I had the opportunity to interview chef Hugh Acheson over on Punk Domestics, wherein we talked a bit about his interest in and approach to food preservation. However, our conversation over breakfast at the venerable Sears Fine Food ran longer than that. In the interest of making the piece readable and relevant, I only included the bits about preservation. From there, we went on to talk about the state of food and dining in the South and beyond. (Photo: Andrew Thomas Lee)
ST: So in San Francisco I feel like we get a lot of talk and a lot of buzz about being a center for culinary innovation. But at the same time, I feel like in the last several years there's been this sort of widening of that sensibility everywhere. In what ways do you think the South is really innovating with food right now? What sets it apart?
HA: I don't think it's innovation. I think it's a new kind of respect for what's been there. I think it's a look back to 80 years ago, before convenience food and items in the freezer aisle, then trying to figure out how they achieved a distillation of taste that was really good and really interesting and really forward-thinking. But when people think about innovation and interesting things happening in Brooklyn and San Francisco, a lot of that is just grabbing ideas from Southern food history. So I don't know if that's innovative. I think it's smartly curating, smartly giving credit — but as long as the credit is given. Sometimes it just takes a Brooklyn person to be making a shrub line for mixology to realize that: "Hey, wait a minute. Shrubs have been made in the South for 220 years. Why aren't we taking credit for it first before some guy cashes in with his parents' trust fund on making that new item, innovative mixology products that are essentially shrubs?"
In that sense it's innovative. I think there's cooking that's very real and honest, but that's happening everywhere. I can have a meal that will blow my mind in Minneapolis. Nobody was saying that 10 years ago. But now there's probably six restaurants that would blow my mind in Minneapolis. Same thing for Cleveland. You know, it's like same thing for Baltimore.
To me, that's the third rail of all things food. The second rail is big cities dominating above everything. That's where people flock to to go eat: San Francisco, New York, Chicago. It wasn't even L.A. five years ago. But the third rail is that young chef who became the sous chef at Benu who moved back home to Cincinnati and opens up a new place, then within three years has created a mini little restaurant row and a cultural shift in their 'hood.
ST: It's sort of the Chez Panisse effect, right? They got one core restaurant, and then all the alumni branch out and start growing things.
HA: And it's happening more and more, which is great. The other third rail we're seeing is — I equate to coffee as probably the most clear definition of it. Starbucks comes along and dominates the market, and everybody says, "Oh, we're going to lose all our independent coffee shops." Well, what Starbucks doesn't realize and those people making that comment didn't realize is that it was a fight.
The indies were pushed off to the side and the young generation of independents were like, "Wait a minute. They're very dominant, but they don't actually know that much about coffee. They're not really thought-provoking about coffee. They don't realize that what they're looking into is this much, and this is a topic that's massive. And it's beautiful and it's storied and it's about small, little plots of land in Guatemala and Belize and Tanzania that need to be shown off and explained to people and why it is different. So they nerded out on that, and that third rail became this $2 billion business of independent coffee shops now.
And that same type of thing is happening in everything. It's happening in the South, but it's happening everywhere. So to me, it's a really good time. But back to the most important thing to me, which is that we can't create all this stuff and think in these really amazing ways about food and celebrate it without realizing that we've ostracized 40 percent, 50 percent, 60 percent of the country into not having good buying options, living in food deserts for the most part, totally ripped them of their culinary heritage and their identity. So we've got to be careful and smart about it.
Even with the Blue Aprons or things like that, they just don't address the biggest pressing concern, which is that as we get more interested in DIY — when you're more interested in food at farmers' markets and blah-blah-blah — we are totally more and more ostracizing and abandoning a huge lower class, that basically it's not "Let them eat cake" anymore; it's "Let them eat a Happy Meal" and hope for the best. We're not teaching them where the values lie. And that just comes from the degradation of cooking schools over the years.
ST: I do some work with a company that delivers half-prepped meals that you finish. The guy, the executive chef, has a lot of cred. In a way, it really is solving a problem for people who really have a strong desire to cook but don't have time in their lives.
HA: And I like the idea of those things. I just think they're going to become the Lean Cuisines of our day and age. I think that unless you know how to prep the meal, then you don't really know how to cook.
We didn't go into it at that point, but one of the things I love about what we're doing at Din is actively trying to add value by teaching technique to enable home cooks to become more self-sufficient and confident in the kitchen. If ever customer learns one new thing each time they try a meal, over time they will suddenly discover they have a toolkit that makes them functional cooks. I know this, because a dot com 1.0 predecessor of Din did exactly that for me.