Hugh Acheson on Southern Cooking, Bourbon, and His Harry's Pizzeria Pop-Up

Hugh Acheson joins the ever-growing list of guest chefs to take over Michael Schwartz's Harry's Pizzeria for a pop-up dinner.

Acheson, who received two James Beard awards this year (for best chef southeast and for his cookbook, A New Turn in the South)  will bring his Atlanta-based Empire State South restaurant to Harry's on Wednesday, September 12, at 7 p.m.

The dinner starts with a Maker's Mark welcome cocktail and hors

d'oeuvres. A four course dinner follows, complete with with beer and wines chosen by The Genuine Hospitality Group wine director Eric Larkee. In addition, each guest will receive a copy of Acheson's James Beard-winning book.

Tickets are $150 per person, including tax and gratuity, and can be purchased through Brown Paper Tickets.

We spoke with Acheson about his plans for the dinner and what Southern food means to him.

Short Order: What should people coming to the Empire State South pop-up expect?
Hugh Acheson: We're looking at what's going to be great this time of year. For the beef tartare, we made this awesome fermented pepper paste the other day. We're dotting the entire menu with pickled items. It's a rendition of this time of year in Miami. We're coming up with a great theme together.

Are you bringing any ingredients with you from Georgia?
A lot of the stuff we'll be shipping down, like the pickled items and the fermented cheese. Other items, like seafood and the lamb hearts, Michael has sourced for us. But we do have great produce available year round in Georgia. It's such an ideal climate for that. So we'll be bringing product from organic farms around southern Athens, Georgia.

You're originally from Canada. Living in Georgia must be a cultural change. How has it been for you?
I lived in the South when I was young, so coming back to it later on was easy. My wife was doing graduate work at University of Georgia, but that was 16 years ago. As soon as we got back I thought there's no reason why you shouldn't immerse yourself in the cuisine of the area. If I'm going to be in South Florida, I'm going to immerse myself in beautiful snapper, tomatoes, and sugar crops and embrace Cuban and Floridian culture. I just happen to be in Georgia and I live in the backyard of one of the most storied cultural cooking areas in the United States and I can learn from it every day. To me it's always just been fun.

On your website, you say, "I am a chef who cooks food in the South. Is it Southern food? That is up to you." So do you cook Southern food?
I do cook Southern food. Southern food is so misinterpreted. It's either being lauded as the new hipster food of the century or demonized as causing heart attacks. And I do disagree with both. I think southern food is a beautiful ongoing interpretation of the area. And the area is so agrarian based, with so many amazing staples to it, from country hams to a bounty of vegetables.

I think some people look at a southern meal and think it's all about a bucket of fried chicken and another bucket of salty biscuits. It's not that at all. It's a small amount of fried chicken served with succotash, fresh cooked tomatoes, rice perlo, collard greens, chow chow, and fresh cornbread. If you eat in moderation with a bounty of fresh produce, it's an amazing meal. People think of it as this gut bomb food and it's not. That's not the southern food we love.

You're offering a Maker's Mark and ginger cocktail at the pop-up. Are you a bourbon drinker?
I do consume a fair amount of bourbon. Bourbon has an amazing history in the south and we love it and that cocktail is a very classic one in Athens.

Would you consider expanding to Miami?
Definitely not on our radar right now, but we consider everything -- whether it's for two minutes, a couple weeks, or a lifetime.

You've been on Top Chef and Top Chef Masters, both as a contestant and a judge. In both, you come off as sort of a...curmudgeon. But you don't seem like that at all now. Which is the real Hugh Acheson?
I think when I was a contestant I was known as being a jackass, which is fine because I have some jackassy tendencies. And as a judge, I wouldn't say curmudgeon. Sort of more of a grumpy young man. I'm good at it..I guess.

So at the pop-up, people should feel free to talk to you? You're really a nice, approachable guy?
You know people at the airport approach me all the time. I think it's hilarious. I love Miami. Bring it on. It's all good.

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