Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Local chef Hugh Acheson speaks to Collins Hill High School students during their food and nutrition class in Suwanee Wednesday. Acheson who owns two restaurants in Athens and one in Atlanta has been featured on the Top Chef Masters television show.
SUWANEE — Hugh Acheson is running late.
Teacher Monica Ebelhar stretches time, fielding questions from her students about a recent quiz they took. “If you didn’t get a good grade, you need to study the material.”
Amid whispers, she reminds them to show respect for their guest — don’t talk, put away your iPhones — when the “Top Chef” celebrity and local restaurateur walks through the door out of breath and all smiles, greeting students, armed with self deprecation.
“I was late to school a lot when I was a kid.”
He jumps right in, introducing himself, for those who don’t know him. Many do not, other than recollections of his face from the award-winning culinary reality show, on which he’s been a contestant and most recently a judge.
At the request of a student in Ebelhar’s food and nutrition class at Collins Hill High School, Acheson agreed to talk to the young people Wednesday morning about his career and offer advice about — well — growing up.
“I have two restaurants in Athens and one in Atlanta, I write books, and I’m on TV. That’s what I do,” said Acheson, eyeing each student one by one. “But I was once your age, and what I found was ... in a world where I was not good at school, I was really good at cooking.”
While it’s the right fit for many, he told them, college is not necessarily for everyone.
“I came from a very academic family. Both my parents are professors. My sister is a professor, so it’s a very academic family, and I was the black sheep. Everybody thought I was probably going to end up in jail.”
Added Acheson: “I never did end up in jail. What I did do was continue cooking.”
Students watched the slender 41-year-old man with curiosity — with smiles and frequent laughs — listening to this eccentric adult with tattoos peeking from the sleeves of his T-shirt (including a fresh-out-of-the-ground radish inked upon his forearm) a piercing gaze and a self-proclaimed unibrow, explaining to them, in essence, that everything is going to be all right.
Just find something you like to do, and do it well.
“Being this age, it’s such a critical time. A little bit of unconventional advice in life can go a long way,” explained Acheson during a break between the first and second group of students.
“I went through school and dropped out of a university and felt like one of the only places I belonged was in the kitchen. I needed somebody other than myself telling me that was OK,” said Acheson, who owns Five & Ten and The National in Athens and Empire State South in Atlanta.
“I think some of these kids need to be shown that no matter what you do in life, you just need to find something you love and excel at and be mature about it and be smart about it, and you’ll do great.”
That way of thinking has served him well as an entrepreneur and a celebrity chef.
At the age of 27, when he opened his first restaurant in Athens, Acheson didn’t have much money.
But, he explained, he learned that money wasn’t everything.
“The first (priority) is making sure everybody within that place is taken care of and not exploited,” Acheson said. “Exploitation in the restaurant industry is widespread. People are very low paid and often they are harassed. So I set out to make sure that would never happen within the confines of the restaurant I was running.”
Acheson said as an employer he’s more likely to hire an employee who has “real-life experience.”
“I would much rather hire someone with actual cooking experience who has worldly exposure to ideas, who has seen how things work ... I’d much rather see that than a student straight from (cooking school),” Acheson said.
In addition, he said, employees should bring a degree of professionalism.
“I run restaurants where you have fun. You can have a good time while working as long as you remember this: if you cross that line of professionalism, you’ll be gone. I will let you go.”
He said great workers are rare and encouraged those in Ebelhar’s class to aim for “the sliver of 5 percent” which excels. “If you are a member of that 5 percent, you will have an amazing life in work. The other 95 percent are just doing their thing, 9 to 5, droning through their world,” Acheson said. “But if you can excel in that top tier ... you’re limitless.”
Students asked about his career on television.
“On ‘Top Chef,’ I came to be known as the guy that could cook, who’s also funny and will say anything, and that’s what I’ve been known for my whole life, so it worked into that shtick on TV.”
Added Acheson: “(The show’s producers) figured 50 percent of the population will like me, and 50 percent of the population will think one eyebrow is weird.”
Overall, television has been a fun and interesting journey, he said.
Through other mediums such as his book, Acheson has aimed to spread his culinary message of “local first, sustainable second, organic third.”
He told students “the first step is getting interested in something that’s really applicable for the rest of your life, which is feeding yourselves. If you don’t take an interest, you will run into issues later on. You will be unhealthy.”
Student Kimberly Castaneda, 19, said she learned a lot about eating healthy during the visit.
“I want to start going to the farmer’s market and eating foods that were grown locally,” said Castaneda, who was the student that emailed Acheson to invite him to speak to the food and nutrition class.
Acheson said he was glad to do it.
Before wrapping up, he took some questions: Which celebrities have you cooked for? What’s the most expensive bottle of wine at Empire State South? How did you know this is what you wanted to do?
“It’s just this quest to find something in life that you never tire of, that you never get bored of and make it into something of a career,” he said. “You will sell in life as long as you want to succeed and be the best you can be at whatever you’re doing. No matter what path you choose, it’s on you to succeed.”
The bell rang, signaling the end of class, Acheson made his way toward the door at a quick pace, stopping to shake a few hands, sign a few autographs, glancing at his watch. He had the look of a man running late.
He waved, and out the door he dashed.