Interview with Hugh Acheson and a Giveaway of The Broad Fork | Punk Domestics

Interview with Hugh Acheson

I get a lot of cookbooks in the mail. Publishers send them to me out of the blue. Some are relevant and useful; many are not. I'm generally leery of cookbooks from celebrity chefs. I assume that they've been ghost written, just another marketable piece in the product portfolio. So when the publicist for Hugh Acheson reached out to me and mentioned that he was a big fan of Punk Domestics, my first instinct was, "uh huh. Way to butter me up." I acquiesced, and a few weeks later the book arrived at my doorstep. When I opened it, this popped out. 

Punk Domestics Rules!, found on PunkDomestics.com

OK, you got my attention. Flattery apparently does get you anywhere. 

I started digging into the book, and was immediately smitten. The premise is simple: A chef's-angle view of what to do with the bounty of fruit and vegetables you are confronted with at the farmers market each season. Everyone knows how to make salad from lettuce, but when chef Acheson's neighbor asked him, "what the hell do I do with kohlrabi?" he realized that the lay person may need a little more inspiration when it comes to unusual or heirloom produce.

Preserving recipes are peppered throughout the book, such as a recipe for pickled blueberries, which make a lovely sweet-tart garnish for meats. Anyway, how much blueberry jam can one make in a season, anyway? It's always nice to have alternatives.

I had an opportunity to chat with chef Acheson over breakfast at Sears Fine Food when he passed through San Francisco.  

PD: I know you were born in Canada, grew up some in the South, back to Canada, back to the South. How are these influences from the two different regions really melding in your cooking?

HA: I think an understanding of seasons comes from my Canadian background. When you live in Canada and get through a Canadian winter, you respect things a little bit differently, because you're still warming up for months. And then I think the South has taught me to respect the area and the history of what's around you deeply. There's constantly something to learn about in Southern food. It's really the only culinary history in the United States. California has got California cuisine, but it's a pretty nascent history.

I think that the crossing of my French background in food and Canada with Southern food, it's kind of a natural melding of two very different cultures because French gives you technique, and I think the Southerness gives it soul.

PD: So how about your history with preserving? How did you get interested in that?

HA: Well, I was one of the few kids who still gets to say I used to make jam with my mother. Most people say, "I made jam with my grandmother" and their mother bought Smucker's. Where I'm from in Ottawa, there's rich, charming communities around it. North of Toronto we have a cottage, and that's really that amazing agrarian milieu. So we'd see a lot of berries. We'd see a lot of rhubarb and strawberries and beautiful little gherkins and small pickling cucumbers.

It was in the fabric of what we did every summer. It was mostly for preservation purposes: jams and preserving. There wasn't a lot of chutneys and relishes and things like that, but it was still there. So the science of it was ingrained in me at a pretty young. But then I didn't do it for a long time. But then I got to the South and you realize that half of their cooking is based around old-school preserving. And that just has this amazingly long history to it that's really interesting.

PD: Speaking of pickling: I'm familiar with the pickling tradition of the South in general, although for the most part vinegar brine and especially sweet pickles. But you've got a lot of fermentation going on in the book. Is this derived from the Southern traditions, or are you bringing it in from your Canadian side, or do you come at it from a different angle?

HA: It's a bit of borrowing from world cultures. I don't think I was the first person to lightly ferment vegetables for a high-end restaurant in the United States. But at the same time, we love doing it.

Fermentation and the idea of fermentation opens up a massive area of interest to me and in the world and how food is preserved. When I started making kimchi a number of years ago, it was a pretty exciting thing to learn and to figure out. But we were making half sours in Canada and sauerkraut. There's a lot of Mennonite influence around there, who are really culturally amazingly significant people in food.   

Really, with fermentation the sky is the limit. But I want America to learn how to do it for the selfish reason that I really just want them get back in the kitchen and do whatever. I just want them back in the kitchen. It's just amazing that people just don't know how to cook at all anymore.

PD: So how do you solve a problem like that? How do we get people to learn the basics and not be intimidated by the idea of spending 15 minutes prepping a meal?

HA:You revamp home economics. You give kids life skills again. You teach people that, if you know how to cook from scratch and you shop smartly, that they can make from-scratch cooking at better value than anything that a fast-food joint ever did. And make them understand that if you're shopping within the seasons that you're making an economically smart valuation on food because of abundance at the time.

So you teach kids not to become chefs but to realize that food isn't actually that difficult to cook. We are totally more and more ostracizing and abandoning a huge lower class. We're not teaching them where the values lie. And that just comes from the degradation of cooking schools over the years.

PD: And preserving can be a part of that solution, I think. I've always said that if you've got pickles, you've got a meal. I think it's great that the book is so peppered with preserving recipes that apply directly to meal recipes that are in there. I do think that's part of the whole relatively new interest in DIY stuff. And people end up with pantries full of stuff they've prepped, and then they don't know what to do with it. So what sort of tips would you have for, "Oh God, I've got all these jars of things. What do I do? How do I suddenly turn that into food?"

HA: They have to stop creating what they want in their mind with the health-food books and resources on the Internet, and they actually just need to go to their cupboard and open up the doors and realize what they have first, and then create from there. I think you should be using that stuff as building blocks to a meal. Put it out on the counter and figure out what's going to add an affinity and a kinship that you make.

If you've got beautiful arugula and a bunch of pickled radishes and some dill pickles and some feta, I would slice up some dill pickle to have in the salad. Then I'd purée some and make a dill-pickle vinaigrette with some of the brine that's in the jar. And then you've got a dill pickle, pickled radish, feta, and arugula salad with dill-pickle vinaigrette. Or you can add toasted wheatberries to it and have a meal.

The modern meal is no longer meat and potatoes. I don't think anybody just wants to eat that anymore. You just get so tired. So I think the new meal can be that salad with, but you just need to know what's in your pantry. And you need to work like a restaurant. If I leave town, I often leave a list on the fridge of what to use when I'm gone. You need to take inventory or stock of what you have, or you're not going to use it. But also, at the end of the day, don't make something you don't really like. If you don't like apple butter, why the fuck are you making 12 jars of apple butter?

Read more of the interview here.

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