I drove up State Route 316 to Athens with my hands shaking the entire time. Rarely in this line of work do I get star struck, but Chef Hugh Acheson strikes a chord with me. Recognizable from Top Chef fame and lovable from his Instagram, Hugh is unlike any other chef in the biz right now. Walking into 5&10, Chef Hugh’s home-base restaurant in the heart of Athens, Ga I instantly felt at ease. A dusty record player sits in the corner of the foyer and Chef Acheson pointed out that he lets his guests control the music and even bring in their own vinyl to optimize their dining experiences. “Could this guy get any cooler?” I thought to myself. The answer? Yes, yes he can. 5&10 is located in an older Athens home with all of the charm, smells, and personality of a simpler time. There are several rooms and hallways and I constantly found myself lost in the art work, craftsmanship, and hipster-esque vibe. I was wandering the hallowed halls of Hugh’s imagination when I walked into the coffee shop. This room was my favorite. Barstools along the windowsill, a large bar complete with everything you need for the perfect cup of java, and Hugh standing behind the counter. While making me an espresso and complaining about his own latte art, I figured now would be the perfect time to ask my culinary idol some pressing questions.
Hugh, what is your favorite food city?
These days, Los Angeles. It just has a ton of different options at a ton of different price ranges and they are hugging great food from all ethnicities.
What is one ingredient you always gravitate towards in your cooking?
Acids. Acids primarily in the form of vinegar. They can change up the whole direction of a dish.
As a Canadian living in Georgia, do you think there are any food trends from up north that will make their way down south?
I think the Montreal food scene is the strongest in Canada and Toronto has a lot of things going on that are really really cool, but as far as trends? I think the meat focused stuff that Joe Beef is doing is going to really make an impact down here.
What is one meal that you make for your daughters that they just love?
I do a roast chicken with potatoes and vegetables for them that they really enjoy. It’s simple and that is what Sunday is like in my house. That is home to me.
Fast forward a few hours. Hugh is in the kitchen and instructing his staff in preparation for dinner service. He cracks jokes, tastes beets, and makes everyone feel like family. Being let into a kitchen is a privilege and not one I took for granted. It was true sensory overload. Trying to stay out of the way the best I could, I let Chef do his thing. Explaining each ingredient with such pride and contemplation, Hugh was in his element.
Chef Acheson prepares 3 dishes for us and each one of them was better than the next. We started off with what Chef says is a “5&10” classic, “House made Pasta Ribbons with sundried tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and jalapeño” he announces enthusiastically. The spicy plays off the sweet and the entire dish is a symphony of flavor. We didn’t think it could get any better than that, until we tried the pork. Nestled in-between roasted veg, this succulent and sweet pork was dressed so delicately and cooked so perfectly that I truly was at a loss for words (which does not happen much). In conjunction with the pork came out a down-home classic, huge Gulf Shrimp and spicy smoked sausage swimming in a low country boil broth with hominy and herbs.
Rarely in this day and age do we see someone who lives so humbly, simply, and authentically. Those three core principles translate into his wardrobe, personality, and on the plate. Clad in his signature socks and specs, Chef Acheson walks out onto the perfectly manicured front porch of his grassroots eatery. I follow him outside to thank him for one of the more memorable days and thoughtful meals I will ever experience. His thoughtful attention to detail, playful sense of humor, and unique style combine to create a perfect storm and just for a few short hours I got caught in the riptide.