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April 15, 2020 28 mins

In this episode host Michael Ruhlman checks in with Georgia Chef Hugh Acheson. Acheson discusses the state of his three restaurant operations and switching to take-out food. They also ponder the pros and cons of the Paycheck Protection Program.

Next, Ruhlman speaks w/ Financial Services reporter Zachary Warmbrodt to get a more details about the PPP loans.

Finally, Acheson outlines how to take care of your neighbors during tough times, and of course, what he's cooking!

Chef Hugh Acheson's website:

Reporter Zachary Warmbrodt's reporting can be best found at his twitter handle:

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Episode Transcript

Available transcripts are automatically generated. Complete accuracy is not guaranteed.
Speaker 1 (00:15):
Welcome to a special episode of From Scratch, a podcast
about food and cooking. My name is Michael Ruhlman, and
I write about food, cooking and the work of the
professional chef. In each episode, I speak with one chef
and one non chef about the same theme in order
to connect this fundamentally human act with the world at large.
But COVID nineteen has prevented chefs from doing their jobs

and running their restaurants, at least in the way they'd
always been accustomed. In these special episodes, unconnecting with chefs
to see how they are doing and find out what
they are doing in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Today,
I speak with journalists Zachary Warmbratt, who covers financial services
for Politico, and Georgia chef Hugh Atchison. He was a

chef owner of five and Tent in Athens, Georgia and
Empire State South and by George, both in Atlanta. His
first cookbook, A New Turn in the South Southern Flavors
Reinvented for Your Kitchen, won the James Beard Award for
Best Cookbook in the American Cooking category in two thousand
and twelve. He won a Food and Wine Best New
Chef Award, a Best Chef Southeast Beard Award, competed on

Top Chef, and he was the host of the podcast
The Passenger with Hugh Atchison on I Heart Radio, and
according to his website, he is at his home in Athens. Simply,
the guy who owns those restaurants has one eyebrow and
two daughters who are the apple of his eye. Give

us an overview of your world before COVID nineteen struck
and isolation was required and after, you know, I mean,
I had a lot of travel slated for this month
music festival in Boise, Idaho that I always go to
h in a cook at in the wonderful festival, and
so I'm missing that. Still running my restaurants, but we've

definitely closed them all, but I'm running except for to
go food at Empire State South in Atlanta, and then
five and ten my restaurant, Nathan's Georgia of the original one,
will start doing some limited to go through this week, um,
you know, and then just writing deadlines and stuff like that,
with which like you, I can do from the comfort
of my home in my underwear. But this is definitely uh,

you know, having to lay off over a hundred people,
having to figure out how to make ends meet, doing
what I call, you know, all time Olympic hustling to
make make ends meet and figure it out, and it's
not easy. And then you know, we're now in a
point of interpretation of everything that's happening and trying to
figure out what these loans mean. And you know, so

it's it's just a difficult time for smaller operators. Um,
I think it's a difficult time for everyone. I equated
always to that we're all feeling us, but restaurants just
felt it first. We just got mauled first. Um. And
and so it's that just takes a little while to
sink in and figure out, and unfortunately now comes the

level of depression and anxiety. Not necessarily for me personally
that that that affects me a little bit too. But
a lot of people are gonna feel very helpless, whether
it's our employees or whether it's people in ancillary industry
stars and whether it's chefs and restaurateurs. We we know
that people go through that, and that's really difficult to
to sit around and uh and feel helpless that you

can't really provide the solace those people need. How many
employees did you have, how many of you laid off?
Laid off over a hundred and we still have about
ten on sort of slightly mitigator or slightly um depreciated
salaries based on them not working as much. And but
you know, I've got a really dedicated crew. I want
these people back, and at this point, the big difficulty

is that, well, I mean, we'll get them back, and
I want to get them back based on saying that
I'm a good employer and what we provide a really
good atmosphere. But in a lot of instances will get
them back because there'll be no other jobs. And you know, Cliqio,
Tom clikio is is famous in the beginning of this
and saying restaurants won't we reopen? Well, he changed to

in a little bit with the bail up money and
and the Cares Act being passed, and he's trying to
be a cheerleader. But you know, in reading more into it,
I literally think that at least a third of the
restaurants will never reopen again. And that may be because
of financial hardship, but it also might be you know,
you see a lot of people just throwing in the towel.
You know, Gotham in New York through in the towel,

and they threw in the towel because they had to
close because the COVID, But they also threw in the
towel that they've been through nine eleven. They knew how
this affected people. They know how hard it is to
reopen in a business that's already unduly hard. But we
love the heart of it. But you know, this is
not this is not what we signed up for. This
is not the stress of service and how we deal

with it with a smile. This is a pandemic and uh,
we're we're feeling it like everybody else. No, yeah, I
want to know you, business owner, chef, employer, What are
your three concerns in order of importance. My biggest concern
is passing through the feelings that I have of always

being a provider and an employer and suddenly being struck
with an inability to be so. Um. I can win
a lot of awards, that can do really well in
this business and succeed in everybody's eyes, but the biggest
success I'll have ever is to be a good employer.
And so when you rip the rug out from under me.

It just it affects everything I do and it's really
hard to overcome. I think second to that, but but
it's definitely Second is to make sure that my my
friends and my family and everyone around me and my
neighbors or check done and nourished in this because I
think it's so important, but it has to be a
safe way of doing that. And third is the economic

viability of my future and those people who put their
trust to me to put a paycheck in their hands
because of their amazing hard work and honest ethic and
professionalism in life that I so treasure in them. Uh,
and they've given me they're all and uh, we're going
to rebuild it for them and myself. A few days ago,

you tweeted yourself, this dread has set in. When did
you tweet that? And why? Well, you know, I tweeted
that because there was a lot of hope around the
bailout ideas, and you know, people who are very dear
to me in the chef community were really saying that
this is gonna be a good thing. It's gonna be

a good lifeline. And I started reading more into it,
and may maybe on the naysayer sound of an economist,
and maybe I just don't want more debt on my shoulders.
But it's a pretty dicey scenario. And and you know
there's not a lot of excess money in there when
you're it's really to me, it's kind of a shell game.
It's to get people off unemployment insurance, which is great.

The markets want that. We want to look at things
and have it be look a little better than maybe
it is. But you know, it gives us ten weeks
a payroll. Um, it's maybe forgivable, maybe mostly forgivable. At first,
interestrates were point five. Now it goes the bank at
like eleven o'clock last night, when's supposed to be live today.
Suddenly the interest rates are one maybe higher. There's a

point that they can kick him up higher. We don't
understand how much is forgivable. So you are getting loans.
We will apply for p p P, which is the
Payroll Protection Plan through the s b A, which is
administered by your your local bank or your larger local bank,
to assist us in getting back open again. You know
the problem with restaurants is you know this, I mean

we're just we're small. Um, we just don't may get
a ton of money some people do in this business,
but you know you're small, you're small, and you're rely
on cash flow. That's what yeah, exactly, So you know
everybody immediately said, well, you know, I can do so
much business and to go food will meet a need,
it'll feel good for our people, and you know, sometimes

we can't provide safety on that measure. And then the
other thing is it's you're gonna be compensated ten percent
of what your usual hall is. There's no way possible
to keep everybody on a payroll and not get them furloughed. Um,
we want to make it a lifeline to our people.
We want to make sure they're taken care of. But
in this instance we're just kind of helpless. You know.

They average small business has twenty seven days of possibility
on their bank account if they shut their doors. I
would say most restaurants have about ten. I found this
whole paycheck protection program you talked about confusing, So I
spoke with Zachary warm brought a reporter for Politico covering
the subject. Find them also on Twitter, where are under

his first name at Zachary. He makes up to the minute,
reports Warren Brott spoke to me by phone from Washington,
d C. I began by asking him to explain how
the Paycheck Protection Program has been going. So, the Paycheck
Protection Program launched April third, and it's been a pretty
rocky rollout since then. The way it's structured is the

private banks are the ones who actually issue these loans
that are backed by the government and which can be
forgiven if a small business is willing to maintain its payroll,
because the whole idea behind the program is that, you know,
maybe there's a way to delay mass layoffs across the
country if there was some incentive for small businesses to

maintain their payroll. And for the businesses that are supposed
to be eligible for this program are ones that have
fewer than five employees. And you can get a loan
up to ten million dollars and seventy five percent of
the forgiven amount has to go at a payroll, but
you can use part the rest of the money also
for other expenses like mortgages and rented utilities. When is

this money going to be available to idea? It launched
April third, but banks have had a lot of trouble
implementing the program. Um. They said that they had a
lack of guidance from the Trump administration, UM, Like they
only got the rules for how to run the program
the night before they were supposed to kick it off.
And so banks have been taking applications to varying degrees.

Some banks have, some banks haven't, and it's unclear how
many businesses have actually started to receive the funds, just
because there's been so many operational problems, so not just
questions about how to run the program, but just you know,
there's a there's a small business administration system that's been
crashing that banks have to use to to authorize these
government backed loans, and that's been getting clogged up and

it's been unstable. So right now, in the first week
of this program, I mean anecdotally, banks and their lobbyists
are saying some people are actually getting money from this,
but I highly doubt it's been widespread. I think that
would probably change in the coming days. And right now,
the total amount that Congress is alligated allocated for the
kickoff of the program is three hundred billion, and the

banks are saying the demand is already really high, and
so I would expect that money to be depleted relatively quickly,
so you will soon start to see some of this
this loan money start going to small businesses. In the
most simplistic terms, the idea would be that the federal
government would give all this money to the various banks.
The banks would then channel to the business owners. Is

that correct. The way it structured is so that the
banks are actually initially loaning out their own money with
the understanding that this is a government guaranteed loan and
that it will be forgiven. So I think part of
the reticence by the banks initially to do this guns
blazing without all of the rules was that they were
worried about what risk they would be exposed to by

putting this money out. I've spoken with a lot of
chefs who are concerned that they and other small business
owners are just accruing more debt with this program. Is
that the case? So, the way the program is structured
is that it's eventually supposed to pan out for borrowers
as something more like a grant. And I know that
sounds very daunting to small business owners. Mean, I have

small business people in my own family who when I
first told him about this program, their first reaction was
I'm debt free, why would I want to take on
more loans? But I think the way that it's it's
structured is that people really should kind of look at
it like a grant. So if you apply for this
loan and you receive it, and you maintain your your
payroll for eight weeks, you'll be eligible for the loan

to be forgiven. And there are some limits on that
of the loan amount at least must go towards payroll,
although you can use the amount for the amount of
the loan for other things like renten utilities. But I
think that is a very well known concern about businesses
being reticent to take the loans because they don't want
to incur more debt. Hey, well, then I guess we're

gonna wait and see. What would you expect in terms
of the reopening of restaurants, specifically given the current financial situation.
Once chef said to me, we may be looking at
only chains that all small independent restaurants may not be
a lope. And how dire do you think the situation
is for independent restaurants. I think it's very difficult. I

think you will see some talk in the coming days
about whether it's appropriate to start reopening the economy, and
may Treasury Secretary Stephen Manuchin just this morning said he
thought that was a possibility, but other medical experts and
officials are are very cautious, and I think it is
just going to be a very difficult, you know, set

of months here for independent restaurants, and I don't think
there's any way to sugarcoat it. And so that's why
I think programs like the paycheck Protection program could go
a long way to bridge the gap between today and
whatever the data is. The economy may start to reopen.
When it reopens, it may also be very gradual, and
people maybe a little skittish to go out and spend

money and be in a restaurant with a bunch of
other people. So it's not like it'll be a light
switch either. But I will say for restaurants, I mean,
we are seeing the government announced more programs aimed at
small businesses the Federal Reserve this morning, and now it's
something called the main Street Lending Program, which is another
way the government is going to try to funnel money

through the banks too small businesses. So I think that
at least Washington is very aware of the struggles of
restaurants and other small businesses, and they're they they're going
to keep trying to come up with ways to try
to bridge the financial situation for the for these companies,
and yet it's still seem everyone's still seems hampered by
a lack of organization and an understanding of how things

are actually working. That's absolutely the case. You know, it
was advertised as something that would be kind of like
rapid relief to businesses, and it hasn't panned out that
way yet. But I think as people were out the
kinks of these things, it should probably get better. It's just,
you know, people were moving so quickly in the last
few weeks to try to come up with ideas to
keep the economy afloat, and and now we're actually seeing

how how people are trying to work out the kinks
of these proposals and better to work out the kink
sent to rely on our Treasury secretary is optimistic comments
today about reopening the economy in May. Today being April ninth,
you don't hold about much hope for that, I would say,
I think we we immediately wrote up his comment just
because it seemed pretty surprising to hear him say that
that it would be coming so soon. And I will say,

right after he spoke, the Federal Reserve Chairman J. Powell
appeared at a different event and was asked about Manuchan's comments,
and he didn't directly weigh in on them one way
or the other, but it was pretty clear listening to
the Fed chairman that he's believed this was going to
be a much more gradual process, and he believes that
the risk is really great if we reopened too quickly

and there's another outbreak, you know, that could just set
everyone back a square one, you know, including restaurants that
are struggling here. All right, Zachary, I really appreciate time
to talk about these issues. Thank you so much, and
keep up the great reporting. All right, thank you so
much for having me. When we come back, Chef Atchison
will describe how he's been adapting to isolation, and of

course how and what he's been cooking. M H. Welcome

back to my conversation with Hugh Atchison, who told us
about what he's doing in his community and how he's cooking.
How is this isolation affected you personally? How do you cook?
How do you share meals in a time of isolation,
there's definitely a lot of cooking going on, and there's
a lot of checking on my neighbors. I have a

very dear, older woman who I didn't really know that
well before all this, but she lives right across the street.
We knew each other by the wave and now I
check on her every other day to make sure she
if I'm going out and can get her something, that
I do that and make sure she's got something, and
if she needs food, that she knows who I am
and what I do, and uh that I can be

a provider. I don't think she knows me from Adam,
which is great. I just wanted to know that I'm
a chef and can do this and could provide for her,
and she's taken me up on it a couple of times.
To my other side is an amazingly interesting guy who's
very quiet, but he's a grad he's a PhD student
at the University of Georgia, but he's from China, and
he's very He's a loner. He does his own thing.

He's not a big communicator, but I slide notes under
his door and make sure he's taken care of in
the event of anything he can. Um. I pointed to
where the extra water is and bleaches in the garage
and he's that's all free for the taking. So you know,
it's just we're just trying to do things well. Most uplifting,
I think in your eyes world is to uh go
to the grocery store and go down the dried bean

isle and see it totally empty. I had no idea
of America. I had no idea that America knew how
to do this. And it makes me proud. God damn it.
As you're talking to jose Andres the other day, he's like,
and even he didn't believe this, but he was like,
you know, you give you give ten pounds of lentils
to a woman in Italy with a hamhock. She makes
food for two hundred And I'm like, yeah, I know,

and we don't really have that here. But you know
what I think we do. I think that between you know,
all of our cookbooks and the New York Times food section,
I mean this, this Hollison Roman is raising a Roman
army right now of of minced up anchovies, and and
it's great, you know. So that's a lovely thing that
people are that they're keenly understanding right now the real

amazing difference, and that the chasm that exists between basic
nutrition and nourishment, and nourishment is what we need eat
right now, and that's what food can provide around the
family table, and that it doesn't have to be a necessity.
It is a thing that nourishes and shows love and
care and sustenance beyond nutrition. Absolutely. Now, tell me what

are you cooking for your family? What do you like
to cook in these days? Um? You know, the girls
came over the other day and I made a roasted
chicken with beautiful simple Southern pengravy and Carolina gold rice
and clementine. My youngest had requested a salad on the side,
so I made shaved cucumbers and phennel, marinated for a
while while with myer lemon juice and olive oil and

pulled dial um and then added tomatoes and avocado at
the last second of that with some bib lettuce and
just tossed that lightly. I've been making a lot of puzzole.
I've been making a lot of sort of variations on
sort of higher end Raman's using instant ramen. But then
you can guess eat up with so many things. And
that's fine. I mean, there's nourishment can come from an

every angle right now, And I just want to make
sure that America understands that there's food beyond the Chick
fil A and and beyond the McDonald's Happy Meal, and
and that you can easily do it. And nobody's watching yet,
you know. But but it's so much fun to make
a recipe from scratch. So you know, right now, I've
got a massive corn beef on days seven of Brian,
so I'll probably cook that tomorrow or the next day. Um,

I gotta do that too. That's a great idea. I mean,
it's just beef. Yeah, it's just food that can last
you a long time because you know you're gonna get
it out. You're gonna eat beautiful rubens, and you're gonna
make red flannel hash and all this other stuff and
a versa. You take it apart, you freeze in different ways,
and you got it ready to go. So you know,
things like that are just so much fun and and

and good recipes to do. What do you recommend to
people at home who aren't natural cooks but want to
and have to? Now, how do you tell them to cook.
What do you advise them to do? Advised them to
learn technique, And I think that what technique does and
what recipes that have atomizable content within them. You find

a great recipe, and you understand that the Zuni roasted
chicken recipe is a seminal recipe. It doesn't need to
be followed to a t because what it's doing is
is teaching you about pre salting um and dry brining
over the course of twelve twenty four hours, is teaching
about high heat roasting in the development of that really
crisp skin because the extraction of the water from the

salt over the dry brining process. And so then what
if you can take that and do it with quail
or just chicken thighs, and you look in your fridge
and you've got something totally different than Judy calls for
in that recipe. But I always tell people that cooking
to me is like it's like a Lego set and
techniques are the little basic blocks of it. And you

and I just have a bigger Lego set than most
people do. But that doesn't mean that you can't get
the skills of twelve things and then be able to
build ump teen different amazing dishes based on it. If
you know how to roast a chicken, if you know
how to make of integrat based on a ratio recipe.
There's some guy who wrote this great ratio book years ago,
and I think it was you. Um. And how to

roast carrots, and how to make a proper simple salad,
how to make mayonnaise from scratch, how to cook Brussels
sprouts that even you know chefs didn't know how to
do twenty five years ago, but has changed the landscape.
You know, if you know those individual things, you can
make a gazillion different divisios. I couldn't have said it better.
I'm so glad you mentioned Judy Rogers famous Zuni Kitchen.

I recommend that cookbook as one of the great recommended
to everybody, and I think it's one of the great
cookbooks of all time. She wrote herself. She was a
brilliant writer, a brilliant chef. We lost her too early. Um,
And you're right, so many lessons just in that one
roast chicken. Last thing I want to talk to you
about is on Thursdays, you're giving up free food to
families and kids who aren't getting school and lunches. Is

that is that correct in your current town of Athens. Well, yes,
we are. We're working with um. That's actually a program
was it's on Tuesday, and it's done by the Clark
County School District and they're giving it a free free
meal home kits at the one of the schools to
school district workers obviously employees and teachers, everybody from top

to bottom within the organization, but also the students and
the families and also service industry workers. And so you
go in, you get a quarter of tomato sauce, you
get three pounds of pasta dried, and you get a soup,
and you get some chicken stock that's homemade. And it's
really implemented by the food service curriculum people at the schools,
along with a couple of my fellow chefs around town.

We in Atlanta have been doing a program. We're out
of Empire State South. We're sponsored by local law firm
to hand out a hundred meals everyday Monday or Friday.
This week delivered two different first responders drop zones and
medical facilities to feed people who are working so hard
on fixing this. And then now our next stage two

of that is to really get into in need communities
with the same type of things, so pretty elaborate and
healthy boxed lunch situation or boxed meal situation going out
to um y m c A's in southeast Atlanta. UM
so that's another Hunter Meals a day. So we're really
doing Like last week, I think we did hwe meals
of the Empire State South for those in need, sponsored

by people like the Blank Family Foundation, which is Arthur
Blanks the Falcons, and uh, usually NFL owners are the
worst humans in the world, and we just happened to
have the best guy in the world because this guy
is a bloody angel. Just he's amazing, amazing guy. So
he's funding this. Uh, he's one of the funds. He

funds everything for the impoverished Atlanta. He's always done it quietly,
and he's funding half of our efforts in Atlanta right now,
his family Foundation, and the other half was coming from
a local law firm up the street or a couple
of our bar regulars. And I just wanted to help out.
And uh, but that's what you're seeing, man, You're seeing

You're see good people. You're seeing people who make me
tear up with the fact that there is still a
human condition out there that is in this for the
common good, no matter who you are, and we've always
seen it in the chef community. Chefs step up and
always we always step up. We're always taxed with helping everybody,
and we do it. We want to do it, but
right now we need everybody to But and the amount

of people who have just helped me over the last
few weeks in my business and who've just checked in
on me out of the blue and haven't talked to
me in years, just making sure I'm okay, It's like, man,
that's that's cool. That's pretty awesome. There are there are
silver linings to this awful time that we live in,
and it's the power of community and being together and

helping one another. It is Q. Thank you so much.
You're a businessman, you're a chef, you're an employer, your father,
you're attending to your community. You're a real inspiration. Thank
you so so much. I'm grateful for this conversation. Well,
thank you, Michael. You continue, you'd be safe and you
wash your hands, you two, chef. I will, I will.

So the restaurateurs have a particularly difficult dilemma. P P
P loans don't really mean a lot to them, because
in order to use the money, restaurants which are closed
would in effect have to hire employees to not work.
Compounding this is the fact that unemployment benefits exceed what
those paychecks would be. That's a simplification of the situation.

But restaurant owners really have no idea when they'll be
able to reopen, so they're hesitant to take loans from
money they can't really use, let alone risk being held
accountable for the loan if not forgiven what they really
need are actual grants. How to move forward giving the uncertainty,
I don't know, but I do know that even in isolation,

we're in this together, that even in isolation, we must
remain connected, and that no matter what, we need to
nourish ourselves and those we live with which to a
means cooking. Hughes four books, including A Turn in the South,
My Books from Scratch, and Roman's twenty and so many
cookbooks are available immediately on Kindle. The New York Times,

Bone Appetite, and Food fifty two have fabulous websites. There's
a wealth of cooking ideas and inspirations out there, cooking
has never been more essential. Thanks for joining us. This
episode of From Scratch was engineered by Hugh Atchison and
Zachary Warmbrunt. From Scratches produced by Jonathan Hawis Dressler. Our

executive producer is Christopher hussy Otis. The music is by
Ryan Scott off his album A Freak Grows in Brooklyn.
From Scratch is a production of I Heart Radio. For
more podcasts from My heart Radio, visit the I heart
Radio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen to your
favorite shows. No, don't you worry, mama. Everything's gonna be fine.

You won't, Mama, Everything gone to be fine. Don't you worry.
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