Linton Hopkins' Crusade to Give Southern Cuisine Its Due Respect

by Nicholas Rummell
Antoinette Bruno Antoinette Bruno
February 2012

If Southern cooking were a religion, then 2007 Atlanta Rising Star Chef Linton Hopkins would be its high priest. His devotees are legion, his zealotry for confederate ingredients unwavering. And his missionary work—most recently his campaign for high-end recognition for Restaurant Eugene, one of the few white-tablecloth destinations in Atlanta—is designed to promote a greater good: the worldwide acceptance of Southern cuisine.

His ham hock and hominy sermons are not just for his own sake. They're also about building credibility for the entire historicity of Southern cuisine—far past the stereotypes of NASCAR tailgates and over-cooked vegetables.

“Wherever there are hard-working people that are connected to where their food comes from, you have a cuisine, and the South has got that in spades,” he says. “The South is not stupid. The South is intellectually forward, progressive, and has created many of the wonderful things that we’ve taken for granted in our culture.”

Whether it’s promoting the use of sorghum over maple syrup (it’s not that he’s anti-maple syrup; he just sees a paucity of diverse sugars among other pastry chefs), or taking his line cooks on field trips to local cheesemakers or farms, Hopkins has the South on his mind, and at heart. While other chefs may quiver over truffles and foie (Hopkins does, too), he thinks there is no food more noble than the butterbean. “The South deserves a place in the great cuisines of the world,” he says.

It is with his flagship, Restaurant Eugene, that Hopkins hopes to garner some of that worldwide street cred, rejiggering employee handbooks and the menu to push for an elusive Relais & Châteaux designation. It’s not just about the medals and stars, though. Four years ago, he opened the next-door gastropub, Holeman & Finch Public House, which has since become known for its late-night (and Kraft American-cheese laden) burger, throwback items like gentleman’s relish, and a sprawling offering of offal, housemade charcuterie, cured meats, and low cuts.

Just don’t call them low cuts, or Southern food low cuisine. For Hopkins, a deviled egg can have just as much finesse and elegance as a sliver of foie, and a white tablecloth is not necessarily more worthy of accolades than the checkered mats put out at a bar or casual eatery. Hopkins likens the two restaurants in terms of music—Holeman & Finch as rock ‘n roll, and Restaurant Eugene as jazz—neither one better than the other.

Despite his undying love for all things Southern, Hopkins was born in upstate New York (though he was raised in suburban Atlanta, giving him a touch of Deep South drawl). For Hopkins, though, being Southern does not mean adhering simply to fried chicken and grits. Southern cuisine, in his mind, encompasses Hispanic food and Vietnamese influence, the African diaspora, and French classicism. It can be a challenge, he says, to break from the “1865 world view” that the South is sometimes shoehorned into.

His allegiance to this side of the Mason-Dixon is never more evident than in his promotion of local product. Hopkins has helped form the Peachtree Road Farmers Market with his wife (and Eugene sommelier) Gina Hopkins. Together they took the market from an initial six non-profiting stalls in 2007 to more than 60 vendors and $4.4 million in receipts today. Hopkins demands the same kind of dedication to community from his cooks, urging them to think of kitchen work as a medieval guild, a trade with a history of nobility and class. “To engage here, or to work with me, means I need to know how you think about who you are as a culinarian,” he says, “but also as an adult human who must be civically active in making our world better.”