Spotlight On: James Beard + Chef Hugh Acheson

I can't think of a better person to 'SPOTLIGHT' for Thanksgiving than the pioneer of American cookery himself, Mr. James Beard. To help showcase the famed gastronome, I've also included an interview with the great (Southern) restauranteur and cookbook author, chef Hugh Acheson! Happy Turkey Week to you and yours...

Before Giada and Mario, Emeril and Ina, heck, even Julia, there was James.

But who was James Beard and what did he do exactly? Sure, we've all heard of his namesake awards—the Oscars of the food world—but beyond that, the larger-than-life man remains a mystery to countless people other than culinary professionals and cooking enthusiasts. Beyond his restaurant reach, however, was his advocacy to promote good food for everyone. His strong beliefs (along with countless cookbooks) still influence the way our nation cooks today.

The New York Times once named Beard the "Dean of American cookery." A bold declaration perhaps, and yet it could still barely begin to describe the legendary bon vivant. He was a passionate man and wore his insatiable appetite for life on his sleeve (not to mention his waistband). His love for food, all food, knew no bounds, and it was this obsession that defined his life and his career.

Beard often referred to himself as "the world's greatest gastronomic whore," a blunt way of saying he would eat anything & everything. A food snob he was not; the man would never turn down a good meal, whether in a Michelin-starred restaurant, a backwoods dive, or a friend's cozy kitchen. In fact, it was simplicity and authenticity that he preferred!

To say he changed the way we eat is an understatement: Beard believed in the art of cooking at home; encouraged the use of local, seasonal ingredients whenever possible; and embraced the act of eating for pleasure. He will forever be remembered for championing our country's best chefs, but it was nurturing America's greatest cooks—the home cooks—that is truly worthy of a lifetime achievement award.

Last month, St. Martin's Press releasedThe Essential James Beard Cookbook, the latest tome in honor of the man who believed in us all. The all-inclusive book (think Beard's "greatest hits") contains 450 time-tested recipes that every cook should know. It truly deserves a spot on every cookbook shelf, whether a complete novice's or an award-winning chef's. Let's just say it has already earned a top spot on mine.

Speaking of award-winning chefs, I was ecstatic when the opportunity arose to interview Chef Hugh Acheson, the 2012 James Beard Foundation "Best Chef Southeast" and author of the masterful cookbook A New Turn in the South. Hugh has been an inspiration to me since my humble beginnings as a food writer. His restaurants—Five & Ten, The National, and Empire State South—are pioneers of new Southern cuisine and kick "country cookin'" stereotypes to the curb. (Don't even get me started on his boyish good looks!)

Hugh took a few minutes from his very busy schedule to talk about food, the South, and what the James Beard Award has meant to him. Take it away, chef!

Tell me about a day/week in your life: [My days] vary so much that it's hard to describe. Lots of travel. Lots of managing. Lots of cooking both at home and on the road and in my restaurants.

What has been your greatest success/accomplishment: I honestly feel that my most glowing accomplishment is employing people. At the end of the day I can create great food and serve smart beverages, but being an important cog in the machinations of the economy makes me proud.

Where do you see yourself/your restaurants in five years: I am lucky that I have found a topic to busy myself everyday so in 5 years time I hope to still be infatuated utterly and completely by food. I would think that I will be writing more, running restaurants and cooking food, much like I do every day now.

What do you love about living in the South:The South has a cadence to it that suits me. It is a community of food that is only getting better through looking back on its successes and failures, and contrary to many food cultures in the USA, there is a trove of reading material documenting food in the South. I adore the region for its core dedication to the seasons, its understanding of the beautiful simplicity of good food, and its unapologetic response to being treasured and chastised for the food we serve.

What is your favorite food? Guilty pleasure? Fried chicken thighs with lots of hot sauce. Love ‘em.

Do you have any signature dishes or prized family recipes: Red beans and rice. Cucumber and radish salad. Great, simple Caesar salad that my Dad taught me years ago.

Describe your most epic food memory: Eating at Schwartz’s in Montreal. It’s like eating history. I love simple but epic.

Tell me about your favorite family food tradition: Christmas dinner: standing rib roast, Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes, turnips, carrots and greens. Gravy. Every year.

What/who currently inspires you (music, chefs, art, places, etc):

—Grant Achatz. Sheer talent that never stops.

—Bob Mould, singer from Husker Du. Toughest man in the business. What a life.

—Traveling inspires me. Sitting on planes inspires and amazes me. You’re 36,000 feet in the air traveling 600 miles an hour. That’s crazy.

How has James Beard and/or the foundation/awards affected you and your career: It has given credence to the hours we put in, for us and our wonderful people. It has given our decisions a nod that those crazy ideas were actually great ones. It also has given me a community to aspire to and team with resulting in lifelong friendships in my chosen profession.

(NOW FOR THE FUN PART!) What recipes from The Essential James Beard speak to you:

—Cold Minted Pea Soup (page 41): I love peas and this recipe pinpoints the idea of putting a season in a bowl. It’s a timeless, simple ode to the pea.

—Carrots Vichy (page 229): Love carrots. I also love Beard’s straight forward writing when it comes to admonishing people for cooking badly: “I’m sure the reason most of us shun carrots is that they are prepared so indifferently in restaurants.” Tell us how you really feel, James.

—Choucroute Garnie (p. 108): Maybe it’s because, like cassoulet, this is a multiple step recipe that goes against every convenience in America in the last fifty years but I love the dedication to the idea that all food is not easy and quick... great cooking takes time. It’s also probably the smells in my kitchen right now where I am processing quarts of sauerkraut for winter in our pressure cooker. Smells like something the bog guy would love.

James Beard's Carrots Vichy
Source: The Essential James Beard Cookbook
Yields: 4 servings

When I first looked over this recipe, I thought it seemed just a little, well, boring. I mean, come on Hugh, come on James, bring it on! Carrots are carrots, right? Boy was I wrong. Which is the beauty of James's food—sometimes we forget that simple really is best. If there was ever a recipe to prove it, this one for Carrots Vichy is surely it...

From James: "I’m sure the reason most of us shun carrots is that they are prepared so indifferently in restaurants—boiled to death and combined with canned peas or dressed with a mere sliver of butter. As a result they have no trace of flavor. This classic way of cooking them is certainly a change for the better."

2 pounds fairly small carrots
1⁄4 cup water
4 tablespoons (1⁄2 stick) butter
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1⁄2 teaspoon sugar
1⁄4 teaspoon dried marjoram
1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1⁄4 cup heavy cream

Scrape the carrots and cut them into very thin rounds. Put them in a saucepan with the water, butter, and salt. Cook, covered, over medium heat, shaking the pan from time to time and making sure the carrots do not brown or cook too fast, until they are just tender when pierce with the point of a small sharp knife, about 6 minutes. Add the sugar and marjoram and toss well, then sprinkle the carrots with parsley and serve. If you like, add the cream to the carrots just before sprinkling them with the chopped parsley.