Earlier this year, as a competitor on “Top Chef Masters,” Athens restauranteur Hugh Acheson jumped off the TV screen with his self-described unibrow, his smooth confidence and arch commentary.
The TV network Bravo quickly invited him to become a rotating judge on the next season of “Top Chef,” which debuts Wednesday night at 10 p.m. Coincidentally, he has a new cookbook out as well called “A New Turn in the South: Southern Flavors Reinvented For Your Kitchen” (Clarkson Potter). He’ll be signing his book at Barnes & Noble Friday in Buckhead at 7 p.m.
On “Top Chef,” which will be centered in Texas this year, Acheson will be on about half the episodes. The show added a semi-final round this year which pares 29 chefs down to 16. Two are from Georgia: Janine Falvo, executive chef at Briza Restaurant in Midtown Atlanta and Whitney Otawka, who used to work for Acheson and was recently named executive chef at Farm 255 in Athens.
Acheson runs two restaurants in Athens – Five and Ten and the National – and Empire State South in Atlanta, which received rave reviews last year from AJC restaurant critic John Kessler.
Q: How did you get on Bravo’s ‘Top Chef Masters”?
Acheson: ‘Masters’ is the ‘Top Chef’ iteration where you don’t try out. They just give you a call and ask if you want to do it. I was really excited about doing it for a number of reasons. It’s for charity and just a fun thing to do though sometimes I felt like I was one of the only ones having fun on the show. This is also a way to advance my career and stay in the public eye.
Q: How is Empire State South doing?
Acheson: It’s doing great. It’s still the talk of the town in a lot of ways. After the first year, it’s finally maturing. The chef Ryan Smith is an amazingly skilled guy. We try to do things a little out of the box. I try to be in there three, four nights a week when I’m not on book tour or shooting a TV show. I live in Athens full time but keep a small apartment in Midtown.
Q: Tell us a bit about your cookbook?
Acheson: It’s my vision of what Southern food is as a Canadian guy living in Athens cooking collard greens. We feel it’s a beautfiul book in terms of its design aspects. There are a lot of doodles from me, a lot of hand lettering. It’s very much who I am. The recipes are achievable for the home cook who takes the time and shops at a farmer’s market on a Saturday seeking better quality items and wants to use them well.
Q: What are some of your favorite recipes?
Acheson: I’m really into soups and salads. There’s a great pickled shrimp recipe. There’s bacon-wrapped, fennel-stuffed trout, a poached halibut and a wonderful classic catfish we’ve been doing at Five and Ten.
Q: How’s it different being a judge on ‘Top Chef’ as opposed to being a competitor?
Acheson: It’s a lot easier, a lot less stress. It’s exciting to see a crew of chefs try their best. Some of them excel. Some do belly flops you don’t see coming. As a judge, I don’t see myself as an expert. I can learn about food and wine every day and never get bored. I just bring my wit and sarcasm to the table.
Hugh Acheson will be signing “A New Turn in the South: Southern Flavors Reinvented For Your Kitchen”
7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 4, Barnes & Noble. 2900 Peachtree Road NE, Atlanta. 404-261-7747. www.barnesandnoble.com.
“Top Chef Texas,” debuts Wednesday, Nov. 2, 10 p.m.
-Whitney Otawka, a California native who recently left a restaurant on Cumberland Island, to run Farm 255 in Athens, said she likes rustic, comfort food that isn’t super composed. She’s worked with Linton Hopkins of Holeman & Fitch. Among her favorite eateries in Atlanta: Restaurant Eugene, Bacchanalia, Miller Union and Papi’s as well as Empire State South.
She said she enjoyed her time on Cumberland Island, where she worked for almost two years. “A lot of people say I’d get burned out,” she said. “Sure, television wasn’t available. Internet was spotty. I’d have people tape ‘Top Chef Massters’ when Hugh was on. But it wasn’t bad.” Before that, she worked with Acheson at Five and Ten as line cook in Athens and attended Le Cordon Bleu in Atlanta. “I’d prep from 9 to 2 p.m., hop in my car and get to Atlanta by 5:30 p.m. and go to school until 11. It was crazy!”
Otawka said it would stress her out watching people cook on ‘Top Chef.” “I never thought I”d do something like ‘Top Chef,’ ” she said. “It goes back to the idea that if you want ot break out and get known and expose yourself to the public, this is a great opportunity.”
- Janine Falvo, executive chef at Briza, said she’s been a huge fan of “Top Chef” since the first season. “I really really love the show,” she said. “I thought it would be something fun to do.”
A Pittsburgh native, she said she grew up in a traditional Italian family. When she decided to go into cooking, she landed an externship at Disney World, then found work in Chicago. From there, she moved to Sonoma in California for six years before coming to Atlanta to open Briza a few months ago. She said she is only now getting to know Atlanta a bit. On the show, she’ll talk about her father’s death and a girlfriend who broke up with her right before she got on the show.
By Rodney Ho, Radio & TV Talk