Interview with Chef Linton Hopkins of Restaurant Eugene — Atlanta, GA (2012)

February 2012

Antoinette Bruno: What’s new with Restaurant Eugene and Holeman & Finch?
Linton Hopkins: We opened Holeman & Finch almost four years ago simultaneously with H&F Bread Company. In the beginning we thought, we would make bread for our restaurants. That turned into a two-year fight for keeping that bread company alive. Of course this happens right at the start of the recession. I look at both restaurants as music: rock ‘n roll is Holeman & Finch and jazz is Eugene. One is not better than the other. I don’t believe in high art and low art.

AB: You used to tell me about this concept of celebrating fine dining at your restaurants. Tell me more about that?
LH: When we opened Holeman & Finch, I had to learn how to be two chefs in a lot of ways. Before Holeman & Finch, I cooked a lot more offal and sausages. And that’s what Holeman & Finch became part of. Why I believe fine dining is important, is that it is a craft-driven celebration of everything we do, whether it’s polishing copper on a container, or having a sommelier who has knowledge of wine. Fine dining is that ultimate celebration of hospitality and food and beverage.

AB: Can you talk a little about how your pastry program plays into the fine-dining aspect of Eugene?
LH: To have a pastry chef in Atlanta is not as widespread as you’d think. I think the craft of pastry, the idea of little treats that are more than just cookies on a plate is important. Again, we’re looking at, “Is this food you can cook at home or not?” And we’re saying, “No.” What we’re saying—and what people are responding to—is a sense of value with the quality of the ingredients, the delivery of the service, and the joyful celebration of fine dining. And people still have special events, and we have to be ready to serve them.

AB: It’s amazing how you’ve had a huge positive impact on young cooks in this town, and how they’re embracing and embodying your spirit.
LH: This business is not short-term. This is not my lifestyle; this is my life. And to engage here, or to work with me, means I need to know that you think about who you are as a culinarian, but also as an adult human who must be civically active in making our world better. And we can make our world better by purchasing carrots from somebody we know, by engaging and shopping from farmers markets. What I want to be surrounded by are smart cooks. The South is not stupid. The South is intellectually forward and progressive and has created many of the wonderful things that we’ve taken for granted in our culture.

AB: What unusual Southern ingredients are you focused on?
LH: Buttermilk and sorghum are my favorite export items. People love our country ham and our bacon. In terms of our agricultural products, I think people should cook more with hominy. You have to as a cook continue to explore who you are through food. Find these other people who know so much more than you and just learn.

AB: Do you think being in Atlanta makes it harder because there are these preconceived notions about the cuisine?
LH: Not necessarily harder, you just know it’s going to happen. I remember I cooked a dinner, and one post about it was, “That’s not Southern food.” And I said: “Well, I’m Southern, multi-generations. I’m in the South, and I’m using all Southern ingredients. Guess what: that’s Southern.” It’s not about new Southern. It’s understanding that all cuisine is an evolution, and so there’s no way to stop it. So Southern is Hispanic and Vietnamese. It is Cuba and the Caribbean. It’s the African diaspora. You’ve got Europe. You’ve got Native America with corn and the three sisters. But that’s hard for people to see sometimes with cuisine. They want to take a snapshot and say it’s that way forever.