Recently “Top Chef” judge Hugh Acheson was in New York City and hosted a round table chat where he created some incredible rum-infused food and drink recipes. With some help from Captain Morgan, Hugh is getting us ready for the summer.
Besides his role on Bravo’s “Top Chef,” Acheson is the author of the James Beard Foundation Award Winning Cookbook, “A New Turn in the South: Southern Flavors Reinvented for Your Kitchen.” Hugh is known reinventing dishes that take on southern flavors. He also owns four restaurants, including Atlanta’s Empire State South.
I caught up with Hugh to chat about his time in New York City, “Top Chef,” fatherhood, and what inspired him to become a chef.
Art Eddy: Tell me about the work you are doing with Captain Morgan to create some rum infused dishes?
Hugh Acheson: We did a luncheon today with Captain Morgan. We have been doing a lot of food recipes with them. The original spiced rum is just so versatile in food. Everything from sticky date pudding to a marinade for a skirt steak. We were doing a bunch of drinks today that are great for the summer. They are awesome. One is called a “Mint Mutiny,” which is a play on a mint julep with Captain Morgan white rum. Then we were doing a “Strawberry and Mint Agua Fresca” with white rum as well, which was great.
AE: For the beginner chef’s out there what would be the easiest rum inspired dish they should try to make first?
HA: I think you just have to go to a market and realize the seasonality of the food. Right now you are going to find beautiful cucumbers, green beans, and tomatoes. You just need to make really simple things. Slowly, but surely you start to get a little bit better with food. You start wanting to take a risk and try something new. That is how you build a repertoire. You have to get into food. Enjoying food is cooking from scratch. So you have to do that.
AE: Do you have a favorite Captain Morgan cocktail you like to enjoy during the summer?
HA: I would say the “Mint Mutiny.” It is Captain Morgan white rum and Rose Water simple syrup. There is crushed up mint and fresh lemon juice and it is poured over crushed ice. That is just a beautiful and balanced cocktail that is not too potent and has just a little bit of liquor in it. It has just enough and it is fresh.
AE: What is the most memorable dish or moment you have from your “Top Chef?”
HA: Just watching some of the contestants cook. I just enjoyed watching Nina Compton cook last year. I thought she just did it with such skill and pizazz. She was just so talented. It is fun to watch those people. Some of them throughout the season just deal with the stress of it and cook all the time.
Individual dishes? Yeah, some of them throughout the years have just been fantastic. It is more of the careers you are watching unfold from this whole experience.
AE: Do you think that the chefs on that show have more pressure to impress you guys, the judges or prove to themselves that they can win?
HA: I hope that they are trying to prove it to themselves more than anybody out there. It is such a difficult business. Cooking is not the easiest thing to do. I can be impressed on one day and then not on another day. You just have to have the wherewithal to impress yourself every day. You want to impress yourself with the desire to learn and want to cook every day.
AE: What inspired you to become a chef?
HA: I was never good in school. The one place where I went after school was a restaurant. There I felt included and was being well thanked for being there. We are all not meant for the path of academics. That is what my entire family does. So for me it was a nice break to not go into that industry.
I started to learn about the food industry. It has been really rewarding for me. At the end of the day I just want to learn more about it every day. I am not done learning. I think that is the important thing because I think I picked an endless topic.
AE: When you are celebrating a birthday of special event what is your meal of choice?
HA: If I have my choice I want to be eating with my two daughters, Beatrice and Clementine, and my wife, Mary. I want to be eating something they love. So it is going to be a big, great steak with about six vegetables around it. That’s about it. It is pretty straight forward. Split a nice bottle of wine, have fun, and enjoy ourselves. I want to spend time together because it is the most important thing you can do.
AE: Switching to fatherhood, what are the main set of morals you look to instil in your children?
HA: I think empathy. Understand what people are thinking and feeling. Don’t assume you know what they are thinking and feeling or what they have been through. I think you need to start a relationship with a clean slate. That means from the person at the checkout counter at the grocery store to the person walking down the street who glared at you funny.
You can’t assume what that person has been through in the last 24 hours. We need to be empathetic towards the population and teach our kids to be that way too. I also want them to always be learning and be smart.
AE: We always see our traits in our kids, both good and bad. What are some of the things you see that you know they picked up from you?
HA: I think their love of food is really great and palpable. From day one those kids have eaten well. So they have learned to respect food. They always had a chance to enjoy new vegetables and things like that. That is a life lesson that they will have their entire life, which is the ability to eat well and respect food. It just doesn’t appear. It takes a bit of time to prepare and there is some labor that goes into it.
AE: What advice do you have for new dads out there?
HA: Oh, it is an ever-changing world out there. You just got to enjoy it. As much as you want them to act their age, you need to act your age. You have to be patient as a father. Guide them through life and let them know that you are always there.
Below are few drink recipes that Hugh was telling me about in my interview with him.
1 teaspoon fresh mint, torn into pieces
1½ ounces Captain Morgan White Rum
½ ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ ounce Rose Simple Syrup (recipe follows)
1 cucumber spear
1 mint spring
Directions: Fill a julep cup with crushed ice. Stir in the torn mint. Add the Captain Morgan White Rum, lemon juice, Rose Simple Syrup, and then fill with club soda until the cup is almost full. Top the cup with a mound of more crushed ice and garnish with a cucumber spear. Rub the mint sprig between your palms to express the natural oil and garnish with the cucumber. Serve with a straw.
Rose Simple Syrup
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon of rose water
Directions: Add 1 cup of hot water to the sugar and stir until the sugar is completely dissolved. Add the rose water, cool to room temperature, and refrigerate the syrup until ready to use.
Captain’s Agua Fresca
1 1/2 ounces Captain Morgan White Rum
2 ounces Strawberry and Mint Agua Fresca (recipe follows)
3 Cucumber Dials
Directions: In a rocks glass, combine the Captain Morgan White Rum and Strawberry and Mint Agua Fresca with cracked ice. Slide the 3 cucumber dials down the sides of the glass.
Strawberry and Mint Agua Fresca
(Makes approximately 2 cups)
¾ cup water
2 cups of strawberries tops cut off and hulled
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons of fresh mint leaves
Directions: Puree all ingredients in a high-speed blender. Strain through a fine