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. 

Is "molecular" or "modernist" cuisine something you feel has made food better? Is it misunderstood? Is it a real thing?
I think it has confused some people. I think when it's treated with depth and understanding it has added something. But just like the word fusion, it can be something people like or don’t like without truly understanding its core. I think we also need to be careful as to what a food additive is, and ask why we are emulating a giant food system that does things to our food that are not necessary. But manipulation is at the heart of cooking. I think looking at different roots and their uses is good and smart, looking at different starches. That is an amazing part of this kind of cooking — but it can be misused and seem gimmicky and cheap. It is not fair to deride it any more than to deride "fusion cooking.” Both are fair and good words.

If it all came down to the world knowing your life’s work through a single dish, as we sometimes know an author through a single book, what would that dish be?
It would be our vegetable plate at Eugene. It is really the only dish that hasn’t changed in structure since 10 years ago at our opening. It allows seasonality and variation and farms and techniques to come and go. I love how it's a teaching tool to the young chefs who come to work with us. It's the height of what I consider Southern cooking to be. True Southern cooking is not all about pork.

If you had not made it as a chef, and money were not an issue, what profession would you have chosen?
I think I’d want to own a small repertory movie theater that just got to play whatever. I’d love that. I love movies. I even looked at a movie theater, but Gina looked at me and said, “No way.” I don’t know how you make money in that business showing all the old movies. Maybe there are only five people on a Tuesday night. I mean, what’s the take? Fifteen bucks? That would be tough. I’d love to do a film festival every month. Do a Rocky Horror Picture Show at midnight thing, a James Bond thing. I loved to go to the theater with my parents and see The Marx Brothers or the latest Woody Allen movie. My theater is where Babette’s Feast would be playing.

Would you want your children to become chefs?
If they really wanted to do it, and loved it. There is so much creative freedom and it has brought so much joy to me. But only if they love it. I want them to have something they love as much as I do.

In the future what do you hope your legacy will be?
Being a “true chef” — to be an example to chefs that come after me of how to do it and how to do it right. I’ve worked hard for the integrity of good food. I’m not perfect in any way. But that I’ve walked the walk and true chefs are the kind of chefs I admired in my life. I’m trying to live up to all of you guys!

How can people who live and eat outside the South discern the differences between the cooking you do and that of, say, Sean Brock or Edward Lee?
Well, I mean, they are two good friends of mine. We all have a different take because we are all individuals. What shows is that we celebrate the differences within the American South. Southern cooking is not one way, it is multiple ways of enjoyment. There are an infinite number of ways and there are an infinite number of cooks from our pasts and now in our future. Southern cooking is not one way, it is multiple ways of enjoyment. There are an infinite number of ways and there are an infinite number of cooks from our pasts and now in our future.

How would you characterize the differences between you guys as cooks — You, Sean, and Ed?
That’s a tough one. Ed is someone who came from outside the South and came in and became a master of the South. He came from New York and the Northeast. He had a strong sense of his own identity as a chef and the South transformed him. He followed his Korean roots and he found his way. Sean is someone who really became enamored with what he would say is molecular gastronomy when he started. He found his way. I wouldn’t say Sean is a molecular chef really. Now he is a traditionalist. He is a young, thoughtful traditionalist. He cares where food is from. As a Southerner, I love the "scalability" of Southern food. I want to make Southern food possible wherever folks are. I really see a large part of my role as being one who gets good Southern food into hospitals, trains, planes, schools, and more. It is coming out of the Atlanta tradition. It was not really country cooking for me. My background was of food served on my Grandmother’s china with silver. It was a love of French cooking. I felt in love with Julia Child’s way. Southern kind of followed for me. I found that Frank Stitt was similar to me in that way.

What are your thoughts on “originality” in terms of cooking?
Well, it's funny. I took a history class in college and one of the classes was called “The Myth of Originality.” I really think a lot about that. I think we do have an original voice. But like a filmmaker references other filmmakers, as a chef you are going to reference other chefs, because that is what we do in the creative process. You know Ferran Adrià’s well-noted quote that says to be creative is to never copy. But even that statement was taken from Jacques Maximin. How do we continue to push forward with our cuisine? I told you this, but I am a huge fan of your sauce named mojo rojo. It's such a simple, great sauce. Now that is an influence. Did I invent mojo rojo? No. But am I going to play around with it and the ingredients in it? Yes. I’m going to make my versions. We should be better with every generation. We should get smarter. Our job is to continue to be who we are and learn and grow. Picasso was that way. Would Mozart have happened without Vivaldi? Would Beethoven have happened without Mozart? Absolutely not. They had to come up in a culture of these greats.

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You fought and prevailed over some serious cancer issues. How did that change your priorities in the business we're in — the life we're in?
It was a real sense of you only live once, and you'd better live the life you say want to live now. I was in the chemo ward with people who did not make it. This life is about making things real, and finding love and building things of value and that sense of purpose. From a culinary standpoint, I am the same man with my kids as I am with my cooks. It has to be a good wholesome food. I am not interested in chemicals. It think we are messing around with an environmental condition that we really shouldn’t be messing around with. I am not into the food additives. Just because that rat didn’t get cancer in some 20-year study doesn’t mean I’m putting into a dish. Cancer woke me up to these things. I want seasonality. We need to know our food. I’ll still play around. I love Kraft American cheese… But a chef’s number-one job is to know what is in his food.