Norman Van Aken, a member of The Daily Meal Council, is a Florida-based chef-restaurateur (Norman's at the Ritz-Carlton in Orlando), cooking teacher, and author. His most recent book is a memoir, No Experience Necessary: The Culinary Odyssey of Chef Norman Van Aken. This is the second in a regular series of Kitchen Conversations — informal but revealing interchanges with key culinary figures — that Van Aken will be contributing to The Daily Meal. He also writes a regular series of Kitchen Meditations for us.
Born in Rochester, New York, and raised in Atlanta, chef Linton Hopkins had planned to be a doctor like his father, but, inspired by the food-rich household he grew up in, he found himself drawn more to cookbooks than to medical texts. Instead to medical school, he enrolled in The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. After graduation, he worked in New Orleans at the Windsor Court Hotel's Grill Room, then spent four years cooking at Jeff Tunks' DC Coast in Washington, D.C. In 2004, he returned home to Atlanta and, with his wife, Gina, as sommelier, opened Restaurant Eugene. After the restaurant had established a reputation as one of the best and most inventive exponents of contemporary Southern cuisine, Hopkins opened a gastropub, Holeman & Fitch, whose burger is widely considered one of the best in America.
Norman Van Aken: What is the very first thing you remember eating and enjoying?
Linton Hopkins: A lot of it is around family. Mom made grilled cheese sandwiches. Sometimes it was American cheese, sometimes it was Velveeta. It was cooked in butter. It was crispy-edged but a little runny with that orange-ish cheese. Also, eating true barbecue in Alabama, drinking a Coca-Cola, was extraordinary. I was probably 7 or 8 years old. It seemed like all of the stars were in alignment. It was not just eating a regular meal. It resonated as something more. The barbecue was all about the ribs, dipping some in the sauce, some not. Going back to try to recreate those memories is tough!
Are you the first chef in your family?
Yes. First one. My grandfather Eugene grew up on a farm. He was a chemist by trade. He cooked from scratch. I would spend a lot of my summers with him in Nashville. He is why I love country ham — and why Mountain Valley water is served in my restaurants. He always had ice-cold Mountain Valley water in his refrigerator.
When did you start cooking?
Mom was enamored with Julia Child. We would watch Julia Child together. I started helping out in the kitchen just because I liked it. I love eating! And if you love eating you should be in the kitchen. I was young when I started. It started with my love of hollandaise sauce, I’d say. I love hollandaise on my eggs. I thought eggs Benedict was one of God’s greatest creations. Mom was not about to make me hollandaise, so she handed me Julia Child’s cookbook when I was about 10 and I would make hollandaise. I learned also how to make homemade mayonnaise. My dad taught me to cook bacon. He taught me to make "sock sausage" from Tennessee. It’s where they take country sausage and they shove it in a sock. He would sauté it up in a skillet. Dad also taught me to baste the eggs with ham, sausage, or bacon fat. It had crispy edges with a great runny yolk. I fell in love with making omelettes for the family when I was 11 or 12. Then I fell in love with making chicken Kiev. I made a total mess in the kitchen. Fried chicken with chive butter in the middle! What could be better than that!?
When did you realize that cooking was serious to you?
Cooking was part of my daily life. But I was pre-med and going in that direction. I saw with my father how much he loved medicine. I had summer jobs in the hospital and loved it. After graduation from college, I was about to go back to college and I saw a red book on a shelf about going to culinary school. I had a friend who was going and I was jealous. I was going my medical way but that book changed my life. I told my parents I did not want to go to medical school any longer and that I wanted to go to culinary school. My parents saw how intense I was about it and soon I was on my way. I really moved on it. Once I was there I was like a fish in water. I still can’t believe my good fortune to be in this industry.
Where were you cooking when you first felt like you had attained the right to be called a chef?
I was under Jeff Tunks at D.C. Coast up in Washington, D.C. One night, the upper-echelon chefs were going out of town and I was left with the responsibility of running the kitchen, and that boosted my confidence. That was big moment! And once that moment happened I really started feeling confident about running the business. Before that time I was “Yes Chef!”…after that I got my confidence. I knew I could say, “I got this.”
What was the first dish you made that you felt proud of?
It way probably when I was at the CIA in Hyde Park, at the Escoffier Room, and I made duck confit under the instruction of chef [Roland] Chenus. He had that huge French toque. He looked seven feet tall. To make a confit correctly, doing it right and then him finding satisfaction, gave me such a great confidence in my cooking. I had talked with him awhile about how I was practicing at home. Being with this culinary leader was amazing.
Do you feel the cooking life caused you to sacrifice having a "normal" life?
No. I learned quickly from my father how to "punch in and out on who you are." I needed a profession to help me feel free and true to who I was.
What was the closest you came to quitting the business and finding something saner?
I never felt that tension. I felt like I was always getting away with something! If you are a cook or a chef in New Orleans you are "the man." Everyone is talking about food and the history of food. Walking along with your chef’s whites on you had the rush of pride. What that white jacket was and what that toque meant was amazing!