This is the second part of a two-part interview featuring award-winning chef Hugh Acheson, chef/partner of Five & Ten and The National. Hugh shares his thoughts on what makes Athens great and how the city can continue to be a great place to live and work.
Beau Shell: Okay. Well, could you please tell me your name and who you are and what your business is?
Hugh Acheson: My name is Hugh Acheson, and I'm a chef in Athens, Georgia. I own The National downtown. Then I own Five & Ten, then I own a restaurant in Atlanta. I'm also a writer and do a lot of other things.
Beau Shell: Where are you from?
Hugh Acheson: I'm from Ottawa, Canada.
Beau Shell: Ooh.
Hugh Acheson: I know. It's cold up there. Not right now. It's warm in the summer and really cold in the winter.
Beau Shell: All right, so it's swing temperatures. Did you grow up in Canada?
Hugh Acheson: I grew up in Canada until I was about 10 years old. Then I lived in the States for four years. I lived in Atlanta for two years and then Clemson, South Carolina for two years.
Beau Shell: All right. What brought you to Athens, and what made you stay here?
Hugh Acheson: My wife at the time. We met a long time ago, and she was going to do graduate work here. We came and she did her Master's here. I worked at a restaurant downtown, and ran it, called The Last Resort.
Beau Shell: Did that restaurant want to make you start your own business?
Hugh Acheson: Yeah, but I'd been cooking, kind of like you, since a pretty young age. I started cooking professionally when I was 14. I'd been a chef for a long time. I'd worked in really fine dining places. When we moved here, I was 24. I worked at The Last Resort for a couple years, then moved to San Francisco, and then came back here to open Five & Ten.
Beau Shell: That sounds pretty amazing.
Hugh Acheson: Yeah, it was cobbled together with very much of nothing, but we made it work.
Hugh Acheson (left) & Beau Shell (r) standing in front of 5&10 in its current location on Milledge Avenue
Beau Shell: What was another influence for you to start your business?
Hugh Acheson: I think I come from a really academic family, and they're all very prestigious people who've got PhDs and things like that. I wasn't that way, but I knew I was really good at cooking. I really knew that I understood the hospitality and what it meant to run things. I feel like I'm a pretty natural leader, which is weird because I'm really socially awkward. In a leadership role, I'm very good. And I'm good with food. I found a career which everybody longs for, which is something I never get tired of. I can learn about food and beverage and hospitality every day.
Beau Shell: Following your passion, it's amazing.
Hugh Acheson: Exactly.
Beau Shell: Who would want to just do a job they hated?
Hugh Acheson: Exactly. Why would you want to wake up and go to a job you dislike every day? Find what you love.
“I think the size of Athens is perfect for me in a lot of ways. It's still a small town in a lot of ways. It's just out of the suburban grasp of Atlanta, so it feels like we’re a totally different city.”
Beau Shell: Has Athens changed the play in what your influence was?
Hugh Acheson: Yeah. I think that in my job, I have to make sure we're cooking for people, right?
Beau Shell: Mm-hmm.
Hugh Acheson: You're selling ice cream to people, and I'm cooking food for people. They have to want to buy it. I can't just cook for myself. I have to understand the audience and what they want. Athens is going to be different from cooking in New York. Obviously, we're always trying to play up to our communities and appeal to them in the way that we see fit. Athens to me, we forged a bit of a new path for Athens in food a long time ago. It's only gotten better, but it's not the place where I would do really super-fancy food. It's more food that just is meant to pull your heartstrings.
Beau Shell: Well, from your perspective, what do you think Athens' greatest assets are? What makes it so special?
Hugh Acheson: I think the size of Athens is perfect for me in a lot of ways. It's still a small town in a lot of ways. It's just out of the suburban grasp of Atlanta, so it feels like we’re a totally different city. I think the arts culture here is amazing. I think that the university is world-class. I think sports and music and all those things and the vibe of independent small businesses is really healthy and alive here. But, you know, we have things to improve on too. We’re a city that can’t—we can't rest on our laurels or just be comfortable with the status quo. We've got a lot of unemployment. We still have inequity. We have a lot of sort of racial disparities still that we're trying to fix and we have to be conscious of every day. I think it's a very progressive town that wants to make things better, and I think that's the first step to really reconciling and making it a great place and a better place for all of us to live.
Beau Shell: Yeah, I can see it too.
Hugh Acheson: Yeah.
Beau Shell: Just growing and making changes.
Hugh Acheson: You've got to.
Beau Shell: What do you think some needs for your business to grow and stay here are? What do you think you need to have?
Hugh Acheson: I think that Athens needs—our unemployment rate is relatively low, but our poverty rate is high. We really need good paying jobs. We need manufacturing sector again here, whether it be—there's a company on the outskirts of town called Noramco, which is a division of Johnson & Johnson, which is a very, very high-level pharmaceutical company. We need things like that which are really world-class places that bring good jobs to the area. We need to really make a sort of concise business agreement that we believe in manufacturing again. This area was huge in manufacturing at one point when you were not born yet. We used to make all like fancy jeans, like Gloria Vanderbilt jeans off of Chase Street. There was a huge economy in fabrics and in all that sort of stuff that we just need to find what's going to fit well in our marketplace. We have a very amazing, prestigious school, so we have a lot of resources to create that type of economy here.
Beau Shell: I have a question for you. Did you ever have a person to look up to as you're doing your business? Was there a reason of influence, maybe a person sometimes, or did you have that one person at the top of the plaque or the top shelf that you were just aiming to be?
Hugh Acheson: Yeah. I think I look up to a lot—I have a lot of mentors. There's one chef in Birmingham, Alabama named Frank Stitt who's always been pretty important to me. He's the person I talk to about business and the style of food that we do, and how to lead people and how to hire them. He's been very influential in my career. I think that my biggest mentors are going to be books, are going to be cookbooks of people with a reasoned perspective on food. It's people who surmounted so many obstacles in life that they got through and were successful. There's a woman that you should read, a book called The Gift of Country Cooking. It's by a woman named Edna Lewis. Edna Lewis was an amazing African-American chef in New York back in the day, but she was from Virginia and came from virtually nothing, and was a star. Amazing, amazing, brilliant, brilliant woman.
There are mentors everywhere. Sometimes you just want to look to somebody for their particular influence on one part of your life, what you can glean from them for one little thing…but that's like walking into any business. You should always be learning. How are other people operating? How are they working? Why is it more efficient here to get through a lineup at an ice cream cart than it is at yours? What are they doing right? What technology can they bring into the fold to make it more efficient? Are they tracking? All that sort of stuff. We just always have to learn, but a mentor is helpful at it.
Beau Shell: I have a couple mentors of my own.
Hugh Acheson: And a couple are in the room.
“Being smart and a leader—doesn't matter who you are or what your background is, what sex you are, what color you are. None of those things should matter.”
Beau Shell: Yeah. Do you know one as a rising talent in your field or business?
Hugh Acheson: Yeah. I think in my business, what I'm trying to do is really empower people who weren't given an opportunity much to work in sort of fine food before. There's a woman here named Diana Prescott who's our chef de cuisine, which is just under the executive chef. She started about three years ago working here, and she's amazingly talented. We need to get to the point in my industry, which is always very male-dominated, that that shouldn't matter. Cooking is cooking, and efficiency is efficiency. Being smart and a leader—doesn't matter who you are or what your background is, what sex you are, what color you are. None of those things should matter. Diana, I'm making sure that she just grows to be a great chef. I don't need her to be a great woman chef. I need her to be just a great chef.
Beau Shell: Yeah, makes sense.
Hugh Acheson: She is amazing. She's doing all the pastries here now as well. It's just fun to see people grow. We like giving people a playground to show us what they can do on, and we will border the playground with the basic rules, but it's more based on common sense and how to be a good human. Then they show us what they have.
Beau Shell: Well, I guess that's all the questions I have. Your answers were amazing. I couldn't answer any better. Congrats to you.
Hugh Acheson: Well, thank you, Beau. You were awesome.
Beau Shell: Thank you. Thank you.