Fresh produce picked from a garden and plated by the chef who grew it is no longer a concept reserved for the highest end restaurants of California, Spain, or France. The farm to table movement has swept the South faster than a wild fire, and if newest James Beard Award-winning Best Chef of the Southeast Hugh Acheson has anything to say about it, this wild fire won’t be burning out any time soon.
The chef and partner of Five and Ten and The National in Athens, Georgia, as well as Atlanta based restaurant, Empire State South, Acheson has been buying and cooking local for as long as he can remember. “I grew up in French kitchens in Canada — you knew where the lamb came from a guy down the street and the cheeses were made by that guy’s wife. We knew our people, that was just how our high end restaurants worked.”
Clearly, this type of thinking is working for him in the South as well. “The food culture of the South is so vibrant right now. There’s an abundance of agrarianism around us,” said Acheson during a cooking demo held recently at the Dirt Fair in Charleston, South Carolina. “We’re seeing a big push towards localization of foods — things that we always thought had to be produced so far away are being produced in our own backyard.”
Acheson’s aim is to convince us all to break our dependence on convenient food items. “It’s nice to know that my milk and cream come from Madison, Georgia and my eggs come from a woman named Hope. Little steps towards buying this way can change things ever so slowly.”
The same goes for olive oil, “I’ve always used a lot of olive oil in my cooking, but it’s very beautiful that we can now use it from our local sphere.” At his restaurants, Hugh uses olive oils from Chile, Texas and Georgia, specifically Lakeland, Georgia where the climate is just right for Georgia Olive Farms to produce mainly Arbequina olive oil.
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“You should have two different types of olive oil in your repertoire — one that you really cook with, and one that you can use in salad dressings and for finishing dishes,” insists Acheson. “I don’t want you to die without having eaten well, so find good stuff and invest in it — it’s going to bring you equal enjoyment.”
Hugh Acheson’s cookbook, “A New Turn in the South,” celebrates the tradition of Southern food — the land, the history, the endless possibilities. He is the latest addition as judge on “Top Chef,” and most recently the James Beard Award Winning Best Chef of the Southeast 2012.