Raised in 1971 in Ottawa as the youngest of four children, chef and restaurateur Hugh Acheson got his start in the food industry at the age of 15, when he took an after-school job as a dishwasher at Ottawa’s Bank Street Café. After moving to Montreal to attend Concordia University — where he studied political philosophy until he dropped out to work in Italian restaurants — Acheson returned to Ottawa and began working at the iconic Café Henri Burger. Here, Acheson learned about French cuisine and wine under chef Rob McDonald. In the late ’90s, Acheson and his wife journeyed south, to her hometown of Athens, Georgia, where Acheson became the head chef and manager at the Last Resort Grill.
After a period in San Francisco, during which he helped chef Gary Danko open his namesake establishment, Acheson returned to Athens and opened his first restaurant, Five & Ten, which forged together the beauty of the South with the flavors of Europe. In 2002, based upon the success of his restaurant, Acheson was named one of the best new chefs in the United States by Food & Wine magazine. He has since opened four additional restaurants, including his most recent venture, The Florence in Savannah, Georgia. Featuring unique takes on classic Italian dishes and an extensive wine list, The Florence has received rave reviews since opening their doors in late June.
In addition to managing his restaurant empire, Acheson competed on season three of Bravo’s Top Chef Masters and appeared as a judge on seasons nine, ten and eleven of Top Chef. Acheson published his first cookbook, A New Turn in the South: Southern Flavors Reinvented for Your Kitchen, in 2011. The book was awarded the 2012 James Beard Foundation award for “Best Cookbook in American Cooking.” He was also co-winner of the 2012 James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Southeast. In 2014, Acheson published his second cookbook, entitled Pick a Pickle: 50 Recipes for Pickles, Relishes and Fermented Snacks.
Learn more at www.hughacheson.com.
[Top photo: Emily B. Hall]
I wasn’t raised in a culinary household but got into cooking at age 15 as an afternoon job. The chefs I worked for in the five years from then were very influential. They showed the industry to me and took the time and patience to teach a very feisty kid.
At what point in your life did you realize that cooking was something you wanted to pursue as a career?
I think once I went to college and realized that political philosophy wasn’t the path for me. I had invested time in learning the craft of cooking, thinking it would be a trade I could fall back on. Cooking won. I realized it was the endless topic that I was happily engulfed in daily.
What skills or traits should every great chef possess?
The ability to lead. To teach. To pull everything they can out of food. To cherish their suppliers and locality.
What inspired you to open a restaurant in Savannah, and how does The Florence differ from other Italian restaurants in the area?
Savannah is a wonderful town but didn’t really have the type of place we offer. The Florence is a restaurant that is, all at once, fine dining, casual dining, bar, patio, and coffee shop. It offers a lot to a wide spectrum of people.
What are the most difficult aspects of opening a new restaurant? And what aspects of the process do you most enjoy?
I enjoy the planning and getting the proper skill sets in place to make it better than most. I like the initial setting up of the idea and how it fits into the community.
What do you wish you’d learned at a much younger age than you actually did?
I learned a lot young. Still learning though!
What’s the best or most memorable meal you’ve had recently?
Probably a pasta dinner with my friend Francis Lam at Bucato in Los Angeles. Fantastic pasta.
Patrick Roy, Michael Stipe and Mario Batali are coming to your house for dinner. What do you prepare for them?
For an all-star hockey goalie, a famous singer, and the most ebullient chef of all time, I’d make a massive shrimp boil with garlic rubbed toasted bread, cases of Chablis and a bushel of oysters. That would be a fun night. Simple food done right.
What would you like to do that you simply haven’t found the time for yet?
Take the family to Tokyo to eat ramen.
With The Florence up-and-running, what’s next for you?
Finishing up a new book called The Broad Fork. It’s a look at vegetable-centric cooking and answers the age old question, “What the heck do I do with kohlrabi?”