What's celebrity chef Hugh Acheson doing in an Airstream trailer whipping up tacos in Denver? He's busy promoting his latest cookbook. It may surprise fans of this Top Chef judge and two-time James Beard Award winner (one for his cookbook, A New Turn in the South: Southern Flavors Reinvented for Your Kitchen, and another for Best Chef Southeast) that his latest tome doesn't regale us with tales of gourmet cooking or worldwide culinary travels. Instead, The Chef & the Slow Cooker is all about making food right out of your own counter-top machine.
Acheson is coming to Denver on December 14 for his book tour; he'll be at Punch Bowl Social (65 Broadway), where the chef is culinary partner, from noon to 2 p.m. See him, get a book signed, and try the beer-braised pork tacos he'll be dishing up from his All-Clad slow cooker (also enter to win your own All-Clad). All sales from the tacos will go to support Seed Life Skills, a charity the chef founded that aims to teach middle-school kids modern home economics. We caught up with Acheson before he departed on another leg of travel to find out more about his cookbook.
Westword: Why write a book about using a slow cooker?
Hugh Acheson: I have a very astute editor, Francis Lam, who is an amazingly gifted writer. He saw the writing on the wall that slow cookers were making a resurgence again. He asked if I had been using one, and I had been messing around with one to make stocks at home. I don't use it in the restaurant because they don't stand up to the abuse there.
I thought I would be restricted in the spectrum of recipe possibilities, but it opened up the idea of making contemporary meals that go beyond the ubiquitous pot roast. In general, people usually have used a slow cooker and then shoved it in the back of a closet. The recipes for the book were coming out really well. It was fun to do, and we're proud of the results.
Do you have any memories or tales of using a slow cooker?
I was raised by a single father and had three older sisters, so we lived on burned rice and fish sticks. As far as using the slow cooker before, I had used it to make pot roast and coq au vin and been using it with a fair bit of regularity like that. Also corned beef, and then I have used it as a vessel for poaching fish. To do that, first you make an aromatic bath. Then, because of the consistent temperature that runs through the machine — it has a low and a high — you can poach something pretty delectable.
Did anything surprise you about the slow cooker?
A lot of things did. We did a whole leg of lamb in it. That was amazingly perfect. I was surprised with how little liquid you can get away with. You can braise in a little liquid and have it not be a soupy mess. Also, the meatballs we made were great. Another thing I learned is that sometimes you will use the oven in tandem with the slow cooker. I will caramelize something on the stove and then add it to the slow cooker. You can create limitless possibilities. It's good for jams and things like that too. With jam, it's easy to scorch on the stove, but not in the slow cooker.
Do you think we can get away from the stigma of the slow cooker being outdated and lowbrow?
Yeah, I think with the popularity of things like the Instapot (they are very popular and almost too much of a convenience), there's a way to get people back in the kitchen and that's a good way to start things off. The slow cooker will get people in the process of cooking from scratch again. It's archaic technology that still works. Plus, you can add a flourish to dishes by adding a salad or pickles. It's all about flavors that are bland to acidic that will marry well with what's in the slow cooker.
Since Punch Bowl Social opened in Denver, have any of your recipes been influenced by Colorado cuisine?
The book is meant to be a look at post-continental food. It's more a look at the holistic idea of global food in America now. We yearn for things like kimchi like we never did before. So, no, there's no regional aspect — though Southern food does shine through, since it's so ingrained in me.
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What made you decide to do your book tour in an Airstream?
Outside of my office one day, I was on Twitter, and I started tweeting to Airstream and asked if they would loan us a trailer. Two hours later, they were like, "No problem." We stay at KOA campsites. It's fun and just totally different. Airstreams are great and an interesting way to travel.
Who is traveling with you?
One chef, [Matt Palmerlee] and a friend who is a videographer and a photographer. Matt and I cook
beer-braised pork shoulder overnight in the slow cooker. The next morning we make coffee, let the meat sit, and then make tacos.
Finally, do you have a favorite slow cooker?
All-Clad makes good ones with heavy inserts. I work with them a lot on various projects. As for slow cookers, the key is to get one that's simple. You don't need one with wi-fi. If you see one with a TV on it, there's no point. Just make sure it has a heavy bowl and a good timer.