Star Chef Hugh Acheson Talks About Fighting Alzheimer’s And The Power Of Comfort Food

Chef Hugh Acheson’s career has been hard-won. The Canadian-born, Southern-raised culinary master worked his way up from the belly of the beast after landing his first restaurant gig as a dishwasher at 15. You might envy his good looks and blessed life, but know this: Dude put in his 10,000 hours.

Today, Acheson has several iconic restaurants in Georgia and has taken on the world of food television via Iron Chef, Top Chef, and Top Chef Masters. He has an ease to his demeanor that seems to pull from his heritage in both Canada and the South. Warmth and charm radiate from him, even across a phone line.

I got a chance to talk to Acheson recently about a cause very close to both of us — Alzheimer’s. My maternal grandfather suffered from the disease for several years before succumbing to it in a rest home; Acheson’s father is currently suffering from it. Food was always a huge part of my life with my grandfather, even up to the end, and it struck me to see that a chef I deeply admire (Acheson’s burger at Empire State South is one of my favorites) dealing with this disease.

After finding out Acheson and other chefs are working with the Alzheimer’s Association’s campaign, Around the Table, I reached out for a chat. I spoke with the chef about how food is often a bonding agent for families dealing with Alzheimer’s. We also snuck in some burger talk because, obviously.

We came together to talk about the Alzheimer’s Association Around the Table program. Could you walk us through how you became part of Around the Table?

They contacted me and I felt like I can really help bring awareness to something because of who I am. People tend to listen to chefs, for some reason. I don’t ask why, but I just let them.

That led to me teaming up with the Alzheimer’s Association and other chefs. Plus, I think the campaign’s really cool. It’s using the power of food and raises awareness. And, hopefully, we can get to the bottom of how to fix an issue and the malaise that affects so many people.

How do you feel food helps you connect with someone who has Alzheimer’s?

You know — food in the purest sense of meaning — is nourishment and sustenance. Then there’s the emotional aspect of food. We convene around a table. We eat food with people we enjoy spending time with, the people we love, our friends and families. That type of power has so many ramifications in the positive. So, I think it really comes down to nourishing those people.

To me, it’s amazing how the power of food has a physical way of making people feel healthier, better able to deal with things, and be able to be at ease with the situation that’s in every other case very dire.

I feel that. My grandfather died of Alzheimer’s. I was living out of the country the last few years of his life. Whenever we met over those last few years, we always went to one of two fish houses where he lived for a meal — chowder, fish and chips, Crab Louies. And that was just … you know … It was a bonding moment that often bought a moment of clarity for him via something we spent our whole lives sharing.

You know it’s funny, I find there’s still always moments of clarity in my personal case with my father, and those mean so much. If you can find those threads of commonality that creates understanding, that brings a smile to a face, they become well. And even if you haven’t, you’re still nourishing somebody.

The thing is, you know, is that people care for people with Alzheimer’s. So it means a lot to nourish yourself in that scenario, too. Caregiving is not an easy task. It needs to be beneficial for all aspects of the family relationship.

It feels like you’re a very good candidate for this. You’re originally from Ottawa, but you’re very deeply tied to the American South. Your food seems to lean towards comfort food as a place to start from. Do you feel that comfort food can be the connective tissue to help you reach out to somebody who needs support?

Yeah, I think that that’s a good way of putting it. I think that comfort food — in its real sense — should be what comes from the heart. It has a thread of meaning throughout your family history. It makes sense and, you know, it’s not so modernist that it goes away from the epitome of nourishment. There are heartstrings involved in comfort food, or there should be. Comfort food doesn’t have to be meatloaf, unless your family always enjoyed meatloaf.

One of the best examples I can think from your menu at Empire State South is the off-the-menu burger you serve. To me, that’s the ultimate heart-strings-pulling comfort food. I’m not sure if you still do it, but it’s one of my favorite burgers in the country.

Still do it. Still a good burger.

Let’s dive into what makes a good burger, really quickly. When you’re devising a recipe like that, you must know on a certain level it has to be comforting, right? And so, as a chef, what are you thinking about when you’re making it?

Just that notion of technically pushing a very tried and true comfort food is great. But that’s all technique. The burger at Au Cheval in Chicago is the classic example. It’s a burger. But it’s an excellent burger.

When it comes to the elevation of comfort food, we can do anything. If you put chicken and dumplings with the utmost technique, that’s elevated and beautiful and sourced sustainably in front of a Southerner, you still have this multidimensional meal because it’s evoking a history for a lot of people, a good history of being around the table. It’s evoking a history of a good part of the South — a place that has a lot of pain in its history.

Circling back, as a chef, what are you looking for when you’re cooking food as a caregiver for your father?

You know cooking — whether you’re cooking for a loved one who’s suffering, or cooking for a friend, or a boss, or a family, or even for yourself — should be a productive exercise of enjoying food and company. There’s convening around a table or around the entire kitchen where you listen to NPR and talk about the news in a positive way. You talk about it whoever you’re with. You’re just experiencing.

Then, if it’s with the younger generation, you’re also covertly teaching them skill sets of how to make a vinaigrette, or how to properly dice things, or how you move around the kitchen to produce food. Those are skills that they can take away with them.

I feel that. I remember learning how to hold a proper kitchen knife as a kid. It felt like such a responsibility that gave me a sense of satisfaction as part of a team.

And it’s like riding a bike. It’s totally retainable knowledge.

It carries with you for life. What have you learned along this path working with the Alzheimer’s Association?

Alzheimer’s is a major ailment that affects so many people. So it’s just good to get eyes on it and have people made more aware. We need to confront these issues and ailments. We need to provide real hope for cures. We need to get the word out there about the number of people affected by these things. We can solve it.

It’s amazing, historically, what mankind has solved and figured out, and we can do it with this too.