Hugh Acheson may have been born and raised in Ottawa, but over the years he’s become known for his unique flavours that turn traditional Southern food into something unique and unexpected. As the owner of five restaurants in Georgia (including the critically acclaimed Five & Ten), Acheson proves you don’t need formal training in order to create and inspire — a lesson he continues dishing out as a guest judge on Top Chef.
In anticipation of the creative concoctions Acheson will conceptualize as an Iron Chef in the Iron Chef Canada Kitchen Stadium, we caught up with the chef to get his take on the self-taught scene, judging versus competing, and his laid-back approach on the road to reigning supreme.
Did you always want to be a chef? How did you go about teaching yourself?
I’m kind of the black sheep of an academic family. I didn’t do well in school — I went to Concordia University for a couple of years and dropped out. But since the age of 15, I’d always been cooking in restaurants and it just seemed like a good skill set to have. And as a sort of journeyman task, it just ended up being the thing I had the most interest in.
Eventually, I started working in really good restaurants and I got taught by a number of amazing chefs along the way. And maybe you learn in some places that are not so good as well, right?
Where does your love of food stem from?
I had a very mixed upbringing when it came to school. It wasn’t really a culinary-driven household. I was mostly raised by a single father with three older sisters and he’s an economist so we ate a lot of fish sticks and burnt rice. But there was also a later reverence for food, simple stuff. Local Portuguese bread and really good grilled steaks. The one thing you realized with food and finding a career in food is that if you’re enamoured with it and it becomes your endless topic then it’s always going to be a constantly good thing.
What has been your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
It’s probably the fact that I lead and employ hundreds of people and I try to do it with empathy and compassion and good leadership.
In your book A New Turn in the South, you talk about moving from Ottawa to Georgia and embracing Southern food. Have you re-embraced Canadian food or ingredients at all during this experience?
I don’t think I ever abandoned the idea of Canadian ingredients or Canadian food. Obviously, I cook from the community in which I live primarily and I just now happen to live in Georgia. There’s an overflowing bounty of ingredients here but I still have a real reverence for the products I grew up with in Canada, whether it be local lamb from the Gatineau or cheeses or fiddleheads. All sorts of local produce in the Montreal and Ottawa area.
Can you name a Canadian chef who inspires or excites you?
David McMillan at Joe Beef and all the Joe Beef restaurants, and Marc-Olivier Frappier who works with him at Le Vin Papillon. The way they run restaurants and the idea and philosophy behind their food is such an epitome of Quebec and Montreal and punk rocky method of getting it done themselves, but authentically enjoying every movement of it.
How did you prepare for the competition?
I think a lot of other people we came up against did a lot more preparation than we did. We mapped out some possible ideas of menu structures and skillsets and styles that we’d be doing and quickly tried to plug the ingredient into that format. But some people really prepare a lot for it and time themselves… and that ain’t me.
Can you walk us through what happens when you find out the secret ingredient and your process for creating an Iron Chef Canada menu?
We always have a couple of basic dishes we can play on and then include the ingredient in. There are three of us and we all know our fortes and our strengths. It’s a little challenging, but we work together a lot and we talk about process and flavour affinities and styles and they all are fully versed in that. It seems like a trial to get a menu together really quickly, but it’s actually pretty easy. We always have a plan for everything.
Did any of the secret ingredients or curveballs throw you for a loop?
It was hard to figure out whether you wanted to get that curveball ingredient in everything or just in one dish where it made sense. I don’t know if I ever quite figured that out. I was really proud of all the food we prepared. We did technically-driven food. Sometimes you look at everything and say, ‘Wow—we did all that in an hour? That’s crazy.’
If you could pick one secret ingredient for your fellow Iron Chefs, what would you choose?
Cabbage. To most people, it’s very limiting, what they would be able to process, and I have a lot of ideas. I feel really good about my cabbage skills. So like a charred cabbage soup, or simple cabbage rolls with finely minced salmon and caviar in them and served with a little vermouth cream. Or cabbage turned into crackers with a quick dehydration and then filled with beef tartare. Oh, there are a lot of cabbage ideas — I can’t give them all away!
What can we expect from the competitors this season?
It just shows the amazing strength of the Canadian chef community. There were some really amazing skillsets shown. You can expect to see a lot of really good food. Even though it’s an hour some amazing food is prepared given the time construct.
As a seasoned chef, were you able to learn anything from the competitors?
Afterwards, it was always a good indication if I looked over at their station at the end, how clean and organized they were. I remember one battle, the other person’s station was impeccably clean and organized, and that kind of guts you. I was like, ‘Oh no. I’m such a mess over here.’ But during it, it’s really hard not to just stare at your own cutting board and run around the kitchen. You’re pretty much naval-gazing and focused on your own product and communicating with your own team.
You competed on Top Chef Masters back in 2010, and we’ve seen you as a guest judge on Top Chef. How did it feel to be competing rather than being behind the judging table?
Iron Chef is kind of like a really long Quickfire in terms of assembling ingredients and getting things together and planning your mode of attack and what you’re going to do and lining things up. Meanwhile, you have to get one dish out really quickly… there’s definitely a comparison but it’s more about the pureness of cooking and getting it done and sweating over a stove. It’s definitely pressure-filled but there’s no drama. It’s all about the food.
Judging is really easy — we’re all judges now in some way, shape or form. We criticize everything around us and everybody does that so it’s kind of nice to just cook.
Is there a chef, living or past who you would love to take on in the Iron Chef Canada Kitchen Stadium?
I have a lot of respect for people like David Chang in New York. David McMillan from Joe Beef would be fun. But I’m into the camaraderie and the challenge of being in the kitchen as opposed to, do I really want to feud with someone over cooking?
Watch Iron Chef Canada Wednesdays at 10 PM E/P