'Top Chef: Seattle's' Hugh Acheson on Belgian Knights, Being a 'Jackass' and the Food Fad He Can't Stand (Q&A)

Hugh Acheson Portrait - H 2012

Hugh Acheson Portrait - H 2012

The debonair -- and secretly Canadian -- judge opens up on his TV reputation, the formula for a perfect vinaigrette and what he thinks about putting bacon in desserts.

You won't get warm and fuzzy from Hugh Acheson, the debonair Top Chef: Seattle judge who can corrode the cool exterior of any chef with his acidic insights. But outside the realm of Bravo's hit reality series, Acheson is a not-so-secretly nice guy -- born in Ottawa, Canada, it turns out -- whose sheer talent in the kitchen has shot him to the top of the culinary world. He has opened three acclaimed restaurants in Georgia, was named Food & Wine's best new chef in 2002 and was this year's James Beard award winner.

Following last week's chat with Tom Colicchio, The Hollywood Reporter continues its Q&A series with the show's star-chef judges with this chat with Acheson.

The Hollywood Reporter: You've now been on both sides of the judges' table, first as a contestant on Top Chef Masters and now your sophomore turn as a Top Chef judge. Which do you prefer?

Acheson: You know, I prefer them both. They’re both entirely different. In terms of being a contestant, everyone always asks me, “Is it as hard as it looks?” And it is, and it’s as stressful as it looks -- even more so. But I get jazzed about that kind of stress and it’s exciting. The total different side of it is judging. But judging is fun; it’s also very easy. I just get sat down, fed and asked to be a jackass. And I’m good at that.

THR: Do you think that’s the perception generally of your judging?

Acheson: Oh, probably.

THR: Is your judging on the show any different from how you are in your regular kitchen?

Acheson: No. We have an expectation of really top-tier professionalism and understanding of food. But once you get to that level we believe that people should be able to relax and do the job they do. It’s a hard business, and I don’t want to make it more hard by throwing pots and pans around the kitchen. It’s not really the way I am.

THR: Until Top Chef came along, it seemed the toughest critique one might get in the food world would be from a restaurant critic. 

Acheson: Right. Or a Yelper.

THR: Has Yelp changed the game a lot?

Acheson: I think it has. Yeah. But you know, hearing criticism for a [Top Chef] contestant I think is never easy. Because you’re firmly believing in what you’ve done. And sometimes you’ve made a mistake and it’s abundantly clear that you’ve made a mistake, and you’re just waiting for them to find the mistake, and inevitably they do. Then it’s just that awkward skirting around where you either take that and say, “I know,” or do you try and defend it. But sometimes you’re honestly 100 percent behind the food you’ve made and you want to defend it. I found that was true on Masters, where I was one of the few people wanting to speak their mind at the judges’ table.

THR: So it didn’t backfire?

Acheson: Yeah, but this season a lot of people say a lot of stuff and it did backfire, so it can get pretty funny!

THR: Last week, you assigned contestants to make a salad. Was that your idea?

Acheson: It was my idea, and it’s something I firmly believe in. I think there’s such complexity and balance to salads. When you have an exceptional salad, you know it. There’s so many humdrum salads in the world, that it’s exciting to see top-tier people being pushed to the limit of having to balance oil and vinegar or make a simple dressing and really wow me with it. But so easily can they put 25 things on a plate and call it a day, like the Belgian knight [contestant Bart Vandaele].

THR: That was a very long, interesting salad. 

Acheson: There were 50 million things on his plate.

THR: But he made it through.

Acheson: Well, there was way too many things on the plate but it was definitely a good salad in a lot of ways. If you had that salad for lunch -- well, it would arguably cost you $85 [as] it had half a lobster on it, asparagus, local egg and all these things. But technically it was a very sound dish. The guy can cook.

THR: Maybe that’s just what the Belgian cavalry considers a salad. 

Acheson: Yeah.

THR: What is the perfect ratio of vinegar to oil for a vinaigrette?

Acheson: It depends on what sort of acid you’re putting in there and the complexity of the oil. But 3:1 is the general notion and what I espouse to America so they can avoid a whole aisle in the supermarket. Three parts oil to one part vinegar or lemon juice. I like really good French cider vinegars. Don’t go cheap on good vinegar, and definitely don’t do balsamic or something like that. It’s just so cloying and sweet. I’m so happy that we’ve moved past raspberry vinaigrette. It was nasty! What was up with that?

THR: What other food trends are you completely over right now? Like kale or salted caramel, for example, have suddenly exploded everywhere.

Acheson: Those two I actually like. I’m a big fan of kale and salted caramel ice cream -- I can do some damage there. I think I’m over the burger and pizza trend. Those are the big elephants in the room that are taking up way too much of the American time and diet.

THRInteresting. You’d think those two are staples but you’re referring to the bistro upscaling of those things?

Acheson: Yeah. I just think that in every midsize city right now there’s suddenly 42 artisan pizza shops and plenty of places making gargantuan burgers.

THRAnd then there’s the Internet’s obsession with bacon.

Acheson: Yeah. I mean, I love me some bacon but if I see bacon in desserts one more time or bacon in a drink ... Come on now: I wanted a beverage, not breakfast.

Email: seth.abramovitch@thr.com

Twitter: @SethAbramovitch