Celebrity chef Acheson visits Macon to talk cooking, the South

When celebrity chef Hugh Acheson does a cooking demonstration, he has two goals in mind.

Acheson, who held a demonstration at Robinson Home in downtown Macon on Saturday, first likes to dispel the myth that it is “beyond our grasp” to cook meals from scratch in a busy modern lifestyle. Instead, he said there’s real value in preparing food for the family.

“I hope they just cook at home a little bit more,” he said.

Another key aspect to Acheson’s cooking, both in demonstrations and at his five Georgia restaurants, is an exploration of what Southern food means. Acheson, also known for his time as a judge on the “Top Chef” television show, owns the National and 5&10 in Athens, The Florence in Savannah and Empire State South and Spiller Park Coffee in Atlanta.

“It’s where I live and a place that means a lot to me,” he said of the state of Georgia.

A native of Canada who has lived in Georgia off and on for a couple decades now, Acheson said that Southern cooking has always been about using what’s available. As a result, it has always been influenced by various cultures, from the Gullah community near the Georgia and South Carolina coasts to the Korean infusion in the Atlanta area.

“Culturally, the South has changed a lot,” he said.

Macon resident Lauren Mauldin said that learning about the “constantly evolving” nature of Southern cuisine had opened her eyes to what she could do in her own kitchen.

“So for me, I think that kind of expanded my horizons a little bit,” she said.

Robinson Home owner Will Robinson was also impressed by the fusion concepts.

“I really love his ideas of Southern food evolving ... finding the similar components and melding them together,” he said.

Saturday’s dish was an example of that exploration. The summer salad consisted mainly of varieties of tomatoes, peaches and peanuts with a vinaigrette Acheson made during the demo using olive oil, peanut oil and even soy sauce, among other ingredients. He noted that buying produce such as tomatoes from a local farmers market was an advisable move because the flavor tends to be better in the fresher produce.

“You live in a good tomato-growing sort of climate,” he said.

Mauldin said that while tomatoes and peaches are obviously prevalent in Middle Georgia gardens and markets, combining the two was a new concept for her.

“I would’ve never thought about putting tomatoes and peaches together,” she said.

Acheson noted that buying locally wasn’t always feasible for everyone, though. An audience member brought up Georgia’s growing wine industry, and he said that products like that, as well as Georgia-produced olive oil, can be too expensive for a lot of families.

“Support where you can, always,” he said.

Jaydee Ager, of Hawkinsville, said she attended the demo because she’s “very interested in the culinary arts.” She also said she had enjoyed eating at Empire State South when she visited, and her biggest takeaway from Saturday was about kitchen equipment.

“You want to have quality knives,” she said.

While Acheson provided plenty of tips on chopping techniques, equipment and ingredients, he said the ultimate decision was up to each cook. He encouraged them to experiment with tastes and textures as they adapted to their own preferences.

“I’m not in your kitchen; I’m not watching what you’re doing,” he said. “Do whatever you want.”

Jeremy Timmerman: 478-744-4331, @MTJTimm