By Pamela Berger

I like Hugh Acheson. I’ve seen him on TV, read his thoughts on local, sustainable food and have thoroughly enjoyed his innovative, southern fare at Empire State South in Midtown – savoring the surprisingly perfect pork belly atop kimchi rice grits or the butternut squash soup with crème fraiche and candied pecans that left me wanting to lick the spoon, and the plate and if I could, hug the cook.

Two weeks ago, I had the chance to meet this critically acclaimed chef at his home in Athens. Upon walking in, I found the space to be charming, homey, open and inclusive. Everything felt very normal, except Top Chef Master, Hugh Acheson was there in the kitchen, surveying his organized arrangement of culinary ingredients and tools before him. He started to chop within seconds of our first handshake.

Our meeting was arranged after I had inquired if Hugh could share a recipe of his choosing for the November issue of this paper as well as for my southern inspired blog, sweetpeachblog.com.

Hugh is a big fan of mushrooms, specifically of the wild, foraged variety. Straight from the soil, these mushrooms indicate a season and can be successfully foraged here in Georgia during the months of April, May and June. When I asked Hugh what he liked best about mushrooms, he replied, “They’re earthy, clean, with so much flavor and they’re good for you too.”

Hugh wants to advance the idea of proper skill sets in the kitchen. As he tosses some beautiful chanterelles into a saucepan and we hear the distinct sizzle of hot oil, he wonders aloud why Americans don’t necessarily know how to cook mushrooms properly-  “Was it the popularity of the grilled Portobello mushroom that did us all in?”

To cook a mushroom is to first understand a mushroom. Hugh states simply, “Mushrooms like high heat, they like to sear.” He expounds further in his newly released book, A New Turn In the South, “Mushrooms are like sponges full of water. When subjected to heat, they release their liquid, and after some of it evaporates, they will suck the rest back up. So I start by letting them hit the hot oil, sizzle and then color a bit.”

Hugh’s cookbook is gorgeously photographed by co-Athens resident and friend, Rinne Allen and is a mix of scrumptious, inventive takes on southern food as well as impromptu sketches and thoughts from Hugh, which makes for a thoroughly entertaining read. It’s an inspired, visual, informational cookbook that encourages spontaneity and some fun in the kitchen. This book makes you want to cook.

Although Hugh is Canadian, he does celebrate and embrace our Thanksgiving holiday. If you were seated at his dining table, you’d find the traditional dishes like turkey and ham, squash casserole and oyster pie. Turnips, butternut squash and pumpkin pie are favorites too. He just wishes this fervor for seasonal food was more lasting, saying “The reverence for the seasonality is there, we just need to make it more of a year round affair.”

For Hugh, a master of modern southern cuisine, southern food means a celebration of the bounty around us. And anything smothered is good- like the now perfectly cooked chanterelles he heaps over a piece of toasted sourdough bread before me. It smells divine and I’m ready to dig in. Perfect comfort food for the chilly days of autumn.

I’ve always liked Hugh. But now, here, seated in his kitchen, I like him even more.

See more of Hugh Acheson behind the scenes, as well as a tour of his fabulous home kitchen at sweetpeachblog.com.

Chanterelles on Toast

2 tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1 pound fresh chanterelles

2 tablespoons sherry vinegar

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 cup chicken stock

½ teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh thyme

1 tablespoon chopped flat leaf parsley

1 tablespoon cold butter

¼ teaspoon kosher salt

Freshly ground pepper to taste

4 slices toasted sourdough

4 tablespoons shaved Parmigiano

*Serves 4

Heat your largest frying pan over medium-high heat and when it is hot, add the olive oil. Once the olive oil is hot, add the chanterelles. Cook for 4 minutes without moving them around too much.

Once the 4 minutes has elapsed, add the sherry vinegar and the lemon juice and cook down until fully reduced. Add the stock and reduce by half (you are not exactly reducing so much as hydrating the mushrooms.) Add the rosemary, thyme, parsley and butter. Stir with a wooden spoon to incorporate the butter. Season with salt and pepper.

Evenly spoon the chanterelles over the 4 pieces of toasted bread and garnish with shaved Parmigiano.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.

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