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Catching up with Hugh Acheson after Top Chef Masters

Credit: Bravo TV

Credit: Bravo TV

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

28 comments Add your comment

Richard Balise

June 8th, 2011
3:54 pm

Heads up

June 8th, 2011
4:05 pm

Regarding the answer to question #2: You can eat a “bundle of beats” but you’ll probably be pretty hungry. BeEts, perhaps, was what you were going for? Come on, y’all.

Lisa

June 8th, 2011
4:07 pm

typo… beets not BEATS. But I enjoyed reading his comments. I liked him on Top Chef Masters.

John Kessler

June 8th, 2011
4:43 pm

Bossa Nova’s pretty filling, actually….

Kirk

June 8th, 2011
4:58 pm

You go John!

Edward

June 8th, 2011
6:32 pm

After watching him on Top Chef, I have a new appreciation for the food at his restaurants.

1164mgc

June 8th, 2011
9:51 pm

Never had his food and I don’t doubt that it’s spectacular, but I thought he was a bit rude on the show a few times.

Carla Roqs

June 9th, 2011
8:22 am

i did not like him on the show either. so arrogant, and pleassssssssse show me the wife and kids.

Carla Roqs

June 9th, 2011
8:22 am

sorry, that was ugly. nice interview, but he was a pain on the show most of the time. i have no desire to visit any restaurant of his.

jimmy

June 9th, 2011
8:25 am

Burgundy should be capitalized. Respect!

Edward

June 9th, 2011
10:11 am

Rude? Did you watch the same program as me? I only saw a man with a dry sense of humor, the type I appreciate a lot. Is he proud of his work? Sure, he should be and it is deserved. The quality of food that comes out of his kitchens is testament to his high standards.

1164mgc

June 9th, 2011
11:46 am

Didn’t say anything about his high standards or the quality of his food or whether or not he should be proud of it. I said he was rude. Laying into that fellow contestant because he happened to explain that red meat was bad for you was no way for a professional to act. Did he really think this other contestant (forget his name) was going to dissuade the judges from giving him a good score? These are the same judges who gave bugs to the contestants to prepare. They’re not going to be swayed by some vegetarian who complains about red meat (he was trying to explain his point of view for HIS work in the kitchen). Acheson also was VERY rude to the scientist whom he had to work with, practically blowing him off and acting as if HE didn’t know what he was talking about. Also, his attitude about cooking down to his customer is NOT a “testament to his high standards” in any book. And these are the only 3 instances I can think of off the top of my head.

Edward

June 9th, 2011
7:07 pm

I think you just looked for some excuse to dislike him. I did not view those things in the same way as you. In fact, I thought the vegetarian guy was a pompous prick and deserved taking down. Chefs of Acheson’s accomplishments are, in general, a bit arrogant by nature. It is part of what makes them successful. I guess I expect that and simply enjoy their work and, if I’m fortunate, their company.

Art

June 9th, 2011
8:02 pm

Hugh, I admired your performance on Top Chef Masters; to the end, I thought you handled yourself with dignity and class. I did not think, based upon my limited TV perspective, that your dish was the one that should send you home… emulsification… smulsification… Critics are a necessary evil, God love them, but sometimes they are just a pain-in-the-neck… those that can’t play teach…. Your restaurants are phenomenal and I wish you much success in the future…

DND

June 10th, 2011
7:43 am

I agree with those who have commented that Hugh came off a bit arrogant at times. I’ve been a regular watcher of the TC series, and I’ve seen many chefs stand by their food but have done so in a polite and thoughtful manner.
Although he said, “The mayonnaise isn’t broken”, he appeared to also be saying, “You’re crazy. You have no idea what you’re talking about.” I also feel that he was very condescending and rude to the chemist.

Carla Roqs

June 10th, 2011
9:39 am

edward, you are outnumbered. you HAVW to either be hugh, or his best “friend” to not have observed just how rude he was. 1164mgc–perfect description of his antics. dmd- yep, true. honestly, he may be a good cook and may run a decent restaurant, i do not know. but i am a foodie. i visit places that john reviews and i want to visit the restaurants of some chefs that i have seen on food network, etc. hugh may not miss my money, but id eat mickey d’s (ewwww) before id eat free samples from hugh– he came across as very nasty.

Carla Roqs

June 10th, 2011
9:39 am

1164mgc

June 10th, 2011
10:53 am

Edward – why on Earth would I try to look for some reason to dislike Acheson?! I’ve watched just about every season of TC, including its spin-offs. I usually root for the Atlanta chefs, so he was on the top of my list for this season – I was looking for some reason to LIKE him, in fact. I don’t wish him any ill-will. I just wish he’d treat people with more respect, and it doesn’t have anything to do with his dry humor or his food. I haven’t had his food or Richard Blais’ or Kevin Gillespie’s, but I believe Richard and Kevin are a much better representatives for Atlanta than Acheson is. Atlanta should be proud to have Kevin and Richard in their city. And I’m with Carla – I’d rather eat Mickey d’s than to support Acheson, no matter how good it is!

Carla Roqs

June 10th, 2011
10:59 am

i did Blais’ restaurant and his staff was wonderful and they loved him. if kevin is the cutie with the brother and they were in the top 2– i would eat anything he cooks. im in dc and i come home pretty often and when i do i check out the places john mentions. i even check out places in other states, like a new york joint a couple of weeks ago. maybe it is just southern charm, maybe it is that we work for our money– but bad manners are bad manners and hugh is full of em. actually, i really think he has low self confidence and that is why he comes off so arrogantly, but if you continue to bash us for seeing him as he has shown himself to be, this is going to get ugly. ga peach smiley face.

Carla Roqs

June 10th, 2011
11:09 am

you got me a little heated, i mentioned dc because: i use the name carla roqs, or carlaroqs in some places because i fell for yeah, carla on her first appearance of top chefs and totally loved her on her second chefs’ appearance. her cooking was not very consistant, but…. her attitude and behavior towards her fellow chefs and the judges were a crowd pleaser. so…. carla roqs= rocks= is the bombdiggity. and i wanna eat her cooking– because of her attitude, and the “love”. cannot imagine what screen name i would use for hugh. i knew he was gone when he said he would cook down to anyone who was paying for it. arggghhhh

[...] [1] Top Chef Master: Judges Were Wrong, “Very Surprised” to be Sent Home [2] Catching up with Hugh Acheson after Top Chef Masters [3] Master Chef Premiere Recap: Bring On Your Best Dishes! [4] Master Chef Recap: From Dreadlock [...]

Edward

June 11th, 2011
9:02 am

Wow, over react much? The hyperbole is getting thick around here. Perhaps I am “outnumbered”, but considering how very often the majority is profoundly ignorant and obtuse (Georgia politics anyone?), I’m happy to be among the minority.
I am not Hugh, I’ve never met him, even. I just don’t slander and malign people based on an unrealistic interpretation made from a highly-edited “reality” show appearance.

John

June 12th, 2011
10:11 am

Hugh and his food are terribly pretentious. Too bad he got sent home TWICE from this show…

Real Athens

June 12th, 2011
11:22 am

Carla:

You’ve taken a screen name on a food blog ’cause you like some one’s acting — as opposed to their cooking? Hmmmm.

You’re watching TV. If ever you want to get an dishonest reaction or read from a person’s personality — point a camera at them. That is the fallacy of “reality” TV. There is nothing real about it. The only reality TV that ever existed (or exists) was candid camera or security cameras. Once the set is dressed, the make-up applied and the director says “roll” everything else is acting.

Get over yourself. As “a foodie” you’ll eat Mickey D.’s and by pass on Hugh’s establishments because of your perception of his performance on a “reality” TV show? Do you have any idea how that comes across?

Sigh. On the bright side, it just leaves more for me.

Hugh’s food “terribly pretentious”? Yeah, right. Ramps, grits, beets, turnips, parsnips, local vegetables, etc. et. al. are all soooo pretentious. When I was growing up people looked down on the above named ingredients as “poor people food” because they were cheap, plentiful and filling.

steve brown

June 12th, 2011
5:12 pm

The two judges, to put it mildly, are not normal. In fact I believe they are aliens-it is the one real weakness in the show. I’m am proud that Hugh exposed them, even at the cost of his own demise.

Carla Roqs

June 13th, 2011
11:34 am

edward, whateva. real athens: i work for my money, and i spend it where ever i desire. even if i am spending someone else’s money- i spend it where i desire. hugh was dismissed from the show, twice. his attitude on the show was horrible- be it just for tv or real. i do not really care. i do not deal with attitudes. if you’d read my posts thoroughly you would have noted that i have visited places john has reviewed. there is a little, bitty place in ny that my manhattan friends had never even heard of, i went there– and the attitudes were pretty decent and the dish was great. i do not shop in stores where the clerks have attitudes. mickey d’s? i was being facetious– but would i prefer a smile at mcdonald’s as opposed to someone who states he would cook down for someone as long as they were paying????????? heck yeah. i think he is a jerk and you prob are as well. how is that for projecting?

Edward

June 13th, 2011
12:47 pm

Carla, just as you have taken what was presented on TV to make an assumption about Chef Atcheson, I can use what you have posted here to accurately determine you are a shallow, gullible person typical of those who value appearance over substance. There’s my projection. Have a pleasant day.

Carla Roqs

June 14th, 2011
8:18 am

edward, aka hugh: arguing over a tv non-star cook is funny.