From Centretown to the New South

Ottawa-raised Georgia-based chef Hugh Acheson

The debut cookbook by Ottawa-raised, Georgia-based chef Hugh Acheson is up for a prestigious James Beard Foundation award this month. Acheson is also vying for the title of Best Chef of the U.S. Southeast.

When Hugh Acheson was growing up in downtown Ottawa in the late 1980s, he, like many teenagers, wanted a job after school. He lived on MacDonald Street, not far from Lisgar Collegiate where he was enrolled, and found low-level work at a succession of nearby food stores and restaurants — from the Bank Street Cafe to Cantor’s Deli to Memories and the Vienna Cafe in the ByWard Market.

“I just started cooking,” Acheson says over the phone, from Athens, Georgia, where he now lives and works.

“This was something I had a definite aptitude for at a young age, and I could understand how to work in a kitchen and take the stress, and do it right and do it consistently. So that paid off.”

Did it ever. Acheson, 40, owns three acclaimed restaurants, including two in Athens and one in Atlanta. For the sixth year in a row, he’s vying for the James Beard Foundation’s best chef award for the U.S. Southeast, nominated for the oldest of his businesses, the restaurant Five and Ten in Athens. The winner is to be announced May 7. Opened in 2000, Five and Ten succeeded so quickly that Acheson was named one of Food and Wine magazine best new chefs in 2002.

Last fall, Acheson’s first cookbook, A New Turn in the South: Southern Flavours Reinvented for your Kitchen, was published. The book, which includes occasional references to Acheson’s experiences in Ottawa, is one of three contenders for the Beard Foundation’s American cooking book award. The winner is to be announced Friday.

Not content to simply cook and write, Acheson has in the last year gained more face time as a up-and-coming U.S. food TV personality. He competed on the Bravo TV show Top Chef Masters last spring and his quick wit and cooking savvy led to stints as a judge on Top Chef Just Deserts last fall and on Top Chef, the marquee franchise of the TV show brand, this year.

Acheson, who never attended cooking school, says that his stints at two storied — but now defunct — Ottawa-area restaurants in the mid-1990s were crucial to his culinary development.

At 19, after dropping out from studying political philosophy at Concordia University in Montreal, Acheson returned to Ottawa and got a low-ranking job in the kitchen brigade at the fine French restaurant Cafe Henry Burger in Hull, working under Chef Robert Bourassa.

“He was a treat to me, and very very kind,” Acheson says. “He was a very gifted teacher for a lot of chefs.

“There are a lot of arguments against cooking schools,” Acheson says. “I think a restaurant like Henry Burger is the best argument against cook schools. Everything they’re going to teach you in cooking school you’re going to learn there. It’s just so technique-driven and so classic and so foundational that it can be applied anywhere later on.”

After a year, Acheson and Henry Burger’s chef de cuisine, Rob MacDonald, left the Hull dining institution, which closed in 2006, to open Maplelawn Cafe on Richmond Road. To this day, Acheson mentions MacDonald, until recently a consultant-chef at the Pelican Grill on Bank Street, as a mentor.

Acheson and MacDonald say that back then, they were following the locally based, farm-to-table ethos that is de rigeur for so many chefs today. MacDonald, now 49, was an early adopter of such thinking, having worked for the seminal, locally minded Canadian chef Jamie Kennedy in Toronto in the late 1980s.

At Maplelawn, where everything was done from scratch and local produce shone, “Hugh was an integral part of the team,” MacDonald remembers. “He always had great energy and enthusiasm for this kind of cooking, which obviously requires a very strong commitment on a daily basis.”

“We were local before local was cool,” Acheson recalls. “We were doing sustainable and local and organic and all these things, and understanding who our local purveyors were and where our meats were coming from, long before it was chic to do this.”

After a year, Acheson left not only Maplelawn, which in 1999 became the Keg Manor restaurant, but Ottawa too. He and his girlfriend, Mary, lit out for her native Athens, marrying en route. After some time there, the couple moved to San Francisco, where Acheson spent two years working at the restaurants Mecca and Gary Danko.

When they returned to Athens, Acheson opened Five and Ten. “I kind of ditched the notion of fine dining,” he says. He says Five and Ten is a restaurant “with no pomp and circumstance, just a good community restaurant.

“I couldn’t open up something with great opulence,” he says. “I didn’t have that type of budget. In hindsight, it was really smart because it allowed us to open a place that would appeal to a wide range of people all the time. It wasn’t very expensive, but it was really good and it still is.”

Acheson says he is fascinated with Southern food and its history. At the same time, he interprets classic dishes and makes use of ingredients his way. On Five and Ten’s menu are dishes such as Morel, Country Ham and English Pea Risotto with Shaved Parmagiano Reggiano and Fried Leeks and a version of low country Frogmore Stew, which blends Acheson’s appreciation of bouillabaisse with a much-loved regional dish.

“I’m not shy about borrowing from French and Italian techniques and putting them into Southern recipes,” Acheson says.

Southern food, Acheson assserts, is “kind of hip” these days. He elaborates that “the kind of food I make is hip, the kind of food that Paula Deen makes is reviled right now,” referring to the famous cookbook author and celebrity cook responsible for such calorie-laden creations as fried butter balls.

Acheson some months ago wrote an opinion piece for cnn.com in which he called out Deen, who had just revealed that she had type 2 diabetes, along with the stereotype that Southern food is “ultra-processed, trans fat-laden, lard fried, and massively caloric.

“That’s not how I eat and I eat Southern food pretty much every day of my life,” Acheson wrote.

He says that some commenters resented his comments as the view of an Ottawa-born outsider.

“‘What do you know? You weren’t born here,’” he counters, “is an amazingly stupid thing to say. Most southern food that we deem as southern food was created by people who weren’t born here either. They were brought here under duress as slaves.” His critics, he contends, are practicing “navel-gazing” and a “when-patriotism-goes-bad type of argument.”

MacDonald, who only returned to cooking about 16 months ago after a hiatus of almost a decade from full-time cooking, says he isn’t surprised that Acheson has achieved so much. Acheson’s father, Keith, taught economics at Carleton university, “so the business accumen is pretty much ingrained,” MacDonald says.

“Hugh was never one to sit still and always sought new challenges so it is not a surprise that he has pursued his dreams with such drive.”

Still, MacDonald says Acheson’s rise “on a celebrity level” doesn’t seem like “an obvious outcome.

Acheson says that he only made the jump to TV last year after turning down repeated invitations to compete on Top Chef. “It’s a bit of a risky premise. If you come off in a bad light, you can put a stop to a burgeoning career pretty quickly.”

But he agreed to appear on Top Chef Masters, which raises money for charity. On that show, he stood out. “I kind of got known as the outspoken jackass, which is OK. I just kind of speak my mind and I do so on camera. Next thing I knew, I had a lot of camera time. And that’s fine.” In quick succession, he graduated to judging of the other Top Chef shows.

MacDonald says Acheson is well-cast as a reality show judge. “He is a very bright and witty person. He sees irony when it appears and has a sharp way with words.

“He has a bit of a punkish edge to him at times, but also a very warm side,” MacDonald adds.

Acheson stresses that his TV work is a boon to his restaurants. “I’ve got to figure out constantly how to continually employ 160 people, and restaurants are notoriously finicky. So this helps. I hope that the notoriety for our restaurants is going to come for our restaurants and not the fact that I’m on TV, but this doesn’t hurt.”

MacDonald says that his former colleague shouldn’t worry.

“Hugh, from what I can gather, has gained his notoriety by being true to his cooking and family values and by building a great team around to allow him to take part in external activities without compromising the restaurants,” MacDonald says. “This is no small feat.”

Acheson says that he visits Ottawa to see his father once or twice a year, and has enjoyed meals at Beckta Dining and Wine, Juniper, Les Fougeres and Domus Cafe over the years.

But he’s just as happy to be cooking rather than be cooked for, working with the same kinds of staples that he grew up with in the kitchen, half his life ago.

“When I go home, we generally go off to Boushey’s and grab some food and make dinner at Dad’s,” Acheson says.

Boiled Peanut Hummus

Hugh Acheson writes in A New Turn in the South: “Ottawa, my hometown, has a very large Lebanese community, which means great inexpensive food on just about every corner. Hummus, a Lebanese staple, is traditionally made with whipped chickpeas, also known as garbanzo beans, which are blended with tahini and spices. Tahini is ground sesame and is available in better grocery and health food stores. The South is not a hotbed of garbanzos, so I use what we have in abundance and love dearly — boiled peanuts.”

Boiled peanuts are made from “green peanuts… picked earlier than most peanuts, before the curing, or drying process (on the vine) begins. The season for green peanuts is late summer into mid-fall. You can use canned boiled peanuts. However, they lack the al dente resistance that you’ll get from boiling your own. BoiledPeanuts.com is a great source for canned peanuts.

“Serve boiled peanut hummus the same way you would traditional hummus: in a bowl surrounded with flatbreads, chips, celery, carrots, cucumber, sweet peppers, or whatever will scoop up the hummus. Salt the hummus carefully as the boiled peanuts will be salty already.”

Makes: 2 cups (500 mL)

■ 1 cup (250 mL) shelled Boiled Peanuts (recipe follows)

■ 2 tablespoons (25 mL) tahini

■ 1 medium clove of fresh garlic, minced

■ 1 tablespoon (15 mL) lemon juice, freshly squeezed

■ 1/4 teaspoon (1 mL) ground cumin

■ Tiny pinch of cayenne

■ 2 tablespoons (25 mL) olive oil

■ Salt to taste

Combine the boiled peanuts, tahini, garlic, lemon juice, cumin, and cayenne in a food processor and turn on low. Add the olive oil to emulsify. Add 2 tablespoons of water to thin and blend until the mixture is the consistency of spreadable hummus. Season with salt.

Boiled peanuts

Makes: 2 quarts (1.9 L)

■ 1/4 cup (50 mL) kosher salt

■ 1/4 cup (50 mL) cider vinegar

■ 1 gallon (3.78 L) water

■ 1 tablespoon (15 mL) Old Bay

■ 2 stars of star anise

■ 1 pound (450 g) raw, green peanuts in the shell

Put the vinegar and water in a big pot. Add the Old Bay and star anise, then the peanuts. Find a plate that is just smaller than the diameter of your pot. Place the plate on top of the peanuts to weigh them down and keep them under water. Bring the peanuts to a boil.

Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for about 6 hours, or until the peanuts are very tender. Turn off the heat and transfer the peanuts to a large clean bowl. Serve immediately or store them in jars or sealable bags with some of the cooking liquid to keep them moist. They will keep in the fridge for about a week.

Watermelon Salad with Feta, Arugula and a Serrano Chile Vinaigrette

“Watermelons are a summer mainstay in the South and should be more than dessert. The idea came from watching Latinos in various kitchens sprinkle mango with chile flakes or cayenne. Sweet and Hot,” writes Acheson in A New Turn in the South.

Makes: 4 servings

■ 6 tablespoons (80 mL) Serrano Chile Vinaigrette (recipe follows)

■ 1 medium seedless watermelon, skin and rind removed, cut into ¾-inch thick x 3 x 3-inch squares (16 squares)

■ 1 serrano chile, thinly sliced

■ 1/4 pound (110 g) baby arugula

■ 1/2 teaspoon (2 mL) salt

■ 1/2 pound (225 g) of feta, cut into 16 slices (1/4-inch thick)

Shake the vinaigrette vigorously. Place the watermelon squares, Serrano slices, and arugula in a large bowl, and dress with half of the vinaigrette. Season lightly with salt.

Place 4 plates on a counter. Add a small amount of dressed arugula on each plate, then 1 slice of watermelon, then 1 slice of feta. Repeat until each plate has 4 slices of watermelon and 4 slices of feta. Garnish with the dressed Serrano slices and then drizzle a touch of the vinaigrette around each plate. Serve immediately.

Serrano Chile Vinaigrette

Makes 1 cup (250 mL)

■ 1/2 cup (125 mL) olive oil

■ 1 tablespoon (15 mL) fresh lime juice

■ 1 tablespoon (15 mL) champagne vinegar

■ 1 shallot, minced

■ 1 serrano chile, thinly sliced

■ 1/2 tablespoon (7 mL) chopped fresh thyme

■ ¼ teaspoon (1 mL) salt

Combine the olive oil, lime juice, champagne vinegar, shallot, chile, thyme, and salt in a Mason jar, tighten the lid, and shake vigorously.

Duck Confit with Braised Red Cabbage and Star Anise Jus

“Duck confit, a self-preserved dish that gains nuance and depth as it ages, will keep in your fridge for up to three months. Make it in advance and this recipe will be a pretty easy ‘pick up’ (restaurant parlance for finishing a dish),” Acheson writes.

Makes: 6 servings

■ 1 cup (250 mL) kosher salt

■ 1 tablespoon (15 mL) light brown sugar, lightly packed

■ 2 tablespoons (25 mL) chopped fresh thyme

■ ½ teaspoon (5 mL) mustard seed

■ ½ teaspoon (5 mL) cracked black peppercorn

■ ½ teaspoon (5 mL) fennel seed

■ 6 duck legs, trimmed of excess fat

■ 1 quart (1 L) rendered duck fat

In a small bowl, combine the salt, sugar, thyme, mustard seed, peppercorn, and fennel seed to make a salt-cure mix.

Sprinkle the duck legs with salt-cure and place flat on a cookie sheet. Cover with plastic wrap and set in the fridge for 24 hours.

Remove the duck from the fridge, rinse off the salt-cure, and pat dry.

In a medium pot melt the duck fat. Add the duck legs, making sure that the fat covers them. Slowly cook on low heat, never boiling the fat. The duck is done when the meat begins to pull back from the drumstick (about 2 hours).

With tongs, pull out the legs and put them into a clean container. Cool the fat to room temperature, then ladle it back over the legs and cover tightly. Put the whole container in the fridge and wait at least 1 or 2 days.

Preheat the oven to 400 F (200 C).

When you are hankering for some crisp duck goodness just takes some tongs and dig out a leg, scraping off the excess fat. Place a heavy iron skillet on medium-high heat and add the leg, skin side down. No need for oil. Crisp off for 5 minutes and turn and place the leg in the oven for 8 minutes. Remove and serve over braised red cabbage and sauce with one tablespoon of star anise jus (see sidebar) per duck leg.

Braised Red Cabbage

Makes: 2 cups (500 mL)

■ 1 tablespoon (15 mL) duck fat

■ 1/4 cup (50 mL) minced yellow onion

■ 4 cups (1 L) thinly sliced red cabbage

■ 1/2 teaspoon (2 mL) salt

■ 1/4 cup (50 mL) orange juice

■ 1/4 cup (50 mL) Chicken Stock

■ 1 teaspoon (5 mL) cider vinegar

■ 1 bay leaf

In a medium pot with a lid, melt the duck fat over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté for 5 minutes until the onion is cooked down. Add the cabbage and stir to wilt. Cook the cabbage down for 5 minutes, add salt, then orange juice, chicken stock, cider vinegar and bay leaf. Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover, and cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Serve with duck confit.

Star Anise Jus

Makes: about 1 cup (250 mL)

■ 2 teaspoons (10 mL) unsalted butter

■ 1 shallot, minced

■ 2 tablespoons (25 mL) cider vinegar

■ 1 tablespoon (15 mL) turbinado sugar

■ 2 tablespoons (25 mL) tawny port

■ 2 star anise, whole

■ 1 branch of fresh thyme

■ 1 cup (250 mL) chicken stock

■ 1/4 teaspoon (1 mL) kosher salt

Add 1 teaspoon (5 mL) of the unsalted butter to a small saucepan over medium heat. When the butter has melted, add the shallot and cook, stirring occasionally for 3 minutes. Add the vinegar and sugar and cook until just about dry (careful not to burn the sugar). Remove from heat and add the port, star anise, and thyme. Return the pot to the heat and reduce the port by half. Add the chicken stock and reduce by half. Whisk in the remaining butter and simmer over very low heat until ready to serve.

Duck Cracklings

These are the pork rinds of the fowl world. If you buy a whole duck you get a lot of fat and skin trim and this is what you do with it. It becomes a great garnish for plates as long as you don’t eat them all first!

Makes about 3/4 cup of cracklings

■ 1 cup (250 mL) cut duck fat and skin (1/2-inch squares)

■ 1/2 teaspoon (2 mL) Maldon sea salt

Place the duck fat and skin in a heavy bottomed, quart-sized pot. Cover with cold water and place on low heat. You are rendering the fat off of the skin and slowly cooking the water away. Stir every 10 minutes or so. It is done after about 2 hours, when the cracklings are crisp and the water has dissipated. Pull out the cracklings with a slotted spoon and place on paper towels. Strain the rendered duck fat into a Mason jar. Save the fat for another culinary occasion. Season the cracklings with the sea salt and store in an airtight container until ready to use.

 

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