Those familiar with chef Linton Hopkins' considerable accomplishments, from serving as president of the Southern Foodways Alliance to being named one of Food & Wine's best new chefs in 2009 to building the much celebrated Buckhead empire of Restaurant Eugene and Holeman & Finch, might be surprised to learn that he almost didn't become a chef. Hopkins graduated from Emory with a degree in anthropology on a pre-med track. While working at Oxford Books and considering which medical schools to apply to, Hopkins shelved a guide to culinary schools. Noticing the title, he quickly picked it back off the shelf. Three weeks later, he was attending the Culinary Institute of America. This was far from Hopkins' first experience working with food. At just 8-years-old, his mother was already fed up with his constant requests for hollandaise sauce with his eggs. She handed him Julia Child's cookbook and told him to make it himself. Thirty-seven years later, Hopkins still insists upon the importance of sauces in his cooking.
As Hopkins sets out to prepare his $20 meal — an ambitious, five-course plan quickly tapped out on his nearby iPad — the first steps begin with building a stock. He leaves a little meat on when deboning the chicken thighs, keeps ahold of tiny bits of scallion root or shallot peel. When the shrimp shells hit the pan for the beginning of a shrimp stock, he quotes a former professor from the CIA who would comically exclaim, "You should hear the flavor."
Hopkins is unmistakably efficient in the kitchen, casually working three or four pans at a time, in a way that makes his cooking look easy. It isn't. For a home cook baking a squash gratin, frying chicken, and boiling white acre peas while shaving fennel with a mandolin, there's a chance you might burn that bacon marmalade. Hopkins doesn't, he just doesn't, and that goes a long way to explaining why he's accomplished what he has. Just because he manages to knock out a five-course tasting menu in less than a couple of hours doesn't mean you need to. He imagines a meal like this as a labor of love at home, "a meal for your sweetheart." As he patiently shells peas, he mentions the traditions of Japanese tea ceremonies in which the chef should be responsible for everything, even hand-washing the walkway to the ceremony.
Shopping for these dishes at the DeKalb Farmers Market, Hopkins was unabashedly calculated. He kept a running tally on his phone, adding up the miniscule sums of a single small beet, a single Thai chili, a single shallot and so forth. Ostensibly, he's working to make sure he's under the $20 budget, but the real key to that, for Hopkins, is reducing waste. "Early on," he says, "I had a manager who would come into the kitchen, pick up a trash can and dump it out to find out what we were wasting." Clearly, that method has paid off for Hopkins. Each ingredient stretches as far as it has to and rarely does it go past that point. When that does happen — like making a little too much of the cilantro mayonnaise for the oysters — he already has a suggestion ready: "Save that and spread it on a sandwich."
From the first course, two plates of a single oyster, it is clear that Hopkins' goal is not to leave you stuffed, even with five plates. From hand-making the mayonnaise to prepping a frozen mignonette, you could estimate the prep time for the dish at 20 to 30 minutes. It's gone in a single bite. But what a bite it is: a carefully controlled series of flavors and textures that move from the slightly sweet, crisp beet to the bright but salty finish of cilantro mayonnaise. It's intriguing and compelling, like a subtle come-on placed at the beginning of a conversation.
The kale salad that follows makes good on the promise of that oyster. The salty kale is crisp to the point of becoming an architectural element in the salad, a total contrast to the supple, citrusy shaved fennel. Watching Hopkins plate the dish, you can see his passion for aesthetics, a painter's eye for color and shape and line. He makes drips like an abstract expressionist. Not only does the dish present a reinvented notion of kale, but it is unmistakably beautiful. The kale emerges from the white yogurt in jagged spires that, for Hopkins at least, is reminiscent of Superman's Fortress of Solitude, rising from the arctic depths.
Despite the variety of inspirations — the obviously French insistence on sauces and the influence of Indian cuisine on the combination of kale and yogurt — Hopkins is quick to maintain that this is Southern cooking. "There's this idea that Southern food is a museum, that it just stopped sometime in the 19th century," he explains. "But for me, Southern food is this journey, through people and time and land and poverty and so on. You can find the world here."
There is an intellectual quality to Hopkins' work, an understanding of food that stretches all the way back to that degree in anthropology and somehow imbues his dishes with a perceptive twist. Yet, Hopkins carries none of the pretension, none of the off-putting air that sometimes accompanies a mind like his. "I'm from the South and these ingredients are from the South," he says quite plainly. "This is Southern food."
Next: Five delicious recipes from Linton Hopkins
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