In the wake of the Kentucky Derby, I was given the chance to chat with celebrity and Top Chef judge Hugh Acheson. Acheson, known for his Southern style of cooking, created the featured cocktail served at this year’s Fillies & Stallions party– what has become a staple to Derby weekend and the hotspot for celebrities and athletes alike to come celebrate. I asked Hugh about cocktails, entertaining and his passion for sustainability- here’s what he had to say:
I love entertaining, but hate spending the entire party in the kitchen. What’s a great meal for a group that you can prep in advance?
You’ve got to treat entertaining like you’re a chef. We do so much prep in advance and really line ourselves up for a successful dinner. You have to do the same thing when you’re at home. I would make some beautiful braised pork and grab a bunch of fresh tortillas, then grab some great salsa and guacamole and have a taco party! Pretty much all you have to do once your guests are over is grill the tortillas and you’re done.
A big Summer stew would also be great. Everything is made, but the shellfish goes in at the last second. Once those shellfish open up- just take the top off the pot, put a big stack of bowls and a ladle next to it, and you’re ready to go. You can serve it with a nice pickled salad or some sliced tomatoes with a pinch of sea salt and some olive oil. Food doesn’t have to be complex, it just has to be warm and make us happy!
I know you’re big on sustainability- do you have an at home garden?
We have a small garden. We actually have a big yard but the edibles are minimal. Just because with the amount of time it takes to garden- I leave it to people who have more time than I do. But we grow okra, tomatoes..things like that. A lot of herbs because they’re straight forward and we can find the time to do it.
So if you were to encourage people to grow any of their own ingredients, what would you suggest?
I think if you can’t grow mint, you should abandon all hope of trying to grow anything- because mint is a weed. You plant it in the ground and you basically have a yard of mint. So go with that. With the amount of money you spend on one bunch of mint at the grocery store, you could buy a seed to grow it for the whole neighborhood.
What are your favorite places to buy local in Georgia?
We love the Athens Farmers Market– that’s every Saturday and they have a Thursday market as well. It’s just about encouraging your community and making sure your money’s going back to them. It’s a small price to pay to figure out how to buy locally.
How do you let local products influence your menu?
You go to the market and see what’s out there- and you’re able to pivot according to those things. If I see beautiful okra, I make okra! That’s my belief at home and it’s also my belief in the restaurant.
What are some simple substitutions everyone should make for cocktails that are cleaner and healthier?
Fresh juices in your cocktails are going to make all the difference in the world. Crafting a great cocktail is like crafting a great recipe- you just want to treat all ingredients with respect. Go with a “from scratch” perspective and it will be that much better. The Mint Mutiny is a great example- when you have that beautiful rose simple syrup and the fresh mint, everything comes together with the white rum. It’s so refreshing and light.