Chef and cookbook author Hugh Acheson became known nationally for his wry presence on “Top Chef Masters,” and his role as a judge on “Top Chef.”
Around Athens and Atlanta, though, he first found fame as the force behind casual fine dining restaurants 5&10 and Empire State South. And last year, Acheson signed on as the operator of By George at the Candler Hotel in downtown Atlanta.
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But with the COVID-19 crisis, By George is closed, Empire State South is offering pickup meals from its barista window, and 5&10 is reopening this week with a limited takeaway menu.
Recently, Acheson and the Empire State South team joined forces with the law firm of Harris Lowry Manton LLP to deliver 500 box lunches to Atlanta healthcare workers and first responders on the front lines of the pandemic.
On Monday, 100 box lunches were delivered to Grady Health’s Ponce de Leon Infectious Disease Center, and through Friday daily deliveries will be made to Atlanta Police, Atlanta Fire/EMS, and Piedmont Atlanta Hospital personnel.
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“A number of the law firm people are regulars at Empire State South, so they got in touch with me about it,” Acheson said. “But we had been thinking about something like this. We have a safe environment, and we’re able to produce meals for these front line heroes right now.
“A lot of them need to be fed and nourished because they’re working 20 hour days. Right now they’re our only hope. And that’s the impact we can have as chefs and food service workers. We’re working on a similar thing with the Blank Family Foundation. So the next thing is to do more drops of ready-to-eat meals for underserved communities in southeast Atlanta.”
Whether Empire State is making meals for first responders or pickup customers, Acheson stressed that he and the kitchen staff are doing it with food safety as the highest priority.
“I think we’ve been ahead of it on how to keeps things very safe,” he said. “We have one crew. They made a pact among themselves that they did not want to bring hardship to themselves or others. So what they do is come directly to work, they do their work for 10 hours, they clock out, and they go directly home.
“We have even protocols about how you get gas. When you come back in, we take your temperature, and make sure everything is fine, and then you wash your hands, again. And we have really clear systems on ordering and picking up. It’s the only thing we can do right now to keep the lights on. It’s my salaried team. They’re the ones doing it, and they’re doing it bravely, and stoically. All the rest of my crew is on unemployment, and we’re just trying to pay the bills, and get though this, so we can reopen.”
A similar process is going on at 5&10, Acheson said.
“They’ve been pretty smart at 5&10, too,” he said. “They’re starting production to do some to-go items. They’ve got a crew of three people who kind of made a pact for themselves that they would lay low for the 14 days that we think it takes to see if you have it (COVID-19), and none of them showed any signs. So they’re temperature-checked, and they’re going back in to feed the medical community and then to-go offerings.”
For his part, Acheson is leveraging his celebrity chef status to generate money for the businesses.
“What we’re doing is advanced sales of higher-end catering,” he said. “There’s a ton of people out there that still seem to have a good bit of money. So we’ve been really successful in selling that. Over the course of the next two years, I promise to come by your house and cook you a dinner for 10-to-20 people. And it will actually be me, cooking all the food for you, and serving you, and telling jokes about how we were all quarantined with our children playing Catan. But that’s going to give us a financial foothold for the future.”
In another recent interview, Acheson was quoted as saying he only had $26 in his personal checking account, which led many in the restaurant business to worry.
“You want a really poignant moment?” Acheson replied when asked about it. “I had my 15 year old read that article. And she teared up a little bit at one point over that thing about everybody thinking I’m rich. Because she knows.
“She was like, ‘Dad, I have to deal with this all the time.’ And her response to somebody about a year ago was, ‘You don’t actually know what we go through. It’s not like we’re poor. But while your dad works at the university and gets a constant paycheck, with my dad it’s feast or famine.’
“And that is what people don’t understand. And the fact that it affects Clementine, my daughter, that’s harrowing. But I will always be a good provider. I will always figure it out. I am one gifted hustler. I will always hustle for good, but I will hustle.”
And with that, what does Acheson think about the future of the restaurant business?
“If Tom Colicchio says 75% of restaurant aren’t going to reopen, well he’s probably changed his mind now with the CARES Act, which is going to be really beneficial and helpful, but even if it’s 25%, it means almost four million people who used to work in hospitality will be without an occupation.
“So we’re going to have to change our business models. And I don’t know how it’s going to reset. My biggest hope is that maybe we have leadership that will start a massive public works program, because there so many things in this country that need to happen, and maybe people in hospitality could be trained to do something for the better good. But we have to change the industry, and it’s going to be really interesting to see what ideas come out of that.”
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