James Beard Award-winning chef and restaurateur Hugh Acheson has been hitting the road in an Airstream trailer to celebrate the release of his fourth cookbook, The Chef and the Slow Cooker, through Dec. 16, partnering with All-Clad and Cholula Hot Sauce to perform cooking demos at Whole Foods Market locations around the country–sales of which benefit the Top Chef judge’s Seed Life Skills charity. He took a pit stop to dish about his new venture, philanthropy and why chefs are so good in a crisis.
What made you want to write this cookbook? The slow cooker is really coming back. … People are interested in it, but we wanted to take something as simple as a slow cooker that virtually everybody has somewhere, because they bought it or got it as a gift and made a pot roast in it once and shoved it into a closet, and make it so you could really live your lifestyle, have a lot of free time, but still make very contemporary, modern food with that device. As rudimentary as it is, it’s a really good vehicle for a gazillion things to cook, outside of just a pot roast.
Is the slow cooker one of the more stigmatized kitchen appliances? I mean, they sort of make mushy food a lot of the time, and they have that baggage that comes with that. But it’s an ambient cooking technology that’s really rudimentary. … So to add texture and nuance to it, you’re going to have to sear something before it goes in there, or you may have to finish it with a flourish, with a salad or acidity at the end. But there are definitely ways of wrestling it away from that idea of being really simple, but bland.
What is one of your favorite dishes from the book? There’s a catfish stew–you just wouldn’t think of cooking fish in a slow cooker. But, really, you’re creating this amazingly aromatic broth and it’s West African in cultural identity. It’s got a ton of mace and purees in it, tomatoes, and then you poach the catfish near the end. Because of the temperature on a low setting for a slow cooker, it just really is one of the perfect temperatures for poaching. That was a real surprise and an awesome dish.
Taco sales from your events benefit Seed Life Skills. What made you want to start that organization three years ago? I thought kids needed those real life skills and homesteading ideas that they would carry with them through life. We update our phones 10 times a year, but we haven’t updated home economics or family consumer sciences curriculums in a contemporary way in a really long time. So we rewrite the home ec curriculum for existing school systems and it’s a free, downloadable, complete curriculum. This teaches kids how to roast a chicken, make a vinaigrette, roast carrots, make a salad, make rice. It’s technique-based as opposed to recipe-based because I want to give kids the building blocks to live a better life.
Do you see this as driving health and wellness goals, as well? That’s the whole idea, that when you get to 18, 19, 20, the most difficult time in your life because you’re just trying to figure out life and what you’re about to do, I want to make sure that young families and people that age have the wherewithal to say, “I’ve got $10 and $10 is much better spent at the grocery store…as opposed to going to spend $20 on fast food that’s not very nutritious.” We see kids impacted by what we’re teaching them, and it’s very STEAM- and STEM-oriented, so it seems to improve their wherewithal in other courses. They learn how to make food, that they can advance their nourishment at home. All of that has direct consequence in society and how individuals grow.
Do you see this as a launch pad for future chefs? Hopefully it moves them into eating well throughout their lifetime, and enjoying food, and cherishing food, and understanding food, and understanding what food does to us. When we eat well, we’re in good shape. … But it’s not so self-centered as to want to create a bunch of chefs out there, though they’ll be created on their own. Food’s a passionate subject. People love it and get into the business for all the right reasons. I’m just trying to create better humans overall.
We’ve been seeing chefs step up in the wake of tragedies and disasters recently. Do you think there’s something about chefs that makes them especially prone to pitching in? I think that chef advocacy has really been on the rise, and we see the impact that’s having. I think chefs generally just are very driven hospitality people, and so they want to give back to the communities that they’re in. … There’s just a good uniformity of understanding that you can do good in this world, and if you have the opportunity in the world of food to do good, it’s something that all people really appreciate and understand. Giving back via food is easy and logical and we’re probably the best equipped industry to do that.
We update our phones 10 times a year, but we haven’t updated home economics.
But the other thing is, when it comes to times of crisis, chefs and restaurateurs are dealing with crisis every day, albeit it’s in the restaurants. I think it’s just we’re really good at triaging and figuring out systems, and figuring out how to address problems and solve them. What somebody like José Andrés is doing in Puerto Rico is monumentally interesting and important to see–his advocacy is feeding six- to ten-thousand people every day. But it’s because of his wherewithal and his understanding of, “I could cook this recipe for 12 people or I can cook it for 1,200.”
Aside from your own, what food-focused charities deserve recognition for their work? I think that groups like No Kid Hungry are doing just such amazing work to get kids nourished in inner city environments through school lunch programs and in-classroom school breakfast programs. But the thing about the issues that we’re dealing with is they’re not going away anytime soon, and in current climates, there’s a lot of chance that they’re going to get a lot worse. So we have to keep fighting, and we have to fight for good food for everyone, and that’s not a socialist thing. Unfortunately, we’ve just poisoned the well so badly that it just takes a lot of work to get out of it.
Anything else about the book you’d like to mention? Still eat at restaurants–it pays our mortgages. But cook from scratch. Enjoy yourself with your family.