The Curious Chef
John Kessler - April 2014
For every line of inquiry—and he pursues many—Linton Hopkins has an answer. John Kessler takes a look at the chef/entrepreneur inspiring greater Atlanta’s restaurant culture.
Atlanta has long had a tradition of showcase restaurant kitchens. An invitation to view the fire-engine red Morice range in the kitchen at the late, lamented Seeger’s was a special after-dinner treat reserved for VIP guests. At Bacchanalia, the surgically clean cooking line is visible through a glass wall, and the cooks appear in chiaroscuro from the dining room lighting at night.
Such is not the case at Restaurant Eugene. The kitchen that produces this regional capital’s most urbane Southern farm-to-table fare is as cramped as a ship’s galley. The pass faces a narrow corridor through which people squeeze continuously, murmuring “behind you, behind you, behind you” as they head for the espresso machine, the pastry station, or the back door.
Yet it’s here—right in the middle of things—where Linton Hopkins likes to install himself before service with a white plastic tub of just-churned cultured butter and two wooden paddles. It has become the chef’s quirky afternoon ritual. As he pushes around the fleshy mass with one paddle, he raises the other above his head and brings it down with a dull, spanking thud.
“When I retire, I’d like to be the guy who just comes in to make the butter,” he says, smacking the yellow lump rhythmically. Tiny but all-important beads of moisture seep out, and as the butter softens it imperceptibly turns from rough and grainy to lustrous and pearlescent. It can take more than an hour for the butter to get to this point. Once it does, Hopkins teepees the ridged sides of the paddles together and rolls portions into the furrowed cones that have become a trademark of dinner service at Restaurant Eugene.
The butter guy. It’s a rich vision of the future, but people who know Hopkins, 47, could never imagine him retiring. His brain is always on, thinking up new ideas, new projects, and new business ventures. His sundry initiatives have profoundly affected Atlanta—from its shopping habits at farmers’ markets to its restaurant scene to its engagement in the national discourse on food.
“Linton has a true and genuine curiosity about many, many things,” says his former business partner, Greg Best. “I think he’s leaving a big impact not just on Southern food culture, but on food culture in general.”
In addition to Restaurant Eugene, Hopkins and his wife, Gina, own and operate three other Atlanta landmarks: Holeman & Finch Public House, a raucous-yet-refined pub that lies just across the porte cochere in the same building as Eugene; H&F Bread Co., which supplies Atlanta with bread and pastries (including the city’s definitive, mark-of-excellence hamburger bun); and H&F Bottle Shop, a boutique liquor store with a recherché selection of wines, Bourbons, bitters, and mixers for the modern home bar.
Hopkins has also franchised three food stalls at Turner Field, home of the Atlanta Braves, that prepare the signature double stack all-natural burger he made famous at Holeman & Finch. And if that wasn’t enough, he recently won a competition (beating Hugh Acheson of 5 & 10 in Athens, Georgia) to prepare the in-flight meals for Delta Air Lines’ international business class passengers departing from Atlanta. In order to fulfill his obligation to supply 1,000 potpies per week, he needed to build a production kitchen capable of producing enough chicken stock, made to his standards with pastured laying hens from south Georgia. More than 200 people now work for his company, Resurgens Hospitality Group, named for the city’s motto—“resurrecting” in Latin, the phoenix rising from the ashes.
When Hopkins talks about Atlanta—what it offers, what it lacks, what he can do to make it better—you can hear in his voice something that has become a rarity in this transient metropolis: the bouncing tempo and rounded vowels of a native accent.
Hopkins grew up not far from the restaurant, the son of a much-admired Emory University neurologist (who still to this day sees patients at the age of 74) and a florist. He stayed busy after school, making flower deliveries for his mother to the tony Piedmont Driving Club and then, whenever possible, helping her out in the kitchen. Like many avid home cooks of her generation, she worked her way through the canon of Julia Child.
Hopkins has his father’s scientific mindset but his mother’s love of good food. While taking a full pre-med course load at Emory, he spun pizzas at Mellow Mushroom, a popular Atlanta chain done up in full 1960s hippie regalia. He loved it. Medical school could wait: he wanted to be a chef.
After graduating from The Culinary Institute of America, he returned to the South to intern with the Brennan family (see Silver Spoon) at Mr. B’s Bistro in New Orleans. He moved on to The Grill Room at Windsor Court, where he worked as saucier under Jeff Tunks. While he was there, at the age of 29, Hopkins was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and returned to Atlanta for treatment.
The cancer was caught early enough that Hopkins could return to New Orleans, cured, and then follow Tunks to Washington, D.C., to become the opening chef de cuisine at DC Coast. But the disease also changed his outlook on life. At DC Coast he met Gina, and he knew he wanted to get married, start a family, open his own business, and get back to Atlanta. “I felt safe here,” he says. “No matter where I lived, this was always home.”
He and Gina opened Restaurant Eugene (named for his grandfather) in 2004, nestling easily into the city’s genteel high-end dining scene. The tables were heavily napped, the walls taupe, and the logo on the door written in the same scrolling script you’d see on an engraved wedding invitation. The city’s food elite recognized Hopkins’ ambition but tut-tutted about the heavy atmosphere and blue-haired clientele. The restaurant seemed a Buckhead cliché.
But Hopkins was no stereotype. He listened to what guests wanted and changed. He brightened the dining room, swapped out the logo for a swift sans-serif number, and began marrying more down-home Southern ingredients to French technique, elevating them by inference. He had a keen eye for talent, including Best, who came to work as a bartender and quietly introduced Atlanta to craft cocktails, one drink at a time. In the kitchen, Ryan Smith, the former chef de cuisine now at Staplehouse had a gift for curing meats that tasted Southern, not Italian. Hopkins encouraged his staff to think. “That’s the lab rat in him,” says Best. “He’s got that scientific mind. With him, it’s always, ‘Let’s experiment. I’ve got this hypothesis.’”
Then he hit pay dirt. Hopkins introduced Sunday suppers at Eugene, simple Southern meals prepared not only with the best local ingredients but also with impeccable research. His fried chicken came straight from the pages of The Virginia Housewife, the first Southern cookbook written in 1824 by Mary Randolph. He found new guests hungry for casual dishes that made an emotional connection and gave a sense of place. Atlanta had too long fancied itself the cosmopolitan outlier in the South. It had to face up and be the capital.
That’s how he began imagining Holeman & Finch Public House. There were a lot of moving parts. The neighborhood needed a fun hangout, and the city was ready for craft cocktails and its first gastropub. But the food had to resonate on an emotional level. It had to tell the story of the English and African origins of Southern food—pig offal and all.
Back in the Eugene kitchen, Hopkins has put away all the butter paraphernalia and turned his attention to his next quirky project: reproducing a canapé from an old James Beard journal. “Beard wrote somewhere that he liked to serve little finger sandwiches filled with raw onions, mayonnaise, and parsley with Champagne,” he explains, cutting into a loaf of Holeman & Finch brioche into rounds the size of poker chips. “Doesn’t that sound kind of great?”
The occasion was a dinner he was hosting that evening for Lionel Vatinet (see “I Always Travel With My Mother,” page 71), the artisan bread baker from Cary, NC, who had just released his first cookbook. This meal was part of the author dinner series at Restaurant Eugene, hugely popular events during which paying guests mingle and break bread with food personalities on book tour. Hopkins was struggling mightily with a pastry cutter and a recalcitrant slice of sweet onion, trying to maximize the yield instead of taking only the center rings.
“I hate all the waste in kitchens,” he says, finally giving up and relegating the larger onion rings to the stockpot. “Sometimes I think that’s the reason I opened the bakery. Bread is the major thing that changes a restaurant because it’s the first thing to go stale. When we started talking about Holeman & Finch Public House, we knew we needed to bake the bread for it to exist.”
Hopkins had tapped into something that had frustrated many a relocated New Yorker: Atlanta in 2008 was a lousy bread town. There was little competition and no distribution. If he needed the bread to get his restaurant to the right place, then other restaurateurs surely would as well. A rising tide would lift all ships. When the Public House and then the bakery opened in quick succession, the city experienced a kind of foodquake. The ground rumbled, and the landscape changed forever. People were suddenly drinking complex, bitter cocktails and eating pig tails and veal brains.
Although he focused the menu on upscale down-home dishes (johnnycakes with foie gras, house-cured bacon, and sorghum syrup), Hopkins knew that every pub in Atlanta had to serve a hamburger, like it or not. So he decided to make it a limited quantity, off-menu item—there if people absolutely had to have one.
Working with his chef de cuisine, Adam Biderman, Hopkins envisioned the burger: a fist-sized double stack, no larger, with a homemade brioche bun, bread-and-butter pickles, and house-crafted condiments. The only concession to commercial food processors was a key one: Kraft Singles between the patties. It was the crucial component for what Hopkins called his “slutty cheeseburger.” Best had the bright idea to serve the burger after 10 p.m., announced by a bullhorn. Twenty-four orders came and went in a flash, and the bounce lasted through the early morning.
Never one to sit still for long, Hopkins kept tinkering with Eugene. He changed the format to more small plates and fewer entrées. He introduced an all-dessert course menu. He started a cheese club.
Hopkins also tackled another deficit in this so-called capital of the New South. It didn’t have a farmers’ market anywhere near as robust as those in Birmingham, Durham, Charlotte, and just about every other sizable Southern city. Working with local growers, restaurateurs, and food artisans, he spearheaded the Peachtree Road Farmers’ Market on the grounds of the Cathedral of St. Philip, up the street from Eugene. He worked with the Atlanta public schools on an initiative to improve food and gardening education. He served a term as president of the board of the Southern Foodways Alliance.
His bookish explorations of Southern culinary and agriculture traditions have led him on a never-ending quest to locate food artisans who still make things the old-fashioned way. (Sorghum was all over his menu one year after he discovered a source in Tennessee.) Now it’s Sapelo Island red peas.
“Hey, bring me a bag of those peas, will you?” he calls to a cook behind the line, shoving aside his James Beard onion sandwich project. He pulls open the cloth bag, and the dark peas tumble with a clatter into a bowl. “Just look at the color!” he enthuses. “They’re so much darker than the Sea Island red peas.”
This particular cultivar had been found in the home garden of a Geechee woman living on the Georgia coastal island. She claims they have been in her family since slave ancestors brought them over from Africa. Working with the nonprofit Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society, Hopkins is helping to bring it back. So far, this is a tiny project: all the beans are harvested, shelled, and dried by hand, and there’s just enough to supply the restaurant and an island gift shop. But when mixed with Carolina Gold rice, they make a brilliant version of hoppin’ John.
At this point, an hour before guests will arrive for the author dinner, the kitchen fills with waiters and cooks. Chef de cuisine Jason Paolini shows Hopkins a thin, cylindrical loaf of brioche that has an odd, dark color from rendered foie gras fat used in lieu of butter. “Check it out,” he says, admiringly.
Adding to the hubbub is the arrival of Alisa Berry, the owner of Atlanta-based Bella Cucina Artful Food. Hopkins has subcontracted the chow-chow for his Delta Air Lines’ meals to her, and she has arrived with a tester batch. She cracks open the container, and everyone in the kitchen crowds around, forks in hand.
“It’s good,” says Hopkins, “but 50 percent less sugar, don’t you think?” The chow-chow must be sweeter than normal to taste right at 30,000 feet, but not this sweet.
Berry takes off, and Hopkins returns to his sandwiches, which look dainty but have the piercing bite of raw onion. He likes their honesty, and for some reason this gets him talking about lobster bisque. (Best says, “You can identify Linton as a true Southerner because he gets lost in his tangents as soon as he starts talking.”)
“Why can’t there be just a lobster bisque somewhere?” he laments. “Why does a chef always have to put his mark on it? What Atlanta really needs is a French restaurant like that. One where you can go and get a true lobster bisque.”
Might he be the one to open it?
Hopkins considers this for a moment. “I think I’m done with restaurants. There’s too much else I want to do.”
John Kessler is the dining critic and editor at the Atlanta Journal–Constitution.