Chefs@Google: Hugh Acheson


Uploaded by AtGoogleTalks on 07.11.2011

Transcript:
>> Anjali: Hi, everybody. Thanks for coming. It's a pleasure to welcome Hugh Acheson here
today at Google, New York. Hugh Acheson is a chef and partner of the Athens, Georgia,
restaurants Five and Ten, The National, and Gosford Wine and the Atlanta restaurant, Empire
State South. He is a four-time nominee for James Beard award Best Chef Southeast and
was named Best Chef by Food and Wine. Chef Acheson is a judge on Bravo's Top Chef and
competed in Bravo's Top Chef Masters: Season 3. He has just released his first cookbook,
A New Turn in the South: Southern Flavors Reinvented for Your Kitchen. Please welcome
Hugh Acheson.
[Applause].
>>Hugh: Thank you. Good to be here.
>> Anjali: Thanks so much for coming. I'm so tell me how does a guy from Canada end
up becoming the poster child for Southeastern cooking? How did you end up there and how
did this happen?
>> Hugh: Lost in the south. When I was like ten I lived there for two years. My stepfather
was teaching at Emory and then he was teaching at Clemson University in South Carolina so
we lived two years each place then I decided to go move back to Canada. But within that
four year time frame I kind of got exposed to the south and what it was. At times, I
was bored hitting my head against the wall at the sort of surrounding community. But
other times you sort of revel in it. You begin to see the food and everything that's happening
and things that gel. So learned a lot about food at a young age there. So I went back
to Canada and it was sort of immersion in French kitchens after school and doing all
these things, building some sort of culinary reputation. Slowly but surely went off to
university dropped out of that for political philosophy. Good choice. And then.
>> Anjali: Could have gotten you a job at Google actually. [chuckles]
>> Hugh: Sounds right. Then I continued with that and finally move down and my wife is
from the south. We moved down to Athens, Georgia so she could pursue her graduate degree.
>> Anjali: So what sort of really drove the passion for southern cooking. You really have
become--. You are one of the chefs.
>>Hugh: I'm a really big believer, regardless of what your community is, in being immersed
in it. And the south is very much community. Athens, Georgia is very much community. To
be immersed in that agrarianism around that city is pretty amazing. There's so many farms
right there. I thought it would be a waste of my time to not be infatuated with what
was around us right there because there's so much. And there's so much--. Southern food
is such a tome-like history. Other cultures don't really have – other geographical areas
in the United States don't have that depth of history that southern food has. So southern
food is this topic. It's my endless topic and I can learn about it every day and just
be infatuated with it.
>> Anjali: So was there one dish, during your time when you were younger living in the south
or maybe when you got older, that really inspired you to become a chef?
>>Hugh: It was probably more Northern dishes at that point because when I was pretty young
in Canada I was really into the food there at that time. But you know I was just working
after school. I just happened to be working at really good restaurants. And you know sometimes
we don't even notice where we are and what we're doing and then five years later you
look back and you're like that restaurant I worked at was awesome. I wish I had been
paying more attention but I was 15. So there are plenty of examples like that where you
learn. The cuisine of Canada is not very deep in identifiable dishes when we talk about.
>> Anjali: What are you talking about when you talk about cuisine of Canada; no offense
to my northern neighbors. [chuckling]
>> Hugh: Most famously poutine and then tourtière; things like that, which is a pork pie, essentially
ground meat pork pie, heavily seasoned. Apart from that there's not much. But what they
do have, is long before the co-optable terms of 'sustainable' and 'local' and, you know,
'artisan' had been widely used, the mountain range between the Gatineau, or between the
mountain ranges of the Gatineaus and the Laurentians Mountains is this amazing bastion of food
producers. And that was the food we were raised on. Cooking a French restaurant in Ottawa
or Hull, Quebec, the guy who shows up at the back door to bring your venison, is also bringing
you shitake mushrooms that he raised on his little logs outside. Then his wife, Helene,
brings these beautiful aged goat cheeses. This is 1992. This is way before, you know,
it was cool to be that way.
>> Anjali: Before CSAs and before farmer's markets.
>> Hugh: Before artisan and organic was really a term that was co-opted by the Wal-Marts
of the world. So it was really interesting time to be immersed in food there and learning
a lot. But there wasn't that sort of pomp and circumstance around the food. It was that's
just what they ate. So going shopping in Montreal was totally different from going to the Kroger
in the south. But I think that's changing too. But going shopping in Montreal, when
I was in university, there you grab your bags up the street in Saint-Laurent. You go to
[inaudible] for produce and you go across the street and buy rye bread at [inaudible].
Then you go around the corner to [inaudible] bagel then you buy smoked meat at Schwartzes
by the pound and you go and buy coffee at [inaudible] go to the cheese monger up the
street. So it was just that very Europeanized idea of shopping. And so, food was very much
in the psyche of what we were doing all the time and my apartment was always a fun apartment
to be at because that was always the kid cooking dinner parties when I was 18. Come on over.
[laughter]
>> Anjali: That's not what we were doing when I was 18. [laughs]
>> Hugh: We spent our fair share of time not wanting to leave the bars because it was just
so cold outside. But, you know, but there was just that sense of really cool community
in the plateau of Montreal and just where we lived. That area has been really hip for
food in the last five years. But it's always been hip and they didn't know it.
>>Anjali: Sort of ahead of the trend
>>Hugh: The epitome of hipness -- you don't even know it.
>> Anjali: [laughing] Well so I had a chance to meet a couple weeks ago down in Atlanta
and I had this extraordinary meal if any of you are ever in Atlanta, --or in Athens, Georgia,
I would assume, too-- definitely check out Chef's restaurants because it was pretty awesome
meal.
>>Hugh: Good.
>>Anjali: And yeah I know. It was really delicious. I'm still dreaming about those little hot
dogs with the bourbon mustard. It's pretty extraordinary. And we had a chance to chat
a little bit about CSAs and the resurgence of all of that
>>Hugh: Right, Right
>>Anjali: and that trend which it seems like it's more here to stay not a trend anymore.
>>Hugh: It's not longer a trend.
>>Anjali: You had a lot of opinions about that how it's being done in the states,how
it could be done better and that kind of thing and I'd love if you could talk to us about
that.
>> Hugh: I talked to you on this book but I talk in a lot of speeches give. First, to
reiterate the community is not just a matter of--. Community doesn't stop; it takes effort
from all of us to make it go and be the cycle of economy and culture and sort of compassion
within your community and understanding of different cultures and economic echelons.
And within that, I think the best way to look at food is to not to be a full locavore because
I think that's sort of a zealot's standpoint of -- . You want to take small steps towards
goodness. But I think we just need a nest in our community and buy locally as much as
we can and take the inconvenient route. The convenient route is this sort of beige highway
of Chick Fil A and McDonald's and the easy shopping. But if we take the time out of our
day to sort of commit to understanding who we're buying from, the names of the people
we're buying from and all this, then it becomes a better source. I'm just in big favor--.
Well, is that sustainable? Well local begets sustainable which allows organic. But unfortunately,
the only term on those which can't be co-optable is local. Because the other ones can just
be grabbed by anyone to say, "well, we're organic and we bought into this idea though
it's organic from Chile and the carbon footprint and the social ramifications of buying from
there as opposed to an apple from Ellijay, --which is 45 minutes away from Athens -- why
would you buy an apple from Chile? So it's just that idea and that consciousness you
go into. I want to get away from food being a commodity and food being a product into
food being a relations ship with your community. But I don't want to sound sort of airy-fairy
about it either I want it to be really clear this is -- it doesn't matter who you are.
It's just a investment in "hey Celia grew those beets". This other couple raises my
lambs and pork and beef at Riverview Farms 45 minutes away. It's just that idea and that
understanding.
>>Anjali: So do you source mostly locally for the restaurants.
>> Hugh: We do as much as we can and we always have but, you know, I'm really wary about
sort of the badge of green restaurants and stuff like that because I think it's been
misused a lot in the past five years. So, you know, we never litany of farms on our
menu or we try not to be. Where you go Green Dale Farms parsley with Newport Farms arugula.
It gets to be a little bit ridiculous after awhile. So I want to make sure, I think that
there's -- there should be natural tendency for great restaurants to always be buying
local. It's just better.
>>Anjali: As much as they can >>Hugh: Because they have developed the relationships
with people and they can guide those farmers to growing what they want over the years.
They're saying to that cheese monger, "I want this style of cheese. Can you do this? Can
you do an ashen-layer pyramid for me for this event?" And that's the relationship and then
it gets rid of the middlemen and people can be paid more and there's a economic viability
to things. When we're talking about farming in the south, it's really hard. Everything's
been stripped from farming. Every possible savings has been made with large farms. But
as we go into more organics from tomatoes from Florida which has been written a lot
about lately in a book called Tomatoland. The only thing that can be cinched is labor.
So we end up fully exploiting a whole classes of workers to get those tomatoes off the ground.
But if I can pay the same price for tomatoes without any middlemen, then Dan Miller, who
grows a lot of my tomatoes in Athens, he can make a living doing that. As long as there
aren't those other ten hands taking a piece of the profit. So it's basically, community
to me has ended up being having a pretty good understanding of where my dollar is going.
>> Anjali: So I think of, you know, the idea this is obviously very appealing to chefs
and certainly to a lot of consumers and folks who can afford it. Frankly, so if I can afford
to go to my local green market living in New York, then I might make that decision although
I'm certainly -- I don't know if guilty is the right word but I certainly have gone to
the market and bought things that were sourced in from other places because I want the mango
in February and they don't grow in February.
>>Huge: And I love mangoes
>> Anjali: And I love mangoes. Who doesn't want a mango. I'm Indian and I'm allowed a
mango in February. It's growing somewhere. But the point that I'm sort of getting at
is it's also kind of a luxury, arguably, unfortunately, a luxury to be able to eat that way.
>> Hugh: But it shouldn't be.
>> Anjali: So talk to us about that.
>> Hugh: It shouldn't be because when we think about local ideas and seasonality. If something
is local and say it's collard greens right now. Okay, collard greens should be at their
lowest price point in season, right, locally? So the price should be kept down. But, you
know, there's always been a certain--. It's like people. People are opening up organic
farms and local farms and in a lot of different areas and they still want a price premium
based on that because they were disgruntled investment bankers [laughter] who think they
can still make the same type of wage. It's like the person who buys a vineyard in North
Carolina.
>>Anjali: I was just thinking that
>>Hugh: You open up a winery in North Carolina, having not great wine but you're still charging
26 dollars a bottle for it. [laughter] Eventually the novelty is going to wear off and eventually
you're going to have not so many tourists willing to pay for your plonk. I think the
new economic realty is having honest price points for the product of what it is. But,
you know, at the end of the day I just -- I never want to be supportive of that preciousness
of the local farmer's market. It should be what it once was which was the place of abundance
to sell stuff to everyone regardless of class and income. The most forward thinking group
in sort of helping that argument is Wholesome Wave which is actually based out of Connecticut.
It was started by Michel Nischan. Michel Nischan was a chef here in early 90s and late 80s
with a restaurant called Heartbeat. It was in Midtown. Really health conscious; really
interesting restaurant. It wasn't vegan or vegetarian. It was just healthy. And a lot
of it was reaction by Michel and his family to one of his sons being diagnosed
with diabetes. And so, he started a Wholesome Wave with a number of other people. Michael
Batterberry who was the elite editor in chief of Food Arts magazine who passed away recently.
Just really amazing group of foodie, chef-driven people. So their initiative and their mandate
is to get great food on the tables of the less fortunate hopefully local food. Their
biggest thing -- this was brilliant -- is they got corporate and tax dollars to match
funds of food stamps and WIC dollars. So for lower income people. So if you bring four
dollars in WIC money to the farmer's market, it's worth eight dollars. So they doubled
the worth of it. So that means that bundle of beets is affordable to the population.
Now, the next big thing is they've been doing a prescriptive vegetable program much like
a CSA delivering to lower income households boxes of vegetables. So if we can get these
folks eating more vegetables then we'll have an
immediate impact on our locality. Kids pay attention in schools. They eat better. Diabetes
rates going down. People are well-fed. They pay attention. The money stays within the
community. And that's the key. As long as we don't have this colander of money leeching
out to things way far away that don't support our schools, don't provide local employment.
I'm not saying we have to be naval gazing and sort of insulate ourselves and no longer
be worldly. I'm just saying we need to make sure we're taking care of our community in
every way possible and eating is one of the major things we can do.
>> Anjali: The theme of Community has come up a lot in our discussions and sort of threads
through the book. And we also had a chance to talk about the idea of community and the
community and the table. So where there's a lot of communities building online through
things like Google or various social networking tools. And that that creates a wonderful type
of community. But is there a way to bring people back to face to face conversation and
community this way. So there is this community in this room. There's this community out on
YouTube and there's wonderful extensions of community but what about bringing people back
to talking one on one in person and around the table.
>> Hugh: And that's such an age old topic of saying how can I get my family to sit around
the table and have dinner. You know, we live in a world that you guys all work, you know,
70 hours a week and, you know, your days of being at your apartment and you guys use your
kitchen cabinets as place where you store your clothes.
>>Anjali: Yeah, it's shoe closet [laughter] >>Hugh: That's a different world. But we're
always searching for that. There's no real answer to having it. It's basically just like
people who regularly come to one restaurant as a point of solace in their life where it's
their joining point with friends. Let's go there like we do every week have dinner on
Sunday. To me that's everybody said I mention that I run community restaurants to people
to somebody the other day and they're like kind of like a socialist gathering place?
[laughter] >>Anjali: You're like "yes, that's what I
do" [laughs]
>>Hugh: What's wrong with you? [laughs] So yeah, my guerrilla restaurants planning the
revolution. So it's -- to me, you know, I make it a point to try and sit down with my
kids and have dinner a lot. Just because it's the calming point. Like we all group over
food. History always has. Food can provide that. It's more than sustenance. It's dorky
but it's breaking the bread whole thing. And it's important. And it's that one point in
the day where we can all -- family meal is the most important thing of the day for us
in restaurants. It's the point where the dishwasher and the head Maitre d' are sitting side by
side conversing about what's going on. We kind of have a mandate at restaurants that
we're not allowed to talk about the restaurant as we're having staff meal which is really
important to me because I just want to be talking about other things. We talk about
work all the time like you guys do. So to have the break of your cafeteria here is a
wonderful thing. And I think it's very, very thought through on how that happens. You know,
we all have to eat but if we can just sit together and talk about new ideas that aren't
on the table and different ideas, good things come.
>> Anjali: Agreed. Well, so what was your inspiration for the book.
>> Hugh: You know.
>> Anjali: Apart from the south. And home cooking.
>> Hugh: Just so I'm from Canada. I wanted to write the interloper's guide to southern
food. No, it's just my vision of southern food so I approach things from a standpoint
of not being jaded by my grandmother's collard greens. You talk to other southern people,
"those aren't as good as my grandma's." [Anjali laughs] Give me a chance -- did you try it?"
So. You know I came from French technique and background and I can enter into this scenario
with just a little different sort of viewpoint on it. Sometimes I'll read like--, 10 years
ago I'd read like chicken and dumplings and not even read the recipe and just be like
"let's make something like that." So I can sort of genesis a new idea around it. So I
can replace the sort of leaden dumplings with beautiful, pillowy, gnocchi. And do a brined
chicken breast on top of stewed chicken with beautiful clean vegetables around it and sort
of reinterpret and re-envision that food. Everybody's like, "do you do comfort food?"
I do comforting food. [laughter] I don't want to be termed as --. Comfort food to me is
grilled cheese with a little pile of ketchup. Don't ask. [laughter]
>>Anjali: Me, too
>>Hugh: It was what I was raised on. So it's a strange thing. But so yeah -- I just wrote
the book to kind of pinpoint for a home cook, A: my idea of what it means to be living in
community and being somebody that people look up to culinarily within that community. And
my experience of providing a place that people are proud of that they talk about and what
that means to me. And then just this staples, ideas, of what I do when it comes to southern
food.
>> Anjali: So do you have a favorite recipe in the book?
>> Hugh: You know, there's lots of favorite recipes in the book because the recipes are
all so different. I like things like sweet breads. And I love the Frogmore Stew which
is a low country boil. I love some of the simple sides recipes. I love the beet and
carrot salad which is in the beginning. But all I ever want to do in a cookbook and cooking
classes and things like that is give people little bricks of knowledge in cooking. So
then they can rearrange them into whatever they want. You guys have Lego everywhere.
And to me cooking is exactly like that. It's like little pieces of technique and understanding
of food that you can put together in a zillion different ways. Some people out there in food
know how to cook like three recipes. And that's not understanding all the little bricks. Because
what I want you to do is look at the recipe and go, "yeah, but I can do this because that's
in the market I saw this in the farmer's market and that looked a lot better There weren't
any carrots but there were beautiful turnips." I want you to have the wherewithal and understanding
to rebuild the Taj Mahal [laughter] which this building is much bigger. It's a big building.
>> Anjali: [laughing] It is a big building. I do. Well, the opposite of big would be most
of our kitchens I think in New York. So apart from shoe storage, they're also just very
tiny to begin with. So are there any recipes you think work well in a New York kitchen.
>> Hugh: I think the key in season or even in winter. Right now is lettuce season. You
can probably reduce what you spend at restaurants by 200 dollars a week in New York if you just
make a really good vinaigrette and have it in the door of your fridge. That's that cooling
device. [laughter] And then just have some different vegetables and fun things like that
that you can make into a really simple salad. That with a great piece of bread great piece
cheese from your local deli or local Whole Foods or whatever it is you're shopping. That
is a great meal Save some time and effort in not going out to eat. Am I saying don't
go out to eat as a restaurateur? I'm torn. [laughter]
>> Anjali: You're saying don't go out to eat in New York, but when we go to Athens--
>> Hugh: When you go to Athens and Atlanta you have to eat out all the time because you're
traveling. So those type of things staples. My kids are 7 and 9. And they -- they are
not -- this makes them sound like the best kids in the world. But they like taking salads
to school with little things of vinaigrette. Clementine like her greens, lettuces with
cucumber and cut tomatoes and pepperoncini. Kid's weird. [laughter]
Beatrice like olives and cheese and Salumi and lettuces in hers with a little dijon vinaigrette.
I don't know where they came from [laughter] but trust me they're 80 percent great and
20 percent like evil. But that's what kids are. So but they're eating really well. So
it's like if we can -- if I can give them that type of skill set to take for the next
20 years and have in college to A, eat economically and then B, actually be sustaining themselves
in a really good way, then we taught well.
>> Anjali: Well, so the restaurants -- getting back to what sort of started this whole journey
for you. How did the first one come to be? It was Five and Ten.
>> Hugh: I worked in Athens, Georgia for two years while Mary, my wife, did graduate work
in art history there. Then we moved to San Francisco. Loved San Francisco. Adored it.
My dad, when we were very young, we lived in Palo Alto. When I was two, my dad was -- I
had very academic parents-- they were University professors. So back in the day when you could
go away for two years and teach somewhere else, my dad used to teach at Stanford and
then later on at Claremont Grad. So we were very young in Palo Alto. We had a great pool;
this really cool house. That house is probably worth 10 billion dollars now.
>>Anjali: About that. [laughing] >>Hugh: And we had a great time. But then
being in San Francisco in the second iteration, it was just like the time of food in San Francisco.
It was the middle of the bubble. Things were really wealthy and fun. The only
trouble was that sort of era in San Francisco was, as a young chef, it was virtually impossible
to live there economically. San Francisco is the one city it's so wonderful to visit.
It is so rich and so poor at the same time and there's this clamoring in the middling
of people trying to figure out how to live. And it's hard. After two years I worked at
great restaurants and had a lot of fun. It was arduous but I learned a ton. It was just
a really interesting time. Came back after I got a call from a friend who owned another
restaurant in Athens and she was like, "well, do you want to come and open up and be a partner
with this?" You would run the restaurant. I'll sit at home and count money. So I did
that. And the restaurant -- people tell you it's about counting money. It's actually about
counting pennies because the margins in restaurants are tiny. People are like, "what's your margin?"
"seven or eight percent." "really? You work that hard for seven or eight percent?" It's
true. I mean, and a lot of it has to be kept in the business, because fridges break and
da, da, da, whatever. So I open up Five and Ten in 2000. I wanted to bring -- and even
then I kept saying and reiterating-- I wanted to bring a restaurant to a community I really
enjoyed. But community restaurant to me meant being very wide spectrum. In San Francisco,
you can have like bullet point precision of a style of restaurant.
You know, they do 75 to 100 dollar menu category; they do six courses with a fine burgundy list.
You know, I can't do that in Athens. [Anjali laughs] It's 100,000 people and I have to
appeal to a lot of them all the time. So I wanted a pretty accessible, pretty price-conscious,
and have it be a place where people could go once a year if they could barely afford
it, then save up, and have their birthday there because we're the only moderately fine
dining restaurant in the town. Or we'd be the cafeteria for people more economically
endowed could come and frequent our places. So it was a really good time to do that and
it latched on really well. It did great. And it was a success in a zillion ways but never
in profit margin. [laughter] But that's okay. We make money.
>> Anjali: And then what was the evolution to empire south.
>> Hugh: So the second restaurant I did in Athens was called the National. One of the
things we're really good is retaining people. And providing great people -- providing great
people a great place to work over the years much like we see here. And that's done in
a number of ways. It's done by compassion and understanding what people are doing every
day; how hard they work for you. Giving them a sense of ownership of their day-to-day routine.
And basically everybody was always like, "well, you don't really have managers. You don't
have a lot of rules." And I was like, "yeah, I just want people to act their age and be
professional and take pride in what they do." So I was the electrician and the plumber and
the bottle washer and the chef. And I think that skill set in showing people that I was
willing to do that every day and work 16 hours a day doing that, made the other people really
want to follow suit and do whatever it took to get the restaurant off the ground all the
time. And so I think in that way -- I had a guy who came. He was working in Washington,
D.C., in politics, in some congressman's office and he called me and he said, "well, I'm from
Athens, Georgia, but I live in D.C. right now. His name was Peter Dale. He's like, "I
have an interest in cooking but I never cooked professionally." So I was like, "well, come
on down. If you liked it, you can stick around." He worked for me free for a year. And Peter,
later, became the executive chef in my second restaurant called the National after working
for me for six years. He's so quiet. He's calm. He's just thinking chef. He's well-traveled.
He's really smart. And these are the type of people we revel in. Normally chefs are
so brash and egotistical. My main job in San Francisco at one restaurant -- I kid you not,
like this was laid out in front of me -- your job is to make people cry. And that was my
job. [laughter]
>> Anjali: That's my job too. I'm very good at it. Can you tell?
>> Hugh: Oh yeah, I see it [laughter] But it was like me at 25 years old making 45-year-old
men like cry. Cry, cry, cry. You think that's good? [makes crashing noise] Break it on the
floor type of thing. I mean, it was insane. Finally I was like, "I can't do this anymore.
This is gross." [laughter] And I'm not going to name the chef, but whatever. So I left
that job saying, "I don't want to be anybody's little soldier. I don't want to be an arse
in this industry. I think there's a room for this industry to be smart and compassionate
and caring and understanding and still do well economically and still be viable not
be some hippie dippy restaurant of no merit. We can excel in the industry by changing the
paradigm in how people are treated. I'm really tired of people looking at restaurateurs and
employers such as myself and being "your industry is full of exploiters therefore you must be
an exploiter, too." I want to make sure we can put a wedge between ourselves and them
and say "We're not like that. We provide as well as we can for all of our people and that's
what we do." We are going to help them and support them till the bitter end. So Peter
took over and did the National. He's a partner there now. It's very Mediterranean. He's a
very, very well traveled kid. He's got a lot of family in Spain and he's got a lot of family
in northern Africa, in Morocco, and then over into Syria. So he's really well traveled on
food in that area. So it's very Mediterranean. From there, we opened up Empire State South
in Atlanta. Everybody was always like, "you need to open up in Atlanta." And it's a big
city. I mean, it's not New York but it's a big city. It's 5 million people and it's an
exciting place to be. We went into a neighborhood, midtown Atlanta, that was once very hustle
bustle in the 60s. Every person I meet with a beard who's 65 years old are like, "I used
to buy a lot of dope here." [laughter] I'm like, "okay. I don't really get it." It's
answer interesting area. It's genuinely at the center of the city. It attracts from all
sorts of neighborhoods and all sorts of angle. And we get a wide range of people. It had
a great landlord who benefited a lot from a sale of a certain building to a certain
large company -- this one. [laughter] My landlord is Jamestown Properties who used to own this
building. Sold it to y'all . And they've been great. They're the awesome as landlord. So
we have a simpatico with a large group who is very giving of the idea of we don't have
the funds to build this out like you think it needs to be. Give us money. And it's very
simple relationship. So we opened it up as initially as a "meat and 3" restaurant. So
the old school idea of meat and 3 is, I go to one called Peaches in Athens, Georgia,
and you walk in. The wonder about a meat and 3 is, you walk in and you're in line up. The
line up is the municipal court judge is first in line. Not always first; sometimes he's
last. There's no order to this. Second is the guy who collects your garbage. Third is
the nurse at the local hospital and there are three of them. Then there's me. It's just
this amazing array of different people. And it's 6 dollars for lunch. You line up. And
they go, "What do you want?" And you pick fried chicken or pork chop. This is not food
you should eat every day. [laughter] You will die. Or whiting or something on Friday. There's
always fish on Friday. Then you have collard greens and succotash and mashed potatoes and
a piece of cornbread. And that's it. You get to pick your three. I started this idea in
fine dining. I was like, "yeah! We'll do that." I didn't really do my history though. There's
another guy who's very famous, who I work now on Top Chef, Tom Colicchio, Craft initially
was this same idea. You would pick red snapper. You could then pick it broiled, pan sautéed,
fried, whatever. Then you would pick an array of four different sauces. Then you would pick
what sides you wanted.
>> Anjali: So you knocked him off.
>>Hugh: OK. A number of you guys deal with these options equations. My dad is an economist
and statistician. I'm not. Do you know how many choices there are in that? [laughter]
It's insane. So we get these orders the first week. Oh my. So many different plate configurations
that it was virtually impossible to keep up. So we changed it to "it's a meat and three
but we planned out your dish for you." You can change it if you really need to but nobody
really changes it. It went through a difficult two months at the beginning but now that restaurant
-- it's awesome and it's fun and it's beautifully designed and it is really done really, really,
well in a large city. That is still seeking authenticity. Atlanta
is this amazingly historically interesting city. It's got amazing array of people in
it. It's got an amazing black culture there that's empowered and artistic and beautiful
but still there's just this massive segregation that continues. And Empire State South has
been this beautiful place, this beautiful natural meeting point for everybody in the
city just because of its locality just because of its appeal to all these different people.
So it's been really fun to be there. I'm hanging out with a guy in the bar. There's this artist
who has this huge show at the Hyde Museum just up the street from the restaurant, named
Radcliffe Bailey who does a lot of art about being black in the south. And they're beautiful
amazingly abstract and layered pieces. I mean this guy is like renowned artist now. So if
he can be sitting in the bar next to two secretaries from up stairs. I seek that mix. I seek that
diversity always in the restaurants that I run because I don't want to be ostracized
or ostracizing to different people. I want to be inclusive of everyone. And I think that's
what the new south is all about. We've got this amazing array of artists and culturally
interesting people and academics and scientists who were all choosing to be in the south now.
We choose to be in Athens,s Georgia because we can go an hour and 15 minutes away and
fly to New York and do what we need to do or go away on vacation or whatever. But the
sense of society down there the sense of historical merit that's there all the time is pretty
profound. And it's a really good place to be. And that mostly my culture my community
in Athens just it sure makes us proud every day. I can hang out with, you know, Bertis
Downs who wrote the forward in the book who's the the manager of REM. And you know we have
Jim Fiscus and Susan Hable. Jim famous photographer who's name is verb. To Fiscus-ize a photo
is to do this certain depth field and he still lives in Athens; he's a friend of mine. Susan
Hable, of Hable Construction who's a textile designer. And all these people have chosen
to live there. And Williamsburg is a great community too. And you know the lower east
side is a great community too. I'm not saying it's better. It's just interesting and it's
my community.
>> Anjali: Well, let's switch gears a little bit before we get into Q and A. Top Chef.
You were on Top Chef Masters. What was that like? It seems kind of crazy.
>> Hugh: You know Top Chef Masters is the spin off of Top Chef where you're invited
to be on the show if you're some household name chef. I realized I was a household name
within my household and that was about it. [laughter] So I had no idea they were calling
me because I used to get the calls from Top Chef. It's a little risky to be on Top Chef
because you're sequestered with all the other people. You don't have the use of your cell
phone. You can't use your computer blah, blah, blah. And they're not -- I wouldn't say encouraging.
But you know if so and so sleeps with so and so and so and so is fighting with so and so
this is a good thing for reality TV. [laughter] Masters is a different story. We live in our
own hotel rooms. We can do whatever we want. There's a professionalism and we all made
our careers already. It's good. It's all for charity. That's good, too. I can raise money
for Wholesome Wave, Michel Nischan's group and was happy to do so. So I go down there
and was promptly get kicked off in the first episode. Poof! Out, done. Then they call me
up and through some obscure moment in Top Chef history I think it's happened once before
in all the different series of the show. I got invited back because somebody dropped
out. So we go back on and do really well on the show. And I get known as pretty much the
person who I am which is this very sarcastic, very acerbic, goof ball to half of the world
who likes me and ass hole to the other half who doesn't like me. [laughter] That's fine.
My personality splits through. People quickly realize on national TV that I have one eyebrow.
This is a big issue in America. [laughter] I don't know why. Prompting me to make mono-brow
preservation society T-shirts for the restaurants. But you know I had fun on the show. And I
think what I tried to do was it's TV and I wanted to make sure that people saw that I
was having fun. That I do relish in what I do. That everything -- and I do this at work,
too. There is an innate professionalism to what we do and to what you guys do and you
see that walking through these hallways. But you're having fun doing it. And I think people
are so much more productive and so much more happy and that is a big circle right there.
If you're happy, you're productive. Clap your hands. [laughter] So if we can encourage that.
So I don't stop when I get on TV with that persona, that's who I am. But everybody else
was like serious, competitive, and weird. And so, it was fine. They're wonderful people
but it was a good experience. That came out fine.
>> Anjali: Who was a bigger pig than you expected on Top Chef? Who was a bigger eater?
>> Hugh: Pig? I mean, you know, little James Oseland, the editor in chief of Sauveur, that
man can pack away some food. He dresses like he's a fourteen-year-old from Williamsburg
but he can get some food in those skinny jeans. [laughter] And so, then I went on Top Chef:
Just Desserts as a guest judge. I literally went into a sugar coma the first day. [laughter]
I went back to my hotel room and slept for seventeen hours. My body was like, what? I
don't eat many sweets. It was totally screwed up. So I did it next day and I was fine. Right
after that show one of the executives from Bravo came up to me and she was like, or magical
elves, the production team who works on Bravo for Top Chef, "you know we really like your
personality and we'd really like you to come to Top Chef as judge." Which was great. It's
a good timing. You know it's good for me. It's good for the book. It's good for the
restaurants and my kids can be like "my dad is that weirdo on TV". [laughter]
>>Anjali: And that's the new season that's debuting in like a week.
>>Hugh: And that's the new show on Top Chef Nine, which is Texas. So it's Austin, San
Antonio, Dallas and bunch of other places in Texas. And we had a great time. It was
filmed in July; it was very, very hot there and dry. But Texas is awesome. Austin is such
a wonderful city. So we did that. And we're having fun with it. We still got a bunch of
finale episodes to film but it's been fun. To this day you meet chefs in this world,
"you do TV; you're not really a chef, now." "no, I do something you were never offered
to do. What do you want me to say? Sorry." [laughter] I don't know. I have a bad and
good capacity to say exactly what I feel. And I'm still going to do it on TV. Yeah.
>> Anjali: So it's great for reality TV. Okay, so my last question before I open it up to
the audience for questions. This is a 2-part question. How would you describe Padma?
>> Hugh: That's two parts.
>> Anjali: The second part is do you like me better? [laughter] I'm just teasing. You
don't have to answer that because I already know the answer.
>> Hugh: I'll answer that. Padma's great. She has built a amazing force in TV. And she's,
you know, she can do a lot of good in that world. So she has the cutest daughter. Krishna
was her name.
>>Anjali: You haven't met my daughter but that's alright.
>>Hugh: Okay. She has a cute daughter. Not the cutest.
>> Anjali: No competition. More accurate statement I'm sure.
>> Hugh: She's awesome. She's great to work with and is a lot of fun. Tom's great. Tom
is just one of these people who's so sort of gruffly serious in a teddy bear like weird
way. But I mean he's the type of guy in my industry I can ask questions of that guy for
days on end and never get bored. He's been through this. And so I can take advice from
him much like you guys -- you guys dreamed up all this on your own so you're fine. [laughter]
But there's people I love to talk to in the industry. Emeril Lagasse is one of the judges
as well and then Gail Simmons who is proudly Canadian, who is from Toronto but went to
McGill. So it's a small world. Yeah, I like you better.
>> Anjali: Thank you. Good answer.
>> Hugh: No.
>> Anjali: Well thank you for this and love to open it up to questions if anybody has
any.
>> Hugh: Have though got any? I'll be nice.
>> Male #1: So I guess you sort of mentioned this when you talked about the meat and three.
I'm from Virginia; I lived in DC for a long time so I'm pretty familiar with southern
food. Was flipping through your book and it looks wonderful but everything is really heavy.
Everything is really cooked. Everything is stewed; everything is fried. How do you sort
of square that with, you know, stuff you'd want to eat every day. How does the southern
food tradition sort of fit into something you could actually live with.
[laughter] >>Hugh: I think that, you know, it's everything
in moderation as Julia used to say. You know, it is a rich sort of philosophy of food. But
interspersed with that are going to be soups and salads that should take more of a prominence
in a meal than people think. And on the table. But then you look at the use of -- no use
of lard and there is some use of bacon fat and things like that. But everything -- the
food I do is generally much lighter than it appears to be. So I think that, you know -- but
southern food is based around pretty gut-sticking ideals. But I think that idea of southern
food takes into consideration that the sort of Paula Deen mentality that southern food
began and ended at a certain time and we need to show a reverence to that. I don't believe
that. I don't believe it's ended yet. I believe there's a sort of cultural impact wonderful
other communities moving into that area that are going to have change on that food. There's
a health consciousness that happens slowly but surely and influences that food. I think
it will alter those dishes for the better. I just think it's a slow road but I think
you're seeing it. And I think if you look closely at the recipes in the book, they're
lighter than they appear. So.
>> Female #1: What's your favorite thing to cook at home.
>> Hugh: Mmm it depends on the day. But I mean, we love doing things like -- I love
making soups and things like that at home that I can then put up if I'm away for three
days and they can continue eating that sort of stuff. I'm relatively simpleton at home
when it comes to cooking. I'll cook a beautiful dry aged steak or something like that with
simple sides and that will be dinner. So it's, you know, and that's what the kids like too.
They're carnivores. I don't know. I trained them. [laughter] But so it's pretty straightforward
and simple food. I love to make grits at home, too. Simple stuff. Those are all the things
that the kids eat like mad. Good for you. [laughter]
>> Anjali: Any other questions.
>>Female #2: How do you make your macaroni and cheese?
>> Anjali: The question was how do you make your macaroni and cheese, just for the audio
>> Hugh: Pretty simply. I usually add leeks and things like that to it and then just pretty
traditional recipe outside of that. Simple flour roux with milk, and Gruyeres and Canadian
cheddar. Simple pasta then baked in the oven. A little garlic breadcrumbs on the top. Bubbly-ishes.
>>Anjali: Getting very hungry. This conversation is making me hungry. [laughter] Any other
questions? Okay great. Thank you so much chef.
>> Hugh: Awesome. Well thanks for having us.
[Applause]