Home, Cooking

By Maria M. Lameiras

IMAGETITLE

Andrew Thomas Lee

Any Way You Slice It Chef Linton Hopkins (left), with Resurgens culinary director Damon Wise, breaks down a side of beef for the evening service at his reimagining of the great American steakhouse, C. Ellet’s.

On the night of its opening party, C. Ellet’s—the newest establishment of Atlanta restaurateur and chef Linton Hopkins 92C—is packed with guests eager for a taste of the menu and the atmosphere.

Situated on a prime corner in the Battery at SunTrust Park, the new home of the Atlanta Braves, the restaurant is a short stroll to the ballfield gates. A walk-up oyster bar and patio offers passing patrons an opportunity for an elevated pre-game bite of raw, fried, or roasted oysters and draughts that soar far above your typical red hot and brew in a plastic cup.

Around the corner, the main entrance gives way to two dining spaces; a curvaceous, modern Club Room with floor to ceiling windows, scenic murals, and a sweeping bar and a lush dining room with richly padded leather booths, sleek tables, and opulent accents of wood, marble, and brass.

Attentive servers circulate deftly through the crowd, offering briny fried oysters with remoulade and crisp hush puppies with spicy sorghum butter. Astute sommeliers stationed at linen-draped tables provide tastings from the restaurant’s vast wine list, representing a global array of vintages.

A line of enthusiastic invitees snakes from the dining room through the upholstered leather doors to the sparkling kitchen. They file past a platter offering morsels from a mountainous, buttery Karst cheese—a cave-aged hybrid of cheddar and Gruyere—presented with sweet slivers of melon and hand-carved wisps of savory acorn-fed ham.

Inside the bustling kitchen, just an arm’s length from the evening’s guests, cooks perfectly sear cuts of meltingly tender beef, accompanied by gently prepared seasonal vegetables, and a decadent take on macaroni and cheese.

interiors

Andrew Thomas Lee

With the practiced ease of the most gracious Southern hosts, proprietors Linton and Gina Hopkins glide through the space, stopping along the way to give full devotion to the perpetual, brief, intimate conversations initiated by guest after guest seeking to capture a moment’s attention.

This is genuine warmth and hospitality, honed to an art by years spent crafting not only a growing roster of acclaimed and beloved restaurants, but a philosophy that values personal connection and service above the bureaucracy of business.

Andrew Thomas Lee

Hopkins formed an attachment to the idea of service early, watching his father, longtime Emory neurologist and professor emeritus Linton C. Hopkins III, attending to others through four decades of medical teaching and practice, and his mother, Priscilla Hopkins, who shepherded the family and cultivated her son’s love of family and food.

However, as a young man, Hopkins had no idea he would build his life around food.

An anthropology and premed major at Emory at the juncture of the 1980s and 1990s, Hopkins had planned to follow his father into medicine, the only career path he saw open to him.

"All the careers I saw ahead of me were in medicine or law or finance or real estate. That’s what everyone’s parents were doing and what I saw in my father,” Hopkins says. “My father loves medicine; it was not just a job, it was so much more to him, and I wanted that.I loved the challenge of medicine and premed classes, but it just wasn’t who I was.”

From his young teens, the younger Hopkins had worked in the food industry—dishwasher then register worker at a small catering and takeout company, delivering pizzas for Domino’s, working at the Mellow Mushroom in Little Five Points as a college freshman, and later in the commissary at the Masquerade nightclub—and he loved being a part of feeding people.

It was from another of his great passions—books and bookstores—that Hopkins was inspired to pursue a livelihood rooted in his love of food and nourishing others.

“I was walking through a bookstore, and I saw a book called Guide to Culinary Schools. And it was one of those ‘A-ha’ moments people talk about. I picked it up, and it talked about the history of cuisine and being a chef in the business and the honor of that and the pathway. It totally sold me. Within a day of reading it, I told my parents I wasn’t going to medical school. I’d just finished up at Emory that summer of 1992, and within three weeks I’d submitted my application to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA),” he says.

Hopkins

Sarah Dorio

By the end of the summer, Hopkins (above) was on his way to Hyde Park, New York, enrolled as a student in the CIA, the nation’s top-ranked culinary school.

Watching his son blossom in his chosen career has been rewarding for Hopkins III.

“Hospitality is a concept most people don’t really view as important in medicine as it is in a restaurant, but fundamentally medicine is a hospitality-type profession. Our job is to make people comfortable and to serve them and to make them happier. We are united by that,” the elder Hopkins says. “I’m really proud of the way he approaches his profession, seeing the depths of it and how nutrition and fresh food to him is as important as working through medical things is to me.”

Coupled with his early education at the Westminster Schools and his undergraduate training at Emory, Hopkins says the CIA prepared him not only as a chef, but how to run a business based on the values he holds dear. Those values—integrity, dedication, learning, achievement, and diversity—form the foundational philosophy for Resurgens Hospitality Group, the management company for Hopkins’s restaurants.

“In your early twenties, you are figuring out who you are. It is even more clear to me—as our business has grown and we’ve seen all of the young people coming through it—that I want to help people figure out who they are,” he says. “We’ve had such great people come through our kitchens and go on from here. I’ve seen the role of stewardship, of training, develop. It is giving the opportunity to people with real talent to embrace the amazing business you are a part of.”

Hopkins’s own entré to the professional kitchen started in one of the nation’s most iconic food cities, New Orleans, with an externship at the famed Brennan’s Restaurant, followed by a position at the Windsor Court Hotel.

In 1998, Hopkins moved to Washington, D.C., to help his friend Chef Jeff Tunks open his dream restaurant, D.C. Coast, as his sous chef.

It was there that Hopkins met Gina, who was working as a server at the restaurant.

The couple fell in love, married, and had their children, Linton Jr. and Avery, while living in Alexandria. When they decided it was time to open their own restaurant, location was never a question.

“That always meant Atlanta for me,” Hopkins says. “I always referred to Atlanta as home.”

The couple moved their family to Atlanta in 2002 and spent the next months scouting for the perfect location and pouring their whole hearts and full resources into opening Restaurant Eugene, carefully crafting the menu, mood, and philosophy.

“I’m from Atlanta, but I had no name in the food and restaurant community. I had to come in and establish my identity as a restaurateur. It takes a while,” says Hopkins, who made himself and his intentions known by introducing himself to four chefs who represented, for him, the nobility of the Atlanta restaurant scene—Günter Seeger, Anne Quatrano, Kevin Rathbun, and Gerry Klaskala.

“They were all so gracious and nice, and especially Gunter Seeger, who opened a whole world of local farms for me,” says Hopkins, who has since become a champion of farm-to-table dining and local sourcing of ingredients. “I didn’t know what to buy or where to buy it. I didn’t know the local food scene, and they helped me with that.”

He says Quatrano—“one of the most tremendous talents our industry has ever had and just a magnificent person: funny, kind, generous”—has been a guiding influence. Hopkins also credits a friendship with the late Anne Brewer, founder of the Morningside Farmer’s Market, for introducing him to local farmers and food artisans and helping him build relationships, and menus, around their products.

“To build a successful restaurant and identity as a chef depends on what relationships you have with people,” he says. “We’ve got people from all over the city who have really created and knitted together a beautiful food community, and we are a better city for it. I love being surrounded by that.”

When Restaurant Eugene opened in 2004, the first few months moved slowly in terms of building a customer base.

“The first people eating at Eugene were real Atlantans, family and friends; one of our first patrons was my high school English teacher,” Hopkins laughs.

Eventually the word spread and the restaurant gained popularity, but less than a year in, just when reviews and revenues were looking up, a burst water pipe in the condos above the restaurant flooded the building, wreaking hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage and threatening the early blooms of success. With determination and effort, they rebuilt, and Restaurant Eugene climbed to the top of the Atlanta food scene, becoming a destination for local and visiting gastronomes alike.

Working in the restaurant business is challenging, especially for a couple with a family, but Gina Hopkins says it has always been the couple’s normal.

“Linton and I met each other at work and we’ve always worked together, so it has been a part of our life and relationship,” she says. “Because we’ve gone through everything together, you can draw on those past experiences. It is great to have someone you can trust completely and who you can soundboard with because you have shared experiences and you can relate to each other.”

Hopkins says those “little and big hardships” served as lessons that ultimately benefitted the couple’s businesses, which have grown to include Holeman and Finch Public House, H&F Burger at SunTrust Park and in Ponce City Market (PCM), Hop’s Chicken at PCM, and now C. Ellet’s. The group also generated affiliated businesses including Eugene Kitchen and H&F Bottle Shop, begun to provide the highest quality products for its restaurants, which have taken on lives of their own.

Burger

Courtesy of Resurgens Hospitality Group

What all the fuss is about . . . The famous “H&F burger” began as a special at Holeman and Finch, available only at 10:00 p.m. each evening, with only twenty-four prepared each night, packing the restaurant nightly with hamburger hopefuls. On the restaurant’s website, it’s described as “A griddled double cheeseburger, topped with red onion and house-made pickles, served on a freshly baked pan de mie bun (butter-toasted on the griddle) with from-scratch ketchup, and mustard on the side.” We’ll pause here so you can go get a napkin.

A common thread among Hopkins’s businesses is how the names connect to his family and his hometown. Restaurant Eugene was named for his mother’s father, Eugene Holeman, and Holeman and Finch for his grandfather and his former partner’s grandfather. Charles Ellet Jr. (1810-1862), for whom C. Ellet’s is named, was Hopkins’s great-grandmother’s grandfather, a US Army colonel and civil engineer credited with designing a fleet of steel-bowed Union Army ram-boats, known as the “Ellet Rams,” that sank the Confederate fleet at the Battle of Memphis.

Hopkins welcomes the opportunity to blend his family history and Emory education with his culinary experience.

“The totems and magic and ritual of food is pure anthropology, and that is how I approach cuisine, as an anthropologist, and an archaeologist as well,” he says. “For me, food is everything. It defines us and who we are. Anthropology and education are a part of why Southern food is something I am passionate about. This is living anthropology and living study.”

Mel Konner, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Emory, has been both a colleague of Hopkins III and a teacher to Chef Hopkins when he was an Emory student. He sees parallels between the neurologist and his son in the respect and precision with which they approach their professions.

“Dr. Hopkins is an Emory institution and Chef Linton is now an Atlanta institution. Each has accomplished a great deal in very different areas of life, but art and science and craft are involved in both of these professions, as is caring about people,” Konner says.

The constant hunger for knowledge—and the desire to share it with others—are the traits Gina Hopkins admires most in her husband.

“Linton is driven by knowledge. If the average person goes ten steps, Linton goes a hundred. He wants to learn everything he can about every ingredient we source for the businesses,” she says. “Whether it is sorghum or soft shell crabs or beets or radishes, he gets as deep into the history as possible. And when he is gathering all that information, he’s putting it into his Rolodex of what he wants to share with our teams and teach the people who work with us. That is what impresses me the most, him wanting to share that with others.”

Although he is part of the wave of chefs who have redefined Southern food and Southern cooking, Hopkins resists the title of Southern chef.

“There is so much about the idea of American food that is still in discovery,” he says. “Cultural phenomena are not museum pieces, they are still alive and dynamic as long as the South’s history and culture are constantly changing. Southern food is now an immigrant story, a story of Central America and Vietnam and so many other places. In Atlanta—with an international corridor that is so uniquely American Southern—it keeps that alive and it influences how I cook.”

As much as culture influences food in Atlanta, Hopkins wants his restaurants to become touchstones in the city.

“New Orleans taught me a lot about how important a restaurant community is to the cultural identity of a city,” he says. “What I am trying to do for Atlanta is establish how important food institutions are for who we are in Atlanta. Mary Mac’s or the Majestic or Chik-fil-A or the Varsity, I honor and respect those places and they hold me accountable to be better for our city. When I was forming Restaurant Eugene and Holeman and Finch, my intent was to make places that are so much a part of Atlanta that Atlanta can’t imagine them not being there.”

butter

Courtesy of Resurgens Hospitality Group

"Ode to Butter" by Linton Hopkins

Inspired by the pursuit of the perfect housemade butter for Restaurant Eugene, Hopkins wrote the Keatsian “Ode to Butter,” which was published in poet Kevin Young’s anthology The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food and Drink.

Thou still unravished bride of promises

a child of art and craft

fixed with many suitors eyes

born of Thracia from capra and aries

reaching perfection with the cow

bursting from chicken kiev

laced with chive

my first experience

a joy I still recall

Vollon,  still life's master

Conjured you in 1875

Escoffier's contemporary,  he knew who you were:

a foundation.

In ancient India you were clarified into one of their most elemental of foods.

GHEE,  sanskrit for "bright"

you are an ancient offering to the gods and burned in holy lamps and funeral pyres

eternal

beaten out of cream

kneaded and shaped

salted to preserve

fresh, room temp-there is no need to refrigerate you

as the poet Seamus said

you are "coagulated sunlight"

sunlight transformed by the cow

from the seasonal hue

cool and spreadable I taste your season,

bright, fat and herbal in spring and summer when

fed on clover and fresh grass

in the winter you taste of hay and grain

Julia became Julia when met with your aroma

commingling in a pan with shallots

many people don't know that you actually lighten a dish

small knobs stirred into reduced stock

mouthfeel, richness

the dish which is missing something

is quickly set right

Would French cuisine exist without you?

Chef Point in '37, manned the stoves at La Pyramide writing

"Butter! Give me Butter! Always Butter!

So versatile are you

clarified to remove the milk

you saute at high heat

whole at low flame you perform a feat of magic:

you emulsify with yourself

the water, milk solids and fat,

a whisk, some coaxing

a smooth warm sauce is born, beurre monte

a little wine vinegar and shallot ... beurre blanc

toasted till hazelnut brown; noisette

darkened to almost burnt dark black; noir

worked into eggs: hollandaise and bernaise

asparagus, broccoli, and legumes

they all cry out for you

Pastry without you is unimaginable

your melting between the million layers is the puff

pate brisee, pate sucree,

cookies and cakes all begin with creaming

you and sugar

the South?

fresh churned from cream with a  second gift; buttermilk

whose quality is determined by how many of your children float across the surface

spread on warm biscuits with sorghum

a small knob in a bowl of grits

steaming hot sweet potatoes with you on top

bread & butter pickles tell us how they should be eaten

sweet, sour and unctuous

butterbeans are named in your honor

creamy like you when cooked right

glazed with you and black pepper

memories.

Who has not thought of you when you are not around?

hungry and romantic

blamed for a multitude of sins

doctors who decry you are often found at your back door

new science has shown;

you ain't all that bad.

in fact, your very nature may be good for the fabric of our brain

I knew that already

Think not of others. 

Margarine, unworthy imitation, it has no song

Lard, Schmaltz, Oil.

they are not so universal

nor so simple and complex

an infinite story

I place you in an ancestral cast iron pan—

my grandfather's

watch you glaze across the black surface

when the bubbles foam and begin to subside

it is an invitation

add the minced onions and sweat

the beginning of so many journeys

from gumbo to perloo

I always begin with you

Email the editor