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
Thirteen mile apalachicola oyster
Cilantro emulsion, frozen mignonette and raw beet
• 2 oysters, rinsed and shucked
• 1 bunch cilantro, blanched and stems trimmed
• 1 small beet, microplaned
• Half a shallot, finely minced
• 1 egg yolk
• 5 tablespoons peanut oil
• 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
• 1 splash Champagne (optional)
• Salt and pepper
Combine shallot, 1 tablespoon vinegar, Champagne, and salt and pepper to taste in a small bowl. Freeze.Combine egg yolk, a pinch of salt, and 1 tablespoon vinegar in a bowl, steadily whipping in small amounts of peanut oil until all the oil is fully combined into mayonnaise.Combine mayo and cilantro in a blender.
Spread cilantro mayo on the inside of oyster shell, lay shucked oyster atop. Shave frozen mignonette with a fork, top oyster with equal parts mignonette and beet.
Lacinato kale and shaved fennel salad
• 3 strips bacon, chopped
• 3 tablespoons sorghum (or honey or brown sugar)
• 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
• 1 bunch kale, stems removed
• 1 fennel base, thinly shaved with mandolin
• 3-4 tablespoons of yogurt
• Juice of half a lemon
Cook chopped bacon in a small pot over medium heat until cooked but still chewy. Drain and reserve fat. Remove and set aside a couple chunks of bacon for the chicken thigh dish below. In the same pot, combine with sorghum and vinegar and reduce over low heat until mixture is thick and sticky.
Toss kale with peanut oil and bake at 350 degrees for about five minutes, until crisp.
Toss fennel with olive oil, lemon juice and salt.
On a plate, spread a generous smear of yogurt, arrange crisp kale and shaved fennel atop. Finish with dollops of bacon marmalade.
Creamed scallions, cherry tomato fondue, pickled fennel frond and Thai chili
• 8-10 shrimp, peeled, shells reserved
• 1 1/2 bunches of scallions, chopped with white roots reserved
• 2 fennel stalks, cleaned and sliced as thin as possible
• 1 Thai chili, thinly sliced
• 1/2 pint container heavy cream
• 12 cherry tomatoes, quartered
• 1/4 cup olive oil
• 1/2 cup sugar
• 1/2 cup white wine vinegar
In a small pot, combine vinegar and sugar with the Thai chili over medium heat. Once sugar is fully dissolved, bring to a simmer then turn off. Pour over sliced fennel stalks and set aside.
Add shrimp shells, scallion whites, a chopped tomato, 1 tablespoon oil to a small sauté pan over medium-high heat. Deglaze with a splash of white wine and 1 cup of water, simmer and reduce for about 20 minutes. Strain stock into a bowl.
Sauté scallions over high heat in a large, buttered pan with almost all of the heavy cream and a generous pinch or two of salt. Cook until thick and creamy, a few minutes.
Add 1/4 cup olive oil to pan over high heat, remove from heat, add chopped tomatoes and then return to heat, reducing to a simmer. Cook until tomatoes are soft and combined with oil, but stopping before they break down into a sauce.
Sauté shrimp over high heat, adding stock after browning for a minute or two. Finish with a tablespoon of butter.Arrange plate of creamed scallions, shrimp, and tomatoes, finishing with pickled fennel.
Skillet free range chicken thighs
North Carolina squash and Parmesan gratin, white acre peas, white wine mustard jus
• 1 cup peas, shelled
• 2 chicken thighs, bones removed and reserved
• 2 yellow squash, sliced thin lengthwise, scraps reserved
• Half a shallot, sliced thin
• 1 cup of grated Parmesan
• 4 tablespoons butter
• 3 tablespoons peanut oil
• 1 tablespoons Creole mustard
• Reserved bacon fat
• Salt and Pepper to taste
Boil peas and a few chunks of reserved bacon for 15 to 20 minutes. Drain and set aside.
Cook thigh bone, shallot peel, scallion root, squash scraps, bay leaf and 1 tablespoon oil in a small pot until fat browns. Deglaze with 1 cup water. Reduce for 45 minutes or so and strain stock.
Generously butter a baking sheet, spread shallot slices and arrange thin slices of squash in layers. Scattered with bits of butter, drizzle a small amount of heavy cream (from previous recipe), olive oil and finish with grated Parmesan. Cover with aluminum foil and bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes, then remove foil and roast for 12 minutes.
Fry chicken thighs skin down in oil and reserved bacon fat over medium heat, at first pressing the thighs down with another pan. Turn only after the thighs appear to have cooked through entirely. Remove from heat.
Remove chicken and drain fat from the pan, add reserved stock, splash white wine and 1 tablespoon mustard to pan. Reduce to a jus.
Arrange a large slice of squash gratin with fried chicken, peas and jus atop.
Peach and plum crisp
• Organic yogurt
• 2 peaches, chopped
• 2 plums, chopped
• 1/4 cup sugar
• 3-4 tablespoons butter
• 3-4 tablespoons flour
Combine peaches, plums and sugar in a sauté pan over medium heat and cover. Cook for a few minutes, until soft. Pinch together equal parts sugar, flour and butter, like making biscuits, just enough for topping. Generously butter ramekins, pack in peaches and plums, top with crisp and bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes on sheet, until golden brown and bubbling over. Cool and serve with a drizzle of yogurt.