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Q+A: Chef Hugh Acheson Talks Savannah, Seafood, and His New Restaurant, The Florence

201407-hd-hugh-achesonjpgThis summer, James Beard Award-winning chef Hugh Acheson adds yet another restaurant to his growing Georgia empire. Following in the footsteps of his four existing Peach State successes, The Florence, Acheson's highly anticipated take on Italian cuisine, opened this June in a former ice factory, just minutes from Savannah College of Art and Design's campus.

Serving a menu of contemporary Italian fare infused with Southern ingredients (think a Sicilian fisherman's stew filled with fresh Savannah seafood or Neapolitan-style pizza piled high with local cheeses), the restaurant is a welcome addition to the coastal city's growing food scene.

Below, the Top Chef judge fills us in on his favorite Savannah spots, travel tips for foodies, and what diners can expect from The Florence.


Q: Tell me about the concept for the Florence. How did you decide on Italian?

A: Italian food has a lot of synergy with Southern food. There's a unique simplicity that's kind of beautiful about both of them, so that's what we wanted to showcase. And I've had a really talented guy on my team named Kyle Jacovino. He's been with me for about 4 years, and he's an amazing Italian cook, so we brought him up.


Q: Will it be Italian food featuring Southern ingredients?
 
A: 
When you think about Italian foods, you think about core ingredients being used really well, and a lot of those core ingredients are actually found in the South as well. We've got Southern farro and Southern flours and Southern tomatoes and cheeses and all that stuff. So we'll still be using Italian ingredients from Italy, but there will be a focus on Southern, local stuff as well.

Q: What's a favorite dish on the new menu?
 
A: 
All of the pizzas are phenomenally great right now. They really hit the pizza work out of the park. The Diabola is a beautiful, simple pizza, but it's got Calabrian chiles and homemade pepperoni and fresh mozzarella, and it's just really good. Then, there is a fisherman's stew on the menu right now. We're in Savannah, and there's so much seafood available, so it's got swordfish and local shrimp and local clams and octopus and all that sort of stuff, and it's really good.

Q:
 The Florence will be your 5th restaurant in Georgia. What drew you to the American South, and specifically to Georgia in the first place?

A: 
I'm from Ottawa, Canada, but my wife is originally from Athens, Georgia. She wanted to do graduate work a long time ago—about 20 years ago—so we found ourselves back in Georgia. And after spending some time in San Francisco and a few other places, Georgia has a great pace of life to it. It's calm and very beautiful and varied from mountains to oceans, and it's really a great place to be.

Q: Why'd you choose Savannah for your latest project?
 
A: 
I think Savannah is this amazingly wonderful old Southern coastal city. It's got tons of history, and it's got this kind of beautiful underbelly of something different going on in it. It's got a lot of patina to it. But there wasn't much here in the way of contemporary food. Charleston has quickly accelerated into being this wonderful food city in the last 10 years; Savannah needs a bit more contemporary food in that regard, so we felt like we could help in that way, and that's what made us move down here. 

Q: Aside from your own restaurant, where would you recommend eating in Savannah?

A: 
There are a number of places—Elizabeth's is one of the founding restaurants of farm-to-table food in the South. It was founded by Elizabeth Terry who was kind of the Alice Waters of the South 30 years ago. It's a great James Beard Award-winning restaurant. It's stunning—it's got an amazing wine program. Then there's a fried seafood place—I'm going high-end/ low-end—a fried seafood place called Desposito's that's wonderful.

Q: When you travel  between your restaurants, is there anything you like to listen to in the car? 


A: 
I listen to Mark Maron's podcast a lot, but then I listen to a lot of NPR. 

Q: Any music?


A:
Mostly just news and podcasts, but some music too. I have very eclectic tastes in music so it's hard to pinpoint. Let's see, yesterday I was listening to old Bikini Kill albums.

Q: Do you have any food-related travel advice you could share with our readers?


A: 
If you like coffee buy an AeroPress. Just a little hand coffee maker that works wonders.

Q: What about tips for finding good, local restaurants?


A: 
You just have to do a little research in advance. Make a little list and keep it in your pocket. And you just have to talk to locals. Find places that are off the beaten path that nobody really talks about too much.

Q: Any last words?


A: 
Savannah is just a beautiful city, and we're just trying to do a great community restaurant and get some people comin' to visit from afar. So it's all good.

Caroline Hallemann is an assistant digital editor at Travel + Leisure. You can find her on Twitter at @challemann

Photo by Emily B. Hall

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