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October 19, 2011

First Look: Acheson’s Folksy Cookbook Is An Instant Classic

R.E.M.‘s fave hometown chef rocks with a new cookbook cementing his rep. as one of the best re-interpreters of Southern fare

By Nancy Staab

  • Photos by Rinne Allen

As much an art project and hip lifestyle tome as cookbook, Chef Hugh Acheson’s A New Turn in the South blends a folksy, farm-centric take on food with suave, cosmopolitan updates. The result: flavorful, unpretentious dishes with flair that won’t upset the ham hocks, hominy, and bread-and-butter-pickle purists.

Chef Hugh Acheson Chef Hugh Acheson

THIS JUST IN:  MAY 5, 2012: HUGH ACHESON'S A NEW TURN IN THE SOUTH WON THE JAMES BEARD 2012 AWARD FOR BEST AMERICAN COOKBOOK.

Hugh Acheson—whose mini-restaurant empire includes Five & Ten, The National, and Gosford Wine shop in Athens, Georgia,  and the meat-and-three Empire State South in Atlanta---creates an entire ethos around his establishments that goes well beyond just the food on the plates. There is something very communal, inviting and hip but-not-too-hip, about all of his places, where rock stars sits elbow-to-elbow with college students and local farmers. For example, the décor of his restos usually boast a form of anti-design design that is so subtle and nuanced that it seems an accident. Call it pared down chic. Well-made drinks and “snackies” are always at the ready at the bars, Empire State South even boasts an open bocce court, and each of his restaurants offers seemingly simple, unfussy dishes that summon serious food nostalgia while carrying taste buds into the 21st century. Think: country ham kicked up with chilied mango, one-pot chicken infused with cane vinegar from the Phillipines and that Southern standby, fried catfish, slathered with a sophisticated tomato chutney and a vermouth emulsion. Each of these recipes is included in Acheson’s A New Turn in the South: Southern Flavors Reinvented for Your Kitchen (Published by Clarkson Potter, $35).

Acheson is also an amazing business man, who seems to have thought of every point-of-sales opportunity at Empire State South. To wit: a beckoning dessert table laden with homemade cookies and blondie bars;  jars of put-ups like chow-chow that you can take home as a souvenir; seasonal wine and guest chef dinners; and even gourmet lunch pails or tiffins for the office-locked Midtowners. Heck, Acheson has even got his own t-shirts emblazoned with "The Mono-Brow Preservation Society"-- a play on the one imperfection (if you can call it that) to his movie-star face. But movie star looks belie a wry humor, a  humble unpretentious personality, and food and community activist roles that carry into Acheson’s cuisine and his cookbook.

Gorgeous still lifes by Athens artist/photographer Rinne Allen give Acheson’s cookbook the feel of a Martha-Stewart-lifestyle piece if reimagined for the hipster set. Acheson’s clearly identifiable arm with signature radish tattoo is depicted pouring his recipe for sweet tea into Mason jars. In another image two aproned girls (his  daughters?) sit between a bowl of boiled peanuts. Elements of “hand-written” typography enforce the DIY arts-and-craft theme. Don't miss Acheson’s folksy notes before each recipe, where he often pushes for local farmers and artisan purveyors like Allan Benton’s Country Ham and reveals such things as his fave sipping bourbon (Old Rip Van Winkle); his love for pairing Reisling with fried chicken;  his favorite cheat (Texas Pete’s hot sauce) and why you should prize your seasoned cast iron pan and never, ever wash it with soap and steel wool. 

There’s also a foreword by R.E.M.’s band manager and longtime Acheson client Bertis Down, who claims, not hyperbolically, that Athens was basically a “gastronomic wasteland” before Acheson came down from Ottawa to bless the college town with Southern fare borrowed from his Southern childhood, plus fancy French techniques learned in San Francisco at Gary Danko.

Perhaps there is no better illustration of the way Acheson can fuse down-home Southern and fancy chef flair than in two, nearly side-by-side soup recipes from A New Turn in the South. While Acheson gussies up traditional corn soup with vanilla bean, coconut milk and Maine lobster meat (oh my!), his field pea, ham hock and mustard green soup with cornbread croutons is a sweet ode to an old Dixie recipe. Indeed, Acheson is a voracious reader of vintage Southern cookbooks. As Food & Wine documented in their current November issue feature on him, a dog-eared copy of a 1952 Junior League Cookbook from Jackson, Mississippi, was prominently splayed on his desk.  http://www.foodandwine.com/articles/hugh-achesons-neo-retro-southern-cooking

Lemon Chess Pies (served with blueberry compote) Lemon Chess Pies (served with blueberry compote)

As expected, Acheson’s book is heavy on healthful, but not too healthful: he’s not adverse to some good, artisanal bacon. He's also an advocate of greenmarket cooking (ie. local, seasonal, organic) and dishes with a healthy does of color. In fact, his eye for color on a plate is painterly. Acheson is also the master of vegetables and sides that are so delicious and satisfying that they can serve as mains . Nor does he neglect classic Southern staples (hoppin’ john, collard greens, sorghum sweet potatoes, shrimp and grits, fried okra, fried chicken, even, gasp, tomato aspic!), although heavy meats and desserts get slightly shorter shrift. The cookbook is divided into the following chapters: libations; “snackies;” soups & salads; first courses; fish; fowl; red meat; sides; pickles, put-ups and pantry items; and deserts.

Acheson often argues that his insider/outsider status as a Southerner, who spent childhood moments in the South but spent his formative years in Ottawa, actually allows him more creative freedom to tweak Southern classics than a hidebound native. We couldn’t agree more. In the prologue to his cookbook, Acheson states,

“I am from Ottawa, Canada, and have spend almost a third of my life cooking food inspired by the Southern United States. To me this is a happily strange situation….I have fallen hard for the place—for fried chicken; the railway trestles; the panoply of music; folk art and front-porch living; and most important for the agrarian landscape.” -Hugh Acheson

Safe to say the South as a whole has embraced this chef as our native son, and he’s even garnered national love with a Food & Wine “Best New Chef 2002” nod, Top Chef cameos (he serves as a permanent judge on this season’s show, premiering Wed. Nov. 2 on Bravo) and multiple James Beard nominations. We predict more kudos to come for this favorite son’s "New South" cookbook.

 

Standout recipes from A New Turn in the South include:

 

Chantarelles on Toast

Braised and Crisped Pork Belly with Citrus Salad

Southern Carbonara (with country ham and collard greens)

Fried Green Tomatoes with Pickled Shrimp and Ranch Dressing

Roasted Carrot and Beet Salad with Feta, Pulled Parsley and Cumin Vinaigrette

Bacon-Wrapped, Fennel-Stuffed Trout with Hot-Pepper Vianigrette

Seared Day-Boat Scallops with Collards, Potlikker and Crisp Grit Discs

Pan-Roasted Duck Breasts with Blueberrries, Frisee, Caramelized Vidalias and Sorghum Vinaigrette

Braised Short Ribs with Hominy Stew

Lamb Shanks with Minted Turnips

Grilled Ramps with Pecorino, Lemon, Sea Salt

Shaved Brussels Sprouts Salad with Dijon Vinaigrette

Duck Liver Dirty Rice

Corn, Tomato and Basil

Gingered Pickled Carrots

Vidalia Onion Jam

Lemon Chess Pies with Blueberry Compote

Roasted Fig Tartlets with Vanilla Bean Whipped Cream