Hugh Acheson is an evangelist for Southern cuisine. Not the chicken-and-biscuits type of Southern cuisine, but the Southern cuisine that folds in centuries of influence from slave kitchens to the region’s new Asian populations.
Acheson’s Five & Ten was one of the first fine dining establishments in Athens, Ga., and the one that changed that city’s culinary landscape. Today, the James Beard award winner and Top Chef judge is also chef-partner in the Athens’ restaurant The National and Empire State South in Atlanta. He will soon open Cinco y Diez – a Mexican take on Five & Ten – and his first Savannah restaurant, The Florence, which will blend Italian and Southern flavors.
Acheson talked with American Food Roots editor Michele Kayal at Metro Cooking DC about heirloom apples, kimchi made from collard greens and the movement to redefine Southern cuisine by telling its stories.
AFR: What’s your current passion?
Acheson: I’m on a quest to erase the last 50 years of bad food culture … and revive the idea of cooking from scratch again and making sure that these are life skills we teach to a younger generation. But through that, there’s the beautiful topic of Southern food.
AFR: You come to Southern cuisine from an interesting perspective. You grew up in Canada. You’ve said that as an outsider, you’re liberated. What do you mean by that?
Acheson: I grew up in Ottawa, Canada. In the South if you talk to somebody about the recipes that mean a lot to them it always comes down to their grandmothers. And we have full respect for that idea. But sometimes your grandmother’s recipes aren’t actually very good. I come from the perspective of my grandmother not actually cooking Southern food. She’ll go toe-to-toe with you on Yorkshire pudding and roast beef, but those are the British ancestry things we see in Canada.
But in the South, I can make collard greens and never be held to account for my grandmother’s recipe and that’s kind of liberating.
AFR: You’ve said that buying local, investing in your region, is what connects us back to our history. How does it do that?
Acheson: I have a credo that is first I want people to buy local. That evolves into sustainable buying, and that evolves into organic.
North Georgia has an apple season and there’s this one varietal of apple … called an Arkansas Black. Arkansas Black is an heirloom variety that’s been there for 200 years, and they’re amazingly beautiful, crisp apples. But you’re not going to find them in a grocery store. And unless you go seek them out they won’t exist at all anymore.
There’s another thing I call the age of lament. We can’t lament that these things will go away if we do not invest in them. Investing requires you spending money on them. It’s like when you go to a restaurant once a year, and then you’re sympathetic when it goes out of business. That’s not the business plan that that guy or that woman wrote. The business plan was that you came there at least once a month. You buy into your community, you buy into your community of restaurants, you buy into your farmers, all these things. If you buy into the community, the money cycle stays within the community. It funds our public schools, it funds our museums and our arts and it funds our tax base.
AFR: This is a very Canadian point of view.
Acheson: Yes. Socialist! Socialist! … I don’t think that’s a Canadian sentiment. I think that is an apolitical sentiment of caring … it’s a communitarian sentiment of being involved.
AFR: I was actually going to ask you how a Canadian got into Southern food … not why you’re a Communist.
Acheson: That’s a good question. If I was in Wyoming, I would be into the food of Wyoming. Because I’m interested in the food of my community. The agrarian South is such an amazingly storied cuisine, it’s got so many riches to it that it should be the celebration of what’s at the table.
I seek to define Southern food as this amazing panoply of different foods. The typical Southern meal is not Kentucky Fried Chicken and salty biscuits. The typical southern meal is a small bit of fried chicken, succotash, fresh tomatoes, crisped okra, collard greens, rice perlou, local yams. … We need to reclaim the food history.
I also refuse to say that Southern food is finished being defined. … We’re still seeking to firmly define it.
AFR: People sometimes talk about the “new face” of Southern cuisine, referring to these multi-cultural influences that we currently see. But in fact, Southern food has always been quite diverse, was born of African-American, Native American and other influences. … You’ve spoken very passionately in the past of Southern food as a food born of struggle.
Acheson: The Southern food that we know was brought here by slaves. … We have to celebrate the goodness of what they brought to our society. It’s something that we all need to remember in the South, every day that we eat that food, that it’s got a poignant past.
AFR: You’ve also taken the food and put your own interpretation on it, bringing what you know of French cuisine from Montreal, your passion for North African and Spanish flavors and the elements of the Mediterranean. What does your food look like, what does it taste like? How do those influences play together?
Acheson: It’s more Southern by right of where the ingredients come from. The food was born in the South, it’s built by Southerners. One dish we do evokes three different facets of Southern living that are really important to me. There’s a huge Asian culture that’s really populating the northwest corner of Atlanta … huge Korean communities. So we started making kimchi as a nod to their culture. Sometimes I’ll make it out of collard greens. … Then we take pork belly and then we take middlins, which are whole grain rice, but it’s broken pieces of rice. … Coastal Carolina and coastal Georgia have a huge rice history that went away after the Civil War because the labor was all slaves and it was untenable economically after slavery went away. So again, it’s a sad crop that brought some culinary bounty to the area. When you sift rice the whole grains would be exported, the broken grains would be kept by the Gullahs, who were the slave population there. Because it’s a broken kernel of rice it exudes starch really quickly so it makes like a congee called rice grits. So we make that, we chop kimchi, we fold it into that with a little bit of cream, then the pork belly and on top pickled local radishes. Is it southern food? I think so. But it’s evoking all these different cultures and the history of the South all on this one plate. …
I think anybody can cook really good food. I think what you as customers want to hear when you’re eating that good food is the story behind it. The stories are what has made our food really important.
AFR: What would you say is the most exciting thing going on in Southern food today?
Acheson: Discourse. Finally people are talking about it in a way (removed) from the regular pratfalls of defining the cooking to giving it a credence I think it deserves. When I hear ‘Southern food is food that kills you’ that’s not Southern food. That’s just bad food. It’s just crappy, additive-laden, bad food. … As long as that discourse is heard and we continue on that path I think things are getting better.
Georgia chef Hugh Acheson is known for highlighting the cultural influences on Southern food -- all the cultural influences. To him, kimchi is as Southern as collard greens, and sometimes they are one and the same. He shared this recipe with us, which he may include in the cookbook he is scheduled to release in 2014. Enjoy the sneak peek.
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
- 1 pound pork belly, skin off (rectangle, about 6 inches by 3 inches by 1 inch thick)
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- freshly ground pepper to taste
- 1 small onion, peeled and diced
- ½ cup peeled and diced carrot
- ¼ cup diced celery
- 1 bay leaf
- ½ teaspoon coriander seed
- 4 cups chicken stock, divided
- ½ cup thinly shaved radish
- 2 scallions, thinly cut, white and green
- ½ teaspoon white sugar
- ¼ cup rice vinegar, unseasoned
- 1 cup Anson Mills rice grits (or long grain rice crushed in a blender for a couple of seconds)
- ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
- ½ cup heavy cream
- ½ cup chopped cabbage kimchi*
- 1 teaspoon lime juice
- 2 tablespoons roasted peanuts, shelled and crushed
Preheat oven to 300F.
Warm a braising pan over medium heat and add one tablespoon of the oil. Season the pork belly with the kosher salt and pepper and place it in the pan. Cook until crisped well, about 10 minutes on each side, 20 minutes total. Remove the belly from the pan and discard all but two tablespoons of the rendered fat and oil. Add the onions, the carrot, the bay leaf and coriander. Cook until the vegetables have just begun to soften, about five minutes. Add two cups of the chicken stock and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat, add back the pork belly, cover the pan and place in the preheated oven for about 2 hours. When the belly is very tender, remove it from the pot and place on a plate to cool. Strain the braising jus and discard the solids. When the belly has cooled, cut it into four equal sized pieces and refrigerate.
Combine the radish, the scallion, the sugar, and the rice vinegar in a bowl and set aside to lightly pickle.
Now we need to start the rice grits and finish the pork belly at the same time. To cook the rice grits, combine the rice and the remaining two cups of chicken stock with the sea salt and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a bare simmer and slowly cook the grits for about twenty minutes, until it’s a thick, congee-like porridge.
While the grits are cooking, place a large frying pan over medium high heat and add the remaining one tablespoon of vegetable oil. When the oil is hot add the belly pieces and carefully reheat them until they are crisp.
When the grits are cooked through, add the cream and the chopped kimchi. Check the salt and pepper levels and then divide among four plates or wide bowls. Perch the crisped pork belly over each small mound of grits and then garnish with some of the pickled radish, scallion and roasted peanuts.
*Prepared kimchi can be found in Asian markets