Editor’s note: Every Friday, HLN brings you the "My First Time" series, which explores the first time your favorite celebrities did something significant or memorable (so get your mind out of the gutter!).
In this installment, Hugh Acheson — chef and owner of Atlanta’s Empire State South and Athens’ Five & Ten and The National, as well as a “Top Chef” judge and contestant — shares when he fell in love with food for the first time and what keeps him hooked.
HLN: When was the first time you realized you had a passion for food?
Hugh Acheson: I can remember being very interested in food seasonality early. It was very vivid to me what seasons meant in Canada, where I grew up. Corn season was a very specific two-week period, and then raspberry season; before that you had tomatoes, and before that you had strawberries. I think that’s when you get very passionate, waiting for great food to appear on the scene. Unfortunately, that’s what we’ve forgotten in this world of convenience and availability.
HLN: How old were you then?
HA: I may have been about 5 or 6. Pretty young.
HLN: Did you eat healthy when you were a kid?
HA: We ate really well. Growing up at my cottage, it was tomato sandwiches, liver sandwiches with shaved cucumber and sea salt and homemade waffles. It was pretty much from-scratch cooking — we didn’t really fall prey to a lot of the convenience items.
HLN: What is your favorite ingredient to cook with?
HA: Potatoes. They sound simple, but you can do so many things with them, so their versatility makes them beyond that singularity of an ingredient. Versatility in cooking is good. If I just had eggs, cabbage, potatoes and beets, I could probably live the rest of my life and cook a gazillion different things with them. I think single ingredients that have good versatility are really important. I mean, I’d say something like caviar, but I think I’d get really tired of caviar after a day. I’m not sure I’d ever get tired of potatoes.
HLN: When did you realize that you were a chef and not a cook?
HA: I don’t even like to be called chef. If I walk into a place, and they say, “Hey, Chef!” and they don’t work for me, I cringe at that. To me, it means you’re the boss of the kitchen, and I’m the boss of only my kitchens. But I was probably 19 when I realized that food was going to be the thing I was going to do the rest of my life. And it wasn’t until I was about 27-28 that I realized, “Hey, wait a minute, I am a chef — this is what I do.”
HLN: How did this turn into a TV career for you?
HA: I said no to the regular season of “Top Chef” a number of times, and then they called back and wanted me to go on “Top Chef Masters.” That was so easy because it was for charity -- and it was fun raising the money for charity, which is Wholesome Wave. There were amazingly skilled chefs on our season, but nobody was really saying anything, so I got a lot of camera time. I was just the one-liner machine while cooking at the same time. I really firmly believe that you should have fun doing what you’re doing, and if you do it well, there’s a certain professionalism that still allows you to have fun. So I think I brought that to the show and they started calling me for guest judging and then regular judging and that’s how it has gone.
HLN: Do you have any other TV appearances in the works?
HA: We’ve got a big show being pitched around that could be really interesting. It’s like a “Talk Soup” meets “The Daily Show” of food culture and chefdom. It’s meant to be a very irreverent look at the food world, which I think is what we need. Too often, food is just held as the sacrosanct thing of fancy restaurants or farm to table movements, and sometimes you want to give it the middle finger and say, “C’mon people, it’s just food!”
HLN: Any advice to up-and-coming chefs?
HA: Food has to be endlessly fascinating to you. You have to be willing to learn about it everyday. And I think the best way to position yourself at anything is as a learner and not as an expert. Nobody wants to talk to an expert all that much. I want to start a conversation with people and see what I can learn from them about food. My quest is never to be the best. My quest is to enjoy what I do, cook good food, and make people happy in my restaurants and everything else that I do.