FOOD FOR THOUGHT WITH LINTON HOPKINS / by Brackett Bilodeau

Image courtesy of foodrepublic.com

Image courtesy of foodrepublic.com

We sat down with Linton Hopkins, a FOOD & WINE Best New Chef and visiting master chef at our latest obsession, Chefs Club.

LA: Tell us a bit about your background.
LH: Well, my background is that I didn’t know I would be in this industry. I was pre-med in college and my father is a doctor. I had cooked my entire life and washed dishes in kitchens and whatnot, but I never saw it as a career until I was out of college when I was about to go to medical school. I then said I was going to go into this business and made that decision basically over a book - it just hooked me.

Within three weeks of reading that book, I was at the Culinary Institute up in New York and then working in New Orleans. It’s just been an amazing journey. People often ask me, “What’s your specialty?” Well, I cook from scratch and I customize how I cook to the people I’m cooking for and the environment I am in. I wouldn’t say I’m a Southern chef, but I am a chef who is from the South, multigenerational family roots from the South. That’s what being a chef is; it’s reflective of where you are.  Then, of course, I met my wife Gina and we opened up our own restaurant, Eugene. Each idea that we’ve had has been successful, which is great, but successful through a lot of hard work. I think all business takes about two years to build its own structure. It’s really been a blessing.

LA: How would you describe what your personal style and philosophy bring to the table at Chefs Club?
LH: Well I look at Chefs Club as a variation in a way of how awesome the James Beard House is and I’ve developed a really good relationship with Dana Cowin and Kate Krader and the whole team at FOOD & WINE Magazine. To be selected as a FOOD & WINE Best New Chef was a thing I was hoping for and had aspirations for, but what was great about it, the game of media, was how real it felt and just the relationship I’ve developed with all these chefs in my graduating class. It’s been a great way to bond. These are friends I still stay in touch with. What’s great about this in New York is that we have a place to meet as friends, as peers, as members of the same guild, because there’s a real vetting process to be a FOOD & WINE Best New Chef. They don’t let just anyone in and I think they choose less about what the flash of the moment is, but they really choose chefs who are committed to this field and believing in it. This is an amazing group to get to know and to be a part of and impress each other.  

What I feel I can bring is a real story of “I’m the guy from the South” and I can really talk about these things I care about so much from my region and introducing that to New York. Because there’s a lot in the press, as you know, about the world of the Southern chef and Southern food, but it is really a pretty amazing story about who we are as a region, about what regional American cuisine is, and I get to tell that story in a very real and impactful way. Being a chef is like an agricultural field agent and our job is almost like an archaeologist and for these products to really show who we are. I think the depth of understanding is what I hope to bring when people come here. It’s not just grits. The South is not just collard greens. The South is this constantly changing idea of amazing farm freshness. This is really important stuff. If we think about really changing our world, then we better learn how to make shrimp and grits better, where we know where the shrimp is from. The idea is we should know where every ingredient is from and our economic choice then becomes a very powerful motivator for change. Just by making eggs from scratch from a local farmers market, you actually are making the world a better place and you are eating better. So it’s been about working with the team here, not just shipping everything from the south either, but also walking through the farmer’s market and building relationships with local pork producers, et cetera. I love the opportunity to change and make a greater world of food because true accurate solutions are right here in New York.  It shouldn’t be just a joke, it directs every choice we have around food.  

LA: Speaking of ingredients, do you have a go-to right now?
LH: Yes, I get redundant on certain things. I love sorghum so much because for a lot of people it’s a mystery. A lot of the time the “go-to” is some ingredient that’s been brought around from Asia or some pepper found in the Mediterranean, things like that...sometimes it’s our job is just to recognize what’s in our backyard and what’s in people’s home kitchens. Sorghum is like millet, and it’s a stalk that they strip. Sometimes it’s called “stripped cane syrup” and they strip it and squeeze it down to a juice. It’s amazing. It is high in health benefits and has antioxidants. I want these ingredients to live on for my kids. We’ve just got to use it. Chefs are built so much on our ingredients.

LA: What kind of dishes are you using sorghum in at the moment?
LH: Well here in the studio, we have sorghum cooking down with apples, like a stewed apple with sorghum and butter. It’s so simple and good. It’s like a molasses with a little apple to it. I use it in place of sugar as my sweetener. We’ve got it with the biscuits on the country ham right now.  We have sorghum in the glaze for the roast pork. I’m slowly incorporating it into each dish we have.

LA: If you had to pick a favorite dish on your main menu, what would it be?
LH: I think it would be the pork and beans right now. I mean, I love the johnnycake, but I ate the pork and beans last night just as a guest, and Didier and his team are nailing it. I love cassoulet, you know, rich and deep. It’s the story of a southerner coming to New York with his bag of peas, meeting a pork farmer and cooking peas and pork together. But I was like...we need a hot sauce with it. I always have a hot sauce on the table. My children, 15 and 13, they put Crystal hot sauce on things and I could have just used a little hot sauce to drizzle on top. Matt is making hot sauce. We’ll hopefully have that ready for tonight.  

LA: Is there sorghum in that?
LH: [Laughs] Not in the hot sauce! I can get kind of crazy, like I could put bacon in everything.  I mean, you can. It actually goes with everything. Bacon goes with everything. Chocolate ice cream, every fruit. It’s universal, so it’s hard not to put that in everything.

LA: There are some amazing dishes on the menu; do you have another favorite from another chef that you’re really into right now?
LH: I had a bite of the chicken from the chicken dish by Gabriel, which is really amazing.  It has the great French technique and a great broth with it. The Fluke Ceviche is also really good, which Didier came up with. It is bright and citrusy, which I adore. I had Eric’s sweet bread recently. I love his preparation. I think about sweet bread preparation a lot and just how simple it is. It’s all really good food. There’s a Southern axiom that I swear by from Leah Chase: “Rules don’t no more make a good cook than sermons make a saint.” It’s not just handing these recipes out to a team. I wanted to collaborate on how we build a menu together because it’s sort of an interesting pop up concept with all these recipes. What is the identity? Well, what I like about it is kitchens are never one person, ever. Being a chef is being a teammate, a coach, a mentor, a driver of those ideas. It really is about collaboration. This actually might speak more to what it truly means to be a chef than what is posited sometimes on television. It’s about thoughtful, long-term trust building and collaboration. And that’s how this can really be successful. I’m seeing that happen. I’m seeing these threads sort of weaving together, building more trust. It’s really exciting and it will be done in a year for me. It might also be hard for this team because they are going to have to build this weaving trust building quite fast.

LA: Is there a pairing that you really enjoy that’s available here or anywhere else you’ve been in the city?
LH: At Little Owl, I had an amazing Sicilian red wine with Anthony Giglio, the wine writer and educator and his wife Toni. It’s a high altitude Sicilian red…I’m really terrible with names; my wife’s a sommelier so I make myself sort of stupid with wine [laughs]. I never remember details, other than “that’s really great.” I know it was a high elevation, Sicilian red and we had it with this amazing roast pork that had big butter beans on it and dandelion greens. What’s cool about the dish is that it’s so Italian, but it’s really southern at the same time. So we were having this big, rich southern wine and it didn’t have a lot of heat to it because with the elevation it was more like a good strong burgundy. It was really tremendous, and of course here I have my pork dish while sipping my Pappy Van Winkle 15 year. That’s an amazing whiskey. Also, Anthony, the bartender here, paired an apple brandy sidecar with our caramel and cinnamon ice cream and that was amazing. Those are the three just on this current trip that have popped out.

LA: We’d love to hear about your tasting in the studio.
LH: Well, right off the bat we start off with poached eggs (local farm eggs). We make a spoonbread purée. Spoonbread is like a cornmeal bread pudding. We then just layer the poached egg with a big dollop of Atlantic sturgeon roe that comes from Florida and we serve some potato chips with that and chive and it’s just so delicious. We serve that with a nice rosé champagne, which is amazing. I wanted to tell a story about the new South and how I look at Atlanta as a port city. It’s just that our port is an airport, not a seaport, so if you look a cuisine, so many of the most exciting cuisines we have developed around port cultures where this trade started to develop. So think about Charleston, Macao, Barcelona, and New Orleans - this was all built around trade. Atlanta just has the airport, but it’s become very international with a large Korean and Central American population. My second course is a pork noodle that we make out of pork skin by cooking it in a pressure cooker and slicing it really thin. It just tastes and feels in your mouth like big udon noodles. It’s just pork skin cut like a noodle and it’s in this rich mushroom broth and we have sriracha in there as a nod to this growing Asian influence in American cuisine. It’s a real southern Georgia kind of dish that includes southern clams and Georgia pork. Clam and pork are big parts of our coast, but it’s also a big part of Vietnamese cuisine and Thai cuisine, and then you begin to ask yourself, “Where am I really eating this dish?” I think we can really start this story of mixing cultural cuisines together in the right hands and build new levels of global cuisine. And that’s a lot of fun. It’s like a change in Southern cuisine. We also have a wonderful chicken and black truffles. That’s Didier, you know, working with Alain Ducasse, such a hero of mine. I also fell in love with eating cheese while making tacos at home, especially grated cheese. So we have this new cheese course here; it’s all different kinds of grated cheeses and pecans and bread, all kind of swirled around with Georgia persimmon and Georgia honey for this really wonderful bite.

LA: Any updates on your personal projects back in Atlanta?
LH: Yes, so H&F Burger opens up we think in May. We submitted all those plans to the city, we’ll soon be hiring for that. We have our new Botanical Gardens project. Hopefully the new building of it will open up right around November. The food service had not really been embraced being part of the Gardens. So we talked to the CEO and board about making an actual cultural institution in Atlanta and have the food be from scratch, seasonal, and as elevated as the quality of the experience of going to the Botanical Gardens because the Botanical Garden is a world class facility and if the food doesn’t measure up to it, then you are going to hurt the brand. In the end, people don’t actually want the fastest and the cheapest. A majority of people want good, of value. That’s how I’ve built my ideas and menus around food, assuming people want good for themselves.

LA: What are some of your other favorite New York City spots?
LH: I love Locanda Verde. Fine dining? I always tend to go back to Le Bernardin - what Eric does with seafood is really such an inspiration. I just went to Little Owl for the first time and absolutely loved it. We’re really exploring downtown these days. It’s hard not to love Prune; I’ve become really good friends with Gabriel. And growing up in this industry and developing more professional relationships and friendships, to dine is to go out and eat with friends now. So you go to Momofuku and say, “What’s David up to these days?” It’s kind of like a telephone call. I get everything he’s thinking just from going to eat there.

Stay tuned for more updates on Chefs Club; contact your Attaché for reservations.