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Hugh Acheson on His Pickle Problem & Top Chef Boston

Today, Eater is covering the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen live from the Eater Lounge at the Limelight Hotel. Right now: chef Hugh Acheson
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[Photo: Eater]

How's it going? What have you done in Aspen?
Not much. Went to those parties. Went to the Nell, hung out, drank rose. It was funny, I got to the Nell, crowded table, sitting down, there were not enough seats and suddenly this guy is bringing a chair over his head and it's great service and I was like, "Wait a minute. That's Bobby Stuckey." I was like, "That's awesome. Why is he doing that?" So that was fun and then ended the night pretty early. Was in bed by 12:30. No hard day this morning.

No 5K?
No 5K. Do I look like I runner? Can I run if chased? Yes. So now I've got a demo at 3:45 and then a Southern lunch tomorrow. Sean Brock just showed up, which is good, because he's participating, too. And then Mike Lata has yet to show up, but he's supposed to show up tonight. Jamie Bissonette decided not to come because he was so delayed. Man, all the delays yesterday screwed everyone up.

So I want to talk about your pickle problem. Your pickle book. Do you have a pickle problem?
Like, a pickle addiction? I have a pickle problem, yeah. We definitely have a pickle problem at Empire State South, where we make way too many pickles. We're still finding pickled ramps from two years ago. I don't know how the health department feels about that. But a problem, no.

Trying to bring back things that are quickly being forgotten in the world of Southern food is really important. Everybody says things like, oh, I remember canning with my grandmother. The problem is you don't remember canning with your mother. Because she didn't can with you. The era where we lost touch with food just eclipsed everything. So the pickle book is simple. There are very amazing pickle books out there that are far more scientific and have a lot more space to really espouse the beauty of pickling then a brief little book like that is going to. I don't even know if I can call it a book. But it was good. And I think it's got a lot of good reviews, so it seems to be doing well.

More in the pipeline like that? It's a fun format.
No. It is a fun format, but the price point and then the price they're paying us to fabricate the book is not really conducive to the amount of time we put into it. So if that can get shaped up a little bit, it'll work. But in that vein, there's a gazillion different things you could do. Single-topic cookbooks are really interesting to me, like Sam Sifton's Thanksgiving book was great, and beautifully written.

It's the true document of Thanksgiving.
It really is. And I love that, that becomes a historical document that you cite at that time of year. So hopefully the pickle book is something you bring out at that time of year, in the Spring when everything's abundant at the market and you're into the pickling idea.

Will we see like, a squash book for the Fall?
Yeah, no, I don't think we'll get that focused.

It is sort of a dream team: You were working with Francis Lam.
Yes, on the new cookbook, I'm working with Francis and the book sort of answers the question, "What the fuck do I do with kohlrabi?" That's actually not the working title. It's called The Broad Fork, as a working title. And it's just aimed at getting people to understand what's in their CSA box, what's at the farmers' market, and how to use it. Each ingredient has four recipes, two simpler and two more in-depth. So if it's leeks, or asparagus, everything's got four things. There are some foraged elements, too, but not too much. I'm a little worried we're going to forage the earth into nothingness very soon. Lichen. Do you like lichen? What's not to lichen?

They're clear-cutting ramps now.
They really are, no one knows how to cut ramps anymore, we're just ripping them all up.

So you're opening the Florence in Savannah?
Yeah, it looks like next week. And it's stunningly beautiful. It's a phenomenally beautiful restaurant. I'm really proud of it, the build-out's really good, and now comes the most difficult part of any concept: not designing and building it, but actually putting content into it every day. But we have a great team down there. And the idea is relatively simple at its core, it's just to show the similarity and ethos between Southern food and Italian food. They're both remarkably simple reactions to their growing environments. A lot of extruded pastas and hand-rolled pastas. There's a pizza oven, but it's not a pizzeria.

What's a Southern pizza?
Just made with Southern ingredients. Still utilizing the beauty of Italian cooking but then wrapping it in Southern ingredients. We're not the first to do it, Andy [Ticer] and Michael [Hudman] have been doing it in Memphis, and Tandy Wilson in Nashville. But Savannah is a really interesting town. It's so drop-dead gorgeous, and so nuanced. It has this wonderful, kind of creepy patina to it that's so cool. But it lacks a little in contemporary food culture. It's got a lot of great restaurants, they're just of a different time. So we're trying to bring something different to them, and I know a lot of chefs are sort of looking to us to see if we'll be successful there.

I think the conversation's started; what we've seen in Charleston over the last 15 years has been mind-blowing. They took a city 20 years ago that was dedicated to serving tourists they'd never see again, and now suddenly they're a world-class dining city. That's a really amazing point in food culture, where they decide they actually care about the consumer coming back in the next week or next month.

And you have a restaurant in Athens.
I have three restaurants in Athens.

And then you're also in Atlanta. So why not open more in Atlanta?
Because it's not where I live. I love Atlanta, and I spend half of my time there, and it's a wonderful, growing city. Empire is a bit of a beast of a restaurant; it's breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and it's seven days a week. So it draws most of our attention when we're there. We have a very strong team there, and great people who we'll elevate to other roles and potentially do other stuff with. It's just not on our radar right now. I wouldn't say Atlanta is saturated with food right now, in the style that we do, but it's getting there.

Do you find yourself driving around between all three cities?
Yeah. I drive a diesel, thank god, because the gas mileage is much better.

What kind of car?
A BMW Diesel, a 328, it's a simple car, a good car. It's a new car, I think it's three months old and it's got 16,000 miles on it. So yeah, I spend a lot of time in the car.

Do you listen to music, or podcasts, or what?
Yeah, I listen to music, some podcasts. I actually like Alton Brown's podcast. It's interesting, and it thoroughly encapsulates the goodness of him. He's got some strange attributes, too. He's a lovely man in a lot of ways but it helps when he's got a forum he can control. I'm not sure if Cutthroat Kitchen is that forum. But to each to their own, I'm sure it's well-watched. And I listen to a lot of music, and do a lot of phone calls. Bluetooth. But not the stupid little earpiece. At least it's in the car so I don't look like a moron.

So how does it work, with you constantly going from place to place?
You know, you have teams. This is not about me. I'm the figurehead and happily so. Right now I'm sitting here on a beautiful day in Aspen, and all of our restaurants are open for business. You empower people and make them believe in your vision, and you make sure the vision is considerate of their wants and aspirations and aptitudes, and you respect them. And they give a lot back to you. But I have to give a lot to them to get a lot back. I can't just be a dictatorial person who's never at the restaurants.

So I'm in the restaurants, but I rotate around. I'm usually there in some of the off-business hours to get them set up for the evening. At Five & Ten, four of five of the waiters have been there for more than 12 years. Three have been there for the full 16 years. I know I look young, but I've been doing this a long time. This is not my first rodeo. That means there's a backbone to the restaurant, and people that thoroughly believe in the systems and how they work, and thoroughly believe in the hospitality that we're meant to provide, which is kind of the natural basis for food in the South. They believe in it, and they do well by it. Some of them are partners, and some have just been there a long time. You've gotta build teams.

Top Chef Boston. How's it going?
It's good. Boston is really good. It's funny, you talk to some people in Boston and they're like, "I don't know, I'm from Boston, I eat chowder." It sounds like a generalization, but the people I met who said those things... you realize there's a Relais Chateaux restaurant right over there, right? You realize that Jamie [Bissonnette] and Ken [Oringer] are uber-James Beard Award-winning chefs? And Matthew Gaudet at West Bridge is doing phenomenal food. They have so much to offer. It's such an amazingly pedestrian city, with a lot to offer, like Tony Maws. There's some characters up there, there's a great backbone of food. I just think they're waking up to it. That's America, though, it's not just them. Look at L.A., they thought they were a crappy food city, and now they're arguably the best food city in North America.

Arguably?
I would say. You know why? There's not a lot of super high-end there. They don't go for that, as much money as Hollywood and Beverly Hills have, look at the number of really super-high-end places. There just aren't that many. So there's tons of food for the people, which is great. They revel in the taqueria. They revel in all points of dining. The only other city I can really think of like that is Austin. Austin is that way to the core. I can't think of a super high-end restaurant in Austin, either. What would it be?

Hmm. There's some fancy white-tablecloth places. Jefferey's re-opened.
So there are some, but there's not a real push for it. The push is for variety, for food for everyone.

OK, last question, we're asking all the chefs this question. What's the craziest thing you've ever said no to?
I don't know if that's confidential or not! I got offered to be a spokesperson for a very major poultry company. My agent was like, "I know you're going to say no to this, BUT... it may be a LOT of money." But look. We do fine. I will not sell my soul for anything. I'll do stuff quietly that's great. And even if a big company like that came to me and said, "This is our path to the future, these are the sustainability measures that we're taking, this is the new ethical treatment plan for the animals, this is our new butchery practice, these are the steps we're trying to take." You give me something I can defend your company with? Great. They gave me nothing. So yeah, we say no to things like that. And we have to.

· All Hugh Acheson Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Aspen 2014 Coverage on Eater [-E-]

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355 S Monarch St, Aspen, CO 81611

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