|Acheson in Aspen; photo by Hernan F. Rodriguez|
Zagat: Congrats on your two Beards. Which has had more affect on your business, the Beards or Top Chef?
Hugh Acheson: Top Chef. Beard does great things for business in different ways but I’ve been nominated for so long that I was kind of in the fabric of that anyway. There’s consistency to a TV audience. The book award has had an immediate impact, though, as sales have increased dramatically.
Z: I read your philosophy on your website: “Local first. Sustainable second. Organic third.” How do you feel about Thomas Keller’s recent interview in the New York Times, where he said that local shouldn’t be a priority? And that quality comes first, not geography?
HA: Unfortunately he also said that our job is not to save old food ways and styles of cooking and Thomas has the right to his own view. He is inordinately successful in what he does and he’s an amazing chef. We just chose to disagree. I think you have a responsibility to your community as a chef. And I think that is true for Thomas in a lot of ways too. I think he does support a lot of local economies in Napa and also in New York and I think they know that some of the best product is coming locally.
When he says carbon footprints are not our problem, it should be the government’s problem, I disagree. It’s everyone’s problem, unfortunately. We all have kids. It’s a problem I am leaving to my kids and I don’t want to. I will change my menu to buy the best stuff locally I can before I import something else from far, far away. But I am a believer in good local food. I am a believer in Georgia sturgeon caviar, for example, because it’s great caviar. I don’t feel a benevolent movement toward needing to serve things automatically because they are local. I believe in them first and they have to be the best products I believe in.
Z: You are known for your Southern American food yet you are Canadian. What kind of food did you grow up on?
HA: My parents divorced when I was quite young so I grew up with my dad and three older sisters and we ate steaks and fish sticks and canned beans. But there was still a food relevancy that was important. My dad loves citrus and great local Portuguese bread and the Lebanese food in our community in Ottawa. There was definitely a food love in the family; it was just never at all gourmet.
Z: Do you have any desire to go back to your roots and explore the cuisine of Canada?
HA: I think it’s a growing cuisine and more identifiable than it once was. A number of dishes that we deem Canadian, like poutine, are really Quebecois dishes co-opted by the rest of Canada. Outside of that, there is a relevancy and burgeoning Canadian style on the west coast that is Pacific Northwestern in style. And the east coast has some signature styles. But nothing has the deep relevant interest of Southern American food.
ZB: Tell me about the Wholesome Wave, the charity that you and Hellman’s are sponsoring in a lunch today?
HA: Wholesome Wave was started in Connecticut by a group of people including Michel Nischan and Michael Batterberry. It was a reaction to health problems in the United States, but it was also a reaction to the righteousness of food. Our main mandate is to get good, local, sustainable food on the tables of the less fortunate. So the biggest initiative which they have done very successfully is the doubling of worth of WIC funds or food stamps at farmers markets, represented in over 4000 farmers markets nationwide now.
These are big steps to the morality of food and the ethics of food in my mind. There is also this prescriptive vegetable program now where doctors and nurses, through Wholesome Wave funding, can prescribe a box of vegetables to go to someone with faltering health that may be related to diet. So just like a CSA program, it comes with recipes and that engages that person to cook and eat better. But I think the main mandate is we have is to get away from 60 years of convenience food that has not been good for us. And I am not a zealot. I am not saying that you need to go vegan or eat raw food…I love Chick Fil-A and In and Out burger and things like that, but the main stay in my diet is salads and a small piece of protein and a lot of local greens. It’s is everything in moderation.
Z: And it was Wholesome Wave that challenged donors to raise $100,000 to shave your unibrow?
HA: Yes, but obviously and unfortunately we didn’t reach that goal, so I get to keep my trademark for now. It’s funny how America is so divided over my eyebrow. I’m hoping they get interested in other things. But it’s OK, I can live with it.
Z: I loved the Food & Wine story about you cooking with REM. How were they as sous chefs?
HA: They were not the most active sous chefs but they were very helpful. They are all very old friends and we have known each other a long time. They have been very important in my restaurants. Michael Stipe and Bertis Downs were there opening night at Five and Ten 13 years ago. They have been supportive over the years and they are just great people. Those are people who are so supportive of their community in Athens, GA.
Z: But what about the B52s? They are also from Athens! Have you cooked with them?
HA: Yes, they are also from Athens. But I have not cooked with them. I have cooked for them. I catered for them when they were recording. They are mostly in New York and Atlanta now. But I imagine they’d be pretty fun in the kitchen.