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Hugh Acheson Talks About His Fondness for Las Vegas Restaurants

Plus his love for poker and some interesting observations on the dining and dayclub scenes in Las Vegas.

Hugh Acheson
Hugh Acheson
Andrew Thomas Lee

Hugh Acheson gets to Las Vegas a lot. In fact, he might be on the Strip more often then most locals who don’t work there. He joins his Top Chef Masters alumni Rick Moonen from RM Seafood and Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger from Border Grill for a reunion dinner on Wednesday, Aug. 19, at Border Grill inside Mandalay Bay.

Acheson, the chef and partner of the Athens, Ga., restaurants 5&10 and The National, the Atlanta restaurant Empire State South, and The Florence in Savannah Ga., is a James Beard Award winner for Best Chef Southeast. He wrote the James Beard Foundation award-winning cookbook A New Turn in the South: Southern Flavors Reinvented for Your Kitchen, Pick a Pickle: 50 Recipes for Pickles, Relishes, and Fermented Snacks, and The Broad Fork: Recipes for the Wide World of Vegetables and Fruits.

Acheson competed in Bravo’s Top Chef Masters season three and currently stars as a judge on Top Chef.

The dine-around dinner with cocktails from Tony Abou-Ganim features a panel discussion with the chefs for $99 (tickets here). Everyone walks out the door with an autographed copy of Acheson’s newest cookbook The Broad Fork.

Here Acheson talks about his favorite Las Vegas hobby (poker), some of the restaurants he frequents while he’s here and what he plans to be cooking at the event.

“Mary Sue and Susan are just awesome people,” Acheson says. “We’ve been very close for a long time. Top Chef Masters really allowed us to develop a lot of close friends in the community. I don’t think you see that all the time on regular Top Chef. But our class of Top Chef Masters has always been really close. Rick and I know each other really well through Seafood Watch and stuff like that.”

How often do you get to Las Vegas?
Probably about once or twice a year. Maybe more. Maybe two or three times. I have a fondness for playing blackjack. I probably shouldn’t live there. But I do like it. The restaurant scene is really good. Lotus of Siam obviously I go to a lot when I’m there. I think their wine program is really fun and eclectic. We just kind of put it in their hands and all this crazy food comes to the table. I really want to get to Chada Thai.

That the thing about restaurants off the Strip. They don’t have the markups that the restaurants on the Strip do. So you go to Lotus and you’re drinking 20-year-old Riesling and it’s $42. It’s really refreshing. I find it a nice break.

I love the casino life and going to the restaurants there. The Bouchons of the world are just kind of hidden, these little jewels you find in a big, massive construct of a casino, but they’re kind of hidden. And I think those are the best ones, those hidden spaces you can go to and you could be anywhere, yet you’re right there.

It’s always been a fun town to go. I think what the Cosmopolitan has done for food is great. They just need to extinguish pool fires more quickly. I went to SLS. That was really wild.

And then all the downtown stuff is great.

Do you remember your first trip to Vegas?
Yeah, I would have been about 14 years old. No, actually even younger than that. My parents divorced when I was really young and my mom moved to California but we were living in Canada. I remember going on an American Airlines flight back in the day and having to take some weird landing, me and my three older sisters. We had to make an emergency landing in Las Vegas and we had to spend the night there in the casino. We were unaccompanied minors so we were being accompanied by some stewardess, who I’m sure was not very happy babysitting four kids. But I would have been 5 then. That was the first time.

The first real memorable time was driving across the country with my dad on a motorbike. One of my older sister’s boyfriends was driving an old station wagon as well. We pit stopped in Vegas and stayed at the Riviera. I think I got heat stroke. I remember being kicked out of the casinos because you couldn’t even walk through them at 15.

I started going with more frequency probably about 15 years ago, just hanging out and playing poker. We go and we usually stay at the Cosmo a lot, just because of the relationship we built with them through Top Chef Masters. Or I stay at Aria or Bellagio. It’s a great place to go and relax.

Where do you like to play poker?
At the Venetian poker room usually. I like to play Aria. It’s a little smaller. It’s a beautiful poker room. And then I have a couple of drinks, play blackjack, lose all my money and go to bed. That’s usually how it happens. I only bring what I can afford to lose usually.

Do people approach you while you're dining out?
Definitely if I’m sitting around playing cards or something like that. I tend to get noticed once in a while. It’s not a big deal. I’m always of the vantage point of my very minor celebrity that if somebody notices me, I’m going to bend over backward to make them happy, take a picture. I chose to do this in life and I chose to be on TV. I realize that this goes with it.

What was the first thing that shocked you in Las Vegas?
Oh, nothing much shocks me. I’ve seen a lot of it. I think the current thing that’s shocking me is the dayclub. The whole phenomena of the dayclub is kind of mind blowing to me that people want to sit around in 100 degree sun in their bathing suits and drink a bottle of vodka and wander into the casino sweating and drunk at three o’clock in the afternoon and have a nap and do it all again at the nightclub later on. That whole phenomena has taken me by surprise. Boy, what a cash cow for the clubs. Great use of space. Just don’t catch the pool on fire.

I don’t think anything really shocked me in Vegas. When you land at the airport, you realize what you’re getting into pretty quickly.

They went through a phenomenal shift maybe 20 years ago probably starting with the Bellagio doing more marquee restaurants and with marquee restaurants come marquee prices. Suddenly it’s Picasso selling really high-end wine and amazing talented chefs. It was no longer a subsidized casino meal. That was always a change in business. That was really interesting to me and continues to this day. But that’s only meant that quality has followed suit.

And now you’ve really begun to see the third rail eating off-Strip. Maybe Tony [Hsieh at] Zappos has something to do with that and the resurgence of downtown and the arts culture there and the ability of an affluent, permanent local community actually buying into eating at restaurants that are not in casinos.

In Las Vegas, most people who live here don’t go to the Strip.
Yeah, all my friends who live there say, “Yeah, I guess we can meet you at the casino. We don’t really go down there.”

Even in Athens, Ga., I’m sitting on my porch. One of my restaurants is downtown and one is in Five Points. But I don’t go to the core of downtown anymore. I’m 43. I don’t tend to go to college bars.

What can we expect when you’re at Border Grill?
We’re doing kind of a dine around. I’m going to be doing a book signing and then talk about my book a little bit. We’re all going to have individual stations. I’m going to do a charred New York strip with fermented dots of hot sauce and then fried black eyed peas and just a marinated Southern black eyed pea salad and mint salsa verde. Pretty simple and straightforward. I will come with a kit of little stuff to work with.

Border Grill

3950 Las Vegas Blvd. S., Las Vegas, NV 89119 702-632-7403 Visit Website

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