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Hugh Acheson in Toronto (Della Rollins for The Globe and Mail)
Hugh Acheson in Toronto (Della Rollins for The Globe and Mail)

Is this Canadian the Jamie Oliver of Southern cooking? Add to ...

On stage at the Texas Book Festival one Sunday morning last October, Hugh Acheson, a boyish, Ottawa-raised star of the new Southern cooking movement, was interviewing Paula Deen. Ms. Deen is the queen of high-fat, gravy-soaked Southern cooking; one of her more infamous recipes is for Krispy Kreme doughnut bacon and eggers.

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Though she’d been diagnosed nearly three years earlier with Type 2 diabetes, she hadn’t yet announced it publicly. She was in Austin to promote her latest cookbook, with its recipes for “bubblin’ brown artichoke and cream cheese dip,” and “batter-fried country ham bites.”

Mr. Acheson, 40, has an heirloom d’Avignon radish tattooed on his left forearm, and he’s built his career as a leading voice for a lighter, more vegetable-focused, modern take on old-time biscuits and gravy cooking. He probably wasn’t the best choice to moderate her talk.

After a round of friendly lob balls, Mr. Acheson pitched Ms. Deen a tougher question. “Do you think that Southern food has had a start and a finish or do you think it’s something that continues to evolve?” he asked.

She didn’t seem to get it. And so he told her about a dish he does at Empire State South, his third restaurant, which he opened in Atlanta, Ga., to much acclaim in 2010. The dish is made from middlins, which are broken rice kernels, plus kimchee (after Georgia’s growing Asian community), smoked peanuts, pickled local radish, and a smallish cube of crispy pork.

“What’s wrong with butter and salt on grits?” she replied.

Mr. Acheson later played the run-in for maximum impact. “Southern food did not make the South unhealthy,” he wrote in a much-cited column on CNN’s website. “A broken arrow of cookery did, one that is ultra-processed, trans-fat laden, lard fried and massively caloric.”

“That’s not how I eat,” he added, “and I eat Southern food pretty much every day of my life.”

Mr. Acheson grew up in Ottawa’s Manor Park and Centretown neighbourhoods, his father a professor of economics at Carleton University and his mother a reading tutor. At age 15, he took his first kitchen job. Over the next decade, he worked his way through the capitol region’s top restaurants. By the mid-1990s, when he followed his wife, a Georgia native, to Athens, he was a classically trained chef.

Being an outsider in a region built on tradition had its benefits: He scoured forgotten cookbooks, and went out to talk with the few progressive-minded farmers he could find. He opened Five and Ten, his first restaurant, in 2000. Two years later, Food & Wine magazine called him one of the best new chefs in the United States.

He opened a second restaurant, called the National, in 2007. Mario Batali, who is a friend and mentor, calls him “a modern master and one of my heroes.” This past summer, he became a regular judge on Top Chef, the top-rated U.S. cooking program, alongside superchef Tom Colicchio and fellow Canadian Gail Simmons.

For his next step, he’s hoping to become “the Jamie Oliver of Southern cooking,” as he puts it; the Canadian guy who wants to teach a society in thrall to bacon-wrapped mac and cheese how to cook and eat.

“I want to appeal to your senses and how you think about food, and make you slowly change your life,” he said.

After decades in the grip of a lard-basted death spiral – “kill you food,” Mr. Acheson calls it – Southern cuisine is on its way back, albeit slowly, to sanity. It’s being brought back to its roots by a handful of classically trained chefs like Mr. Acheson. What links them is a focus on such classic Southern ingredients as heirloom variety corn grits and leafy greens, as well as historical research to advance the cuisine beyond the Age of Convenience clichés.

New Southern cooking is gaining traction all over North America. Last September, Bon Appetit called Husk, a new Southern beacon run by chef Sean Brock, the country’s best new restaurant. Southern ingredients, techniques and producers have become commonplace on influential menus across the continent. North of the border, chefs like Matt Blondin, of Acadia, a superb new Southern restaurant that opened last summer in Toronto, cite Mr. Acheson’s cooking as an inspiration.

Like the menus at his restaurants, his cookbook A New Turn in the South, which was released last fall, brings fresh ideas to the Southern table. “I was selling sweetbreads in Athens, Georgia, 12 years ago, and the way we had to sell them was we called them ‘the greatest chicken McNuggets ever,’ ” he said. “I grew up in French kitchens. It’s a funny world.”

A New Turn includes a recipe for sweetbreads with baked grits, succotash and tarragon jus. There’s also a corn soup made with chervil and coconut milk, inspired by time at his family’s cottage on Lake Simcoe, plus okra sautéed with almonds, and a whole chapter devoted to pickles and put-ups like chow-chow and Vidalia onion jam.

The book is also imbued with messages about the importance of building communities around food: the change that supporting local farmers can produce. But most critically, considering Mr. Acheson’s aspirations, it urges its readers not to get too caught up in the details. He wants his cooking to be accessible. “Monkeys can make most of the food that we make,” he says.

Early in March, Mr. Acheson flew to Toronto to cook for a day, with a menu of sweet iced tea, pimento cheese sandwiches, spinach salad and a French-influenced – and dead simple – southern seafood boil called Frogmore Stew.

Though his food is rooted in Georgia and its ingredients, Mr. Acheson wants to prove that anybody can cook healthy Southern dishes, even home cooks north of the Mason-Dixon line. When we couldn’t find andouille, Mr. Acheson subbed in chorizo, the Portuguese sausage, and we used bottled clam juice instead of fish stock. “That’s what I want people to learn about food – the Frogmore Stew recipe is a launching off point,” he said.

The food was brilliant: simple but stacked with complex flavours, totally out of the ordinary yet familiar too. The Frogmore Stew was a show-stealer: killer, but not in the usual artery-clogging way.

His next book, still in the planning stages, will ply more of a social agenda. The book will be built around farmer’s market produce and what to do with it, he says. He’s also planning a quarterly journal on Southern food and culture. You can bet it will reflect a different version than what’s in the pages of Cooking With Paula Deen.

After I shook together a thyme and shallot vinaigrette from his cookbook, he said, “You made a vinaigrette in what, 10 minutes? That’s enough vinaigrette for an entire week. And that’s an easy vehicle, an excuse to eat better, because then you’re going to buy things to put that on, like local lettuces and vegetables.

“I don’t even care about the local, you’re going to get to that,” he added. “First things first: I just want you to cook.”

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