Of those times with they had to come up with a disagreement with us, I knew that I wasn’t going to be pushed around. Daddy didn’t raise no fool!
On Top Chef, you are not allowed to bring recipes with you, only what is in your head, and many chefs try out new things on the show. Are there any ideas that you got from the show that we may get to try here in Atlanta?
I don’t think that Atlanta is ready for a cricket salad just yet! I can look into that, but I’d need to get a firm price from my cricket provider first.
Would you do TC Masters again if you were asked?
Sure! It was a lot of fun and the people we met were just phenomenal. There are some people that I think will go far in that competition. I have a never-ending adoration for Traci Des Jardins .I think she is such a culinary bad[butt] and such a smart chef and great business person. I could learn from people like that every day.
Obviously, the biggest news going on with you outside of Top Chef right now is that you recently hired Cynthia Wong as head pastry chef for Empire State South. How did that come about?
In the best way possible. You hate to see people leave their employment, but they are more than welcome to. It is a free agency in this world. Cynthia came to us and said that she was leaving Cakes & Ale and was wondering if we had any openings in pastry. We were actually looking for a more experienced pastry chef, and I did not expect her to walk in the door. When someone like that walks through your door, you say yes.
I know that you have a cookbook in the works. Can you tell me about that?
It is coming out in October and its called A New Turn of The South, and we are really excited. It is about my experience with Southern food and a lot of recipes that we have experienced at 5 & 10. It is a beautiful book with awesome photos from a good friend of mine Rinne Allen who is an amazing designer and photographer in Athens. It is just a purist little idiosyncratic and fun cookbook that is a little different than everything else out there right now.
What can we look forward to at Empire State South?
We have a lot of things going on, like coffee tastings and burgundy dinners, and Empire State South is such a unique restaurant in that there is always something happening. The bocce ball court is always busy in the summer, and it is just a lot of fun to be in Midtown.
There are two episodes left in this season of Top Chef Masters, including tonight’s episode at 10 PM EST on Bravo TV. The finale airs next week on June 15th.
- By Jon Watson, AJC Food & More blog