Chef Hugh Acheson is famous for pushing the boundaries of Southern cuisine, making something new out of what people thought they already understood. Whether it’s using kimchi to boost collard greens or dashi with chicken, Acheson’s cuisine and Georgia-based restaurants have the capacity to please and surprise. This has earned him recognition as a 2002 Best New Chef from Food & Wine and a regular judge position on Bravo’s Top Chef.
This ability to control expectation and surprise was put on dramatic display during a three-course tasting lunch at his Empire State South restaurant in Atlanta, Georgia. Diners knew they were going to eat something endangered, but the exact ingredients were kept secret until the last moment. Acheson is interested in preserving traditional but endangered foods. “I’ve cooked up a plan to save endangered species. It’s to cook endangered species,” he says.
For the dinner, Acheson worked with Save the Flavors, an awareness campaign created for endangered species with Seeds of Change, a producer of organic foods. Together, they fill Empire State South with curious and even skeptical customers ready to support biodiversity, knowing they are going to eat something endangered. Acheson became the target of many angry phone calls and critical posts on Twitter by people upset over the idea.
Diners are intrigued by the concept of eating exotic foods but feel somewhat guilty since they don’t know what they will be eating. The ingredients could be controversial, maybe lion or shark. One even suggests it could be a bald eagle. In the end, diners are surprised to find out that the endangered species in question is the Cherokee Purple heirloom tomato, a “rich, sweet, and slightly smoky flavored tomato originating from the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.”
Check out the video of the event here.
Acheson plays with diners’ sense of ethics, their knowledge, and assumptions to surprise them with an endangered crop variety and also a fresh perspective. They expect to be tasting an overfished or exotic animal. This assumption highlights the general lack of recognition paid to plant species in our efforts to protect biodiversity.
According to the U.S. Botanic Garden, “Plants are essential to the balance and stability of nature that supports life on earth. They are the ultimate source of the oxygen we breathe and the food we eat, and they provide the raw materials for shelter, clothing, medicines, fuels and countless other products on which humans depend.”