Editor’s Note: As we head into our last week of content on The Broad Collective, our talented teams of interns were given the opportunity to wrap everything up on our site as part of their final project for the semester. They chose to focus on the spirit of Athens by taking a look at five themes that have best come to represent what this city means to them. All week long they will be sharing stories, interviews, photos, videos, and most importantly, their reflections on these five rhythms that tell the story of Athens. Our intern team is made up of the following folks . . . all of which you should hire immediately before they become rock stars.
Stay tuned all week for more in our final series on The Broad Collective. The Spirit of Athens: Food | Music (Tuesday) | UGA (Wednesday) | Nightlife (Thursday) | Community (Friday).
Less than a two hour trek from the international hub of Atlanta and surrounded by independent small farms sits Athens, Georgia. The emergence of “foodie culture” has been a valuable and necessary wake up call for people to start caring where their food comes from and to have fun with their meals. But in Athens, it’s less of a trend and more of a lifestyle. The importance of agrarian and cuisine commerce manifests in the local grocery stores like Opa Robby’s Market, Daily Groceries, brick + mortar shops like Independent Baking Company, the biweekly West Broad and Athens Farmer’s Market and the abundance of award-winning restaurants.
Athens’ size might be seen as a limitation, but it creates an intimate environment, a spider-web of chefs and restaurateurs. Many restaurants and chefs have come to make their home and kitchen here, but the nationally renowned Hugh Acheson is undeniably where many tracks begin.
Melissa Clegg of Last Resort reached out to Acheson to start a new restaurant. Eventually this project became the reputable 5&10, known for contemporary Southern dining and the famous Ramen Tuesday’s. In this ego-filled industry, Acheson has become a quiet behemoth, which is a role he prefers. Svelte and dry-humored, the James Beard award winner owns four restaurants, has written two books and appears on Top Chef as a judge. However, if you ask him his biggest professional accomplishment, he replies, “I make good pickles.” And though he could truly choose to live anywhere, he continues to pick Athens as his home. “There’s a lot of people here for the same reason,” Acheson says, “People who live here who could live anywhere . . . there’s a cadence of life here we all respect and like . . . ”
In all seriousness, his biggest concern lies in being a good employer – hiring the right people and encouraging their best qualities, “What matters is what type of employer I am at the end of the day,” says Acheson. And this is a trait he has passed on to other highly-regarded chefs and restaurateurs in the area.
Another key player in the Athens food scene is the kind and innovative Peter Dale.
Dale grew up here in the Classic City, and has had the privilege of witnessing the development of the Athens food scene from its conception. From seeing the first real New York-style bagels show up to cilantro becoming available at the College Station Kroger in the mid-80s, to the birth of The Last Resort and East West Bistro in the 90s, Dale explained the fast-growing foodie culture of Athens. After moving to Washington, D.C. for a while and even doing apprenticeships at restaurants in Spain, Dale returned to his hometown to discover his true passion for making food. It took one meal at 5&10 to convince him to approach Acheson, who offered him an apprenticeship. Together, Dale and Acheson opened The National in 2007, featuring Southern and Mediterranean fusion cuisine. Both of the Athens-based restaurateurs have been on the fast-track ever since.
Dale has even said he had to make a resolution for “no new restaurants” in the near future, after opening both Seabear Oyster Bar and Condor Chocolates in 2014. Dedicated to using local ingredients of the utmost quality, Dale says he seeks to find “great ingredients, treating them with respect and make something that’s more than the sum of its parts.” And he does this by keeping close relationships with the surrounding local farms.“Probably the biggest part of what I do is ordering—sourcing all the ingredients that go into our food, and a big part of that is working with all the farmers. And it’s been nice to see what they’re offering or what they’re growing has really diversified a lot in the past few years,” Dale says.
And this growing diversity of ingredients is key: where there used to be just eggplants, tomatoes and okra, there are now peanuts and even wheat being produced entirely locally. Much of the encouragement towards diversity comes from the culture of the town itself—we have a place filled with highly traveled, cultured and educated individuals, which produces the essential breeding ground for great food to be made. And others have taken notice. “Athens has developed this reputation of being a culinary center and a place for foodies to visit,” Dale says, “And we need to encourage everybody else [local chefs and restaurants] to be successful to maintain this level of interest that keeps people coming here to eat . . . Because it’s awesome. It certainly wasn’t always that way.”
Most importantly, Dale shares the ideals with Acheson when it comes down to making a great place of employment. “The greatest sense of accomplishment is when you’ve developed a really great place to work,” Dale says, “What I find more rewarding is when the employees here are really more like a family, and that they’ve had a rewarding and fruitful time here.”
In the end, that’s really what Athens is all about: building a community reliant on each other, having simple interests that we share – and for a lot of us, that starts with our food.
When asked about his favorite type of dish to make, Dale really said it all: “I like to make something that’s very communal, because that’s how I like to eat: it’s like there’s a big platter on the table and everyone just kind of digs in.”
The future is bright. The strict zoning laws prohibiting the growth of food trucks might be changing allowing for another opportunity for chefs to practice their craft in a smaller, more mobile way. Athens can easily dig into the food culture here, as it only continues to grow, and as we grow our community – starting around the table.