Norman Van Aken's Kitchen Conversations: Linton Hopkins

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Linton Hopkins is chef/owner at Atlanta's Holeman & Finch and Restaurant Eugene. 

Who is the most important cookbook author in your estimation? Why?
Jane Grigson was very important to me, due to the charcuterie, and due to the history of England. I am of English heritage and I wanted to tap into that with my food. Larousse Gastronomique was also a huge book for me. I bought the newer editions as they came along. Mine are grease-stained now. The spine is gone.

Who is the most important chef of the past 100 years? Why?
For me, Fernand Point [late proprietor of the legendary La Pyramide in Vienne]. Part of it is because of his relationship with his wife, Mado, and with his team running the restaurant. There is something so romantic about that. His quotes are just legendary. “As far as cuisine is concerned, one must read everything, see everything, hear everything, try everything, observe everything, in order to retain, in the end, just a little bit!” His work is truly timeless. He worked on recipes for years! Frankly that is how I am with Gina [Hopkins' wife and business partner]. It can be painful when she critiques something I’ve made. But it's truthful. I feel a kinship with Point. I feel there is an integrity with him. You can trace most great French chefs to him. He had humor, integrity, he enjoyed lunching with his chef friends.

Who is the most mischievous chef you have ever known?
No one I have known personally jumps to mind. But Marco Pierre White changed the rules in a very profound way. He was the rock-and-roll bad guy, a pirate, with a swagger. He exemplifies what a lot of folks think of us as chefs. Gaunt. Smoking cigarettes. But he was a small town boy who made good in London. I still read White Heat [White's 1990 cookbook-cum-memoir]. Amazing insight. Amazing call to quality, albeit in his bad-ass way. Ferran Adrià is another one in his way.

If you could go out for drinks and dinner with any ‘"food person," living or dead, who would it be and why?
Lucullus [the ancient Roman politician and gastronome] would have been fun to dine with. I have used that phrase about dining alone [when his chef served him a single dish one night because he had no guests, Lucullus supposedly said "Today Lucullus dines with Lucullus!"]. Dining alone means it is the greatest evening. I have been intrigued by the Roman ethos. Julia Child would be another. Fun and irreverent at the same time. James Beard would be in that same category. Jeremiah Tower would be another. I love the thinkers about food. The ones whose thoughts alone make them amazing.

What food or ingredient do you adore?
I wrote an “ode to butter!” I love butter. I wrote a love letter to it. It is in The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food and Drink, edited by Kevin Young. It goes back to my early love of hollandaise. I love butter in a hot French steel pan bubbling away. Butter emulsifies on its own. You can coax butter along. You can torture it. You can rub it on corn with cilantro and lime. Butter is it! Making butter is great. I love the moment when butter just happens. It's like a snap! … and it is important.

What food or ingredient will never enter your body again?
I’m a pretty big omnivore. But that fermented maggot crusted cheese [Sardinian casu marzu] I had… It was so ammoniated! It has that same gooey run as Velveeta when I think about it.

Where in the world would you like to dine now and why?
I’d love to go to Jiro in Tokyo while Jiro is still alive. I want to be with a man that cares so much, a true craftsman with the highest level of integrity. It is not about the fatty tuna for Jiro. It is about the lean tuna. His standards and method are the one. I love Japanese food. I have the book Japanese Food: A Simple Art and I love it. It is the purity of that cuisine that I’m trying to continually find. The pickles, the fermentation, the seasonality, the regionality. Jiro is the protector of that tradition of simplicity and ancient cuisine. To be able to sit there would be great. Arpège in Paris would be another, as it relates to the vegetable world. I’ve been there twice now. But the one I haven’t been to and want to go try? Jiro would be the one.

Do you feel that culinary schools are preparing young folks for lives as chefs?
In one way, yes. In one way, no. The CIA has some great teachers. If you are an active student you can get a lot out of it. I was an older student when I went and I was ready. But the idea that people are going to come out of a school and be a sous-chef is ridiculous. This is a fragile business. Are they ready to come out of there and basically make near minimum wage? I graduated and got a job making $6.50 an hour! I was able to make it work in New Orleans, but in a town like New York City, you could never make it economically. It makes the graduates gun for sous-chef money. But I think that if you don’t stay a cook long enough, you will never make a great sous-chef or chef. The myth about getting ready and getting a TV show is crippling. It’s too much about looks and things like that.

That is the danger, with mass media focusing on our guild in these surface ways. It’s like with music. Where is the Duane Allman, who, arguably was not the prettiest guy to look at? Johnny Winter, you know. They are dirty and they are damaged and they bleed everything they are into that craft to make it an art. Guys like that would not make it in this media age. They weren’t pretty, not unless you looked at their hands. Then you would you see their beauty. Schools need to teach more about heart. Maybe the schools should be harder to get into? They keep making the schools bigger. Maybe they should make them smaller. Harder to get into, with higher standards. Maybe there needs to be an "elite" culinary program developed. One that really holds the knife to the truth, so that when you come out, you are really a cook. There needs to be a true apprenticeship program where you have to pass through stages successfully until you are allowed to go to the next stage. Look at what Thomas Keller does at his restaurants. He really puts his chefs through the ringer. Patrick O’Connell does it too. Charlie Trotter did it. School should help open the doors. To be a doctor means you can see a patient alone in a room. A chef should be a person who can run a brigade in a professional kitchen. And do all of the things that mean you can, justifiably, put your name on that menu. And that means everything to support that menu. You have to be able to do it all. Wash dishes. You need to know how to be a saucier. You need to be able to talk the language of a butcher, the food procurement guy, do inventory. All of it.

What part of your body has taken the biggest beating over the years in the kitchens?
My hips more than anything, from the bending and my stance being wrong. I’m with a personal trainer now to correct things and to reenergize my lower body.

Music in the kitchen or no? If yes, who’s on your playlist?
Non-music kitchen here at Restaurant Eugene. Chef Fernand Metz at CIA taught me that we need to listen to the food as it cooks. We need to use all of our senses to engage in the work. Susan Spicer told me how she listens to the sound of knives in the kitchen, and how she can tell if they are sharp or not. I love using sound evaluation as a technique and measure to see what is going right and what’s wrong. Now, on the other hand, at Holeman & Finch, which is more about rock and roll, I love to hear Led Zeppelin weave its way into the kitchen while we're banging out a lot of orders. But I love the quiet "monastic" kitchen too, so I guess I go back and forth on this one. I am absolutely against anyone wearing headphones. I love jamming with the Allman Brothers. I love music. I adore music, all kinds, all genres — except death metal, which I don’t have an appreciation of.

What famous guests have you enjoyed cooking for the most?
Geddy Lee from the group Rush. That was a big deal for me. When you came in, Norman, that was big! I wanted to be back there cooking for you. When Emeril came in to Holeman & Finch when we were about one year old, that was a big deal. Since I was of New Orleans, it was really a big deal to me because Emeril led the way. He came out of the Brennan restaurants and built a tremendous team. Making everything from scratch, making very traditional American food. Thomas Keller came in, but it was my day off. I think he had a plate of cheese with a friend of his. I missed him. Clint Eastwood was big. He was a major hero of mine. When I cooked in D.C. it was a lot of politicians. I loved it when Jimmy Carter came in with his wife Rosalyn.

Which guests, famous or otherwise, will not be welcome back and what did they do to get "fired"?
It bothers me that some guests won’t dine at the restaurant unless they know I am cooking on the line that night. They will approach me at like a farmers market and say, “I know when you are on the line, and when it’s not you.” And that really bothers me. I know our team. And I know how great they are. Do we have to die at the stove? Part of being a chef is to build a brigade and a legacy. You should be able to go to any of the great restaurants and it should still be great. Being a chef is more like being a conductor of an orchestra… not like being a solo guitarist. He or she is the composer. That is why I like an artist like Michelangelo. He built a team. He didn’t draw every line. It’s like film. You can’t be every actor, and the writer, and the producer and the director. We still must be true to our families beyond being the bread winners for them. I don’t ascribe to the dysfunctionality of “everything is second to cuisine.” Life is more important than cuisine. I will fight for having a good, healthy relationship with my children and with my wife. I have devoted my life to food and to the integrity of teaching cooks. It is really a childish view to insist that everything is second to the cuisine. I think that life is more important than that.

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What's your favorite food movie of all time?
Hmm. Golly… The one food movie I watched the most is Babette’s Feast. I love that movie on so many levels. I love the story of what is sacred in life. I love the aristocratic general. The story of lost-ness. The story of regret. Everything was washed away. How the town was saved by a meal. Everything was made from scratch for that meal. She was making the turtle soup. She was generous with the caviar. The General can’t believe this is happening. That is a transformative movie.