In his first cookbook, A New Turn in the South (Clarkson Potter), Hugh Acheson, chef and owner of Five and Ten in Athens, Georgia, tweaks and builds on traditional Southern foods. He turns 40 next week—just in time for the book’s publication.
You moved from Ontario, Canada, to Athens, Georgia, so your wife could attend graduate school. What were your first culinary impressions of the South?
When I moved to Athens I was a chef at a Southern restaurant called The Last Resort—I was 26 and running the ship. The food in Athens was very Southern and very rich, but there was such an agrarian stream running through it and a purism that could be drawn out of it.
What about your Canadian upbringing and training influenced your cooking in Athens?
The food I do is Southern, but it’s always going to rest on the French technique I learned in classic French kitchens. Canada is a really rich food area. Before artisanal cooking was in vogue, there were always cheese makers where I lived, and people who sold mushrooms door-to-door. There was a very locavore culture. In general though, I try new things based on the naivete that surrounds everything I do.
Have you traveled much in the south?
I spent some time there when I was young—Atlanta and in Clemson, South Carolina, where my wife’s family lives.
How did you go about finding a publisher?
We sent out a fully crafted, stitched proposal in a manila envelope—hand-silk-screened on parchment paper. It’s kind of unorthodox in the book publishing world, I know. But we got responses from eight publishers.
Did the spirit of that design remain with the published book?
They allowed us to continue the style, with photographs by Rinne Allen, who’s from Athens, and had done books with Stewart Tabori & Chang.
You have takes on traditional Southern dishes like pimiento cheese, which you never liked. What did you do to make it more palatable for you?
Growing up that combination of cheese and mayonnaise was gross to me, but it took me years to realize that this dish that my wife grew up with and loved was simple to change. I used great Canadian cheddar—a white cheddar—and I used different chiles, cayenne pepper, and homemade mayonnaise.
And how did you recast that favorite Southern meat—pork?
The pork chop recipe here is a version of smothered pork chops. In the south it’s usually a dry pork chop smothered with thick gravy. I worked from the basic idea and then I made it the way I would naturally [with chantarelles, thyme, and crème fraiche]—I’m going to change it completely but still maintain the core identity.
Is that a radish tattoo on your arm? What’s the significance?
It’s what I do every day is cook food, and one of the foods I cook successfully are radishes.