“As much as it’s about flavors and seasonality, the use of more and more vegetables is also an economic choice as a restaurateur,” Hugh Acheson tells me as we discuss the direction of produce relevance across menus and generations. “As meat and protein prices have become outlandishly expensive in the last decade, we've found ourselves relying on new techniques to make vegetables the focal point of the plate.”
Hugh isn’t your stereotypical Southern chef. If you’re thinking of a warm, sweet, fried-in-butter chef like Paula Deen, you might want to leave your misconceptions at the door.
The James Beard Award winning chef, Restaurateur, and Top Chef Judge is a lot more like the tried-and-true Southern greens he's pushed to make popular once again. Sharp, forward, and not to be ignored, the Georgia-based chef easily embodies the type of food he believes is so important to both the economics of food preparation and the future of flavors worldwide.
Empowering people to learn to cook, especially when it comes to produce, is something that Hugh emphasizes again and again.
Hugh’s restaurants include the James Beard Award Winning Athens, GA-based 5&10, the Athens, GA-based The National with fellow chef Peter Dale, the Atlanta-based Empire State South, and Savannah-based The Florence—all of which the chef has imbued with his dedication to fresh, unique produce.
It's within these new and diverse produce flavors that the iconically-unibrowed chef sees the next big wave of food practices. With people seeking out food that is more bitter, more uniquely prepared, and “healthier-tasting,” it’s now becoming cool (and economical) for produce to be the center of the plate, and move from the side to main stage.
Empowering people to learn to cook, especially when it comes to produce, is something that Hugh emphasizes again and again. We, as a society, haven’t always loved the bite of items like Brussels sprouts, and our palates have suffered because of it. Could it all be because your mom overcooked and underseasoned your vegetables? Hugh seems to think so. It is about equipping the next generation (and this generation) of consumers to learn how to prepare items like broccoli rabe or sweet potato greens, instead of shying away from their possibilities. That comes through knowledge.
“Vegetables are becoming hip because their versatility is finally showing. We’ve learned how to cook again, and with that, you can truly amaze people with something as simple as new Brussels sprouts preparations,” Hugh says. “This is a win for chefs as much as it is for growers, and technique really is something that should be as important to them as it is to chefs. You need to show consumers just how many ways you can use that Meyer lemon.”
"It's not skills to create chefs, it's skills to create better citizenry."
While you may think Hugh would possess the ego typical of top chefs, he, above all else, is dedicated to being a teacher. Expanding upon that idea of technique being the cornerstone of flavorful and healthy eating, Hugh is bringing his philosophy to a middle school near you with his new Seed Life Skills Program. As a father of middle school-aged children, the multifaceted chef believes that by exposing children to life skills like cooking, functional economics, and sustainability, they’ll be able to thrive as the next generation of entrepreneurs, educators, and community leaders.
“I’m a big fan of taking something that exists and making it better, and I think that across the nation we have Home Ec classrooms that are in a state of neglect,” he explains. “What I want to provide kids with is a new curriculum that shows them retainable life skills that they’ll learn in middle school and never forget. It's not skills to create chefs, it's skills to create better citizenry. Because when you get into, say your twenties, or the hardest points in your life, if you know how to sauté mushrooms, and cut vegetables for a beautiful salad, and make a vinaigrette, you can probably live a better quality life, right?”
It’s undeniable that consumers want something new from their produce today, Hugh says, and we need to answer those wants as an industry.
And it’s not just cooking that Hugh is bringing to his four, already green-lit middle schools in the Athens, GA, area. It’s DIY culture, it’s fixing things before replacing things, and it’s the modern age version of learning to balance a checkbook. Imagine Hugh Acheson teaching your 12-year-old to read a cell phone contract and you’re getting an idea of the kind of value that a program like this can offer not only a child, but also the society they will one day be contributing members of.
That future is something Hugh spends a lot of time thinking about. The future of learning, the future of eating, and the future of produce. It’s undeniable that consumers want something new from their produce today, Hugh says, and we need to answer those wants as an industry.
“I think you’re seeing the wants of consumers being driven towards organics. I think you’re seeing sustainable notions sell better than ever—there’s a reason for that. I think if retailers or chefs aren’t buying into the viability and the importance of that, they’re making a pretty fundamental mistake in their business,” Hugh assures. “Not to say we all have to become organic overnight, but there is a place for some companies to show some sort of road map towards some kind of sustainability and organics slowly but surely. In all honesty, I think it can be a really great selling point to your community and to your industry that you’re caring about your environment and you’re preparing it for future generations.”
Ultimately, produce for Hugh is about the story. It’s about celebrating the foods that each season brings us. In Hugh’s latest book, The Broad Fork, he narrates his recipes and organizes them by which produce is available during each season in his home region of the South, and makes sure they are put directly in the center of your plate.
“I think consumers want a story more than anything, and there are fortunately easy ways to do that with vegetables. There’s a story about California artichokes that’s a beautiful story and it should be told. I think the story told by California avocados has been really successful in showing the small family farms raising Hass avocados. There’s a story that’s really beautiful about blueberry growers in Georgia. This is exactly what people want from their food today. The modern meal is no longer just meat and potatoes, but something that creates a narrative for you while you’re eating it.”
It seems to me that we’ve only just scratched the surface of the stories we can tell about produce, and Hugh is happy to help spread the word.