Southern cuisine has long been pigeon-holed by stereotypes of buttery grits and sugar coma-inducing slabs of pecan pie, but in recent years a spate of creative chefs has re-imagined the region’s robust traditions to help Dixieland grub find its rightful place in contemporary foodie landscape.
Leading the charge in Atlanta, along with the likes of Ford Fry, Steven Satterfield, and Hugh Acheson, is James Beard Award-winning Linton Hopkins, the Georgia native who opened Restaurant Eugene with his wife, Gina, in Buckhead 11 years ago. In an era where classic conceptions of fine dining are constantly be challenged, it continues to thrive, captivating diners with dishes such as foie gras with hominy and fermented collards, and fennel ash-crusted grouper with Sapelo Island clams.
“I actually feel like an 11-year-old child,” says Hopkins. “Every day we’re learning more about who we are. It would have been impossible for me to say I had it all figured out the first day we opened.”
Beyond Hopkins’ heartfelt cooking, it is undoubtedly his unbridled enthusiasm that has propelled his success. He gushes over misfit tomatoes from the farmers’ market, which he salvages and transforms into a stewed beauty; ditto for the offal that he highlights at Holeman and Finch Public House, Restaurant Eugene’s wildly popular, dressed-down sibling. He takes on new challenges with gusto, like collaborating with Delta Air Lines’ BusinessElite to create dishes that actually taste good at cruising altitude.
I can write essays on black truffles and then cook for the rest of my life? This can’t be real.
Before Hopkins ever entertained the notion of becoming a chef, he was already passionate about food. “If I think back immediately to my memories, it’s the lamb we ate on Sundays and making omelets for my family. It’s my Charlie Brown cookbook with the mustardy egg salad recipe that is still my favorite, and my mom and I watching Julia Child together. It was learning how to make Hollandaise sauce simply because I wanted it on my asparagus, and eating hush puppies right out of a cast-iron skillet as a boy on Pawleys Island in South Carolina,” Hopkins recalls. “ We didn’t eat out in restaurants. The food we ate was all from scratch, but it wasn’t fancy.”
Washing dishes at a catering hall as a teenager and making pizza at the Mellow Mushroom while a student at Emory University certainly helped lay Hopkins’ restaurant foundation, but it wasn’t until he was working part-time at a bookstore that his future became clear. It was there that he spotted a guide to culinary schools, “the book that changed the course of my life. It showed me that cooking was a noble tradition and I could actually make a career of it. Within three weeks of reading it I was on the campus of the CIA. I can write essays on black truffles and then cook for the rest of my life? This can’t be real.”
After years spent in New Orleans and Washington, D.C. kitchens, he returned to Atlanta, where he’s an ardent champion of sustainability. “The first 10 years of Restaurant Eugene were about finding its identity; the next 10 will explore my personal Southern farm-to-table journey,” he says. “I love the world of tasting menus, but I also love that Holeman and Finch is more the guy who listens to the White Stripes. It’s got swagger. Each place has shaped me.”
And each one has made an indelible imprint on the Atlanta dining community. From a mind-blowing retro chicken dish in France, to the soft-shell crab that eludes him in Georgia, here are 10 of the dishes that keep the ever-curious Hopkins motivated to keep pushing forward.
It’s built as a structure of seasonality—it can be just buttermilk or blackened squash, or it can have chicken cracklings, asparagus, and Vidalia onions. I think about it as a Japanese or Vietnamese pancake, layered with all these fresh, crispy, and creamy elements. It’s a dish that carries through all the seasons, but there’s another reason I enjoy it: Didier Elena, of the Chefs Club by Food & Wine, tasted my johnny cake and he said that it was essentially socca, what he was used to eating in his native Monaco. We were able to connect over this dish, so in a sense it helped create that friendship for me. That’s what I love so much about this business, when people like Didier and I seem different but share similarities in how we cook from memories. (Photo: Yelp)
Chinese Lacquered Duck with Coffee-Mandarin Glaze at the Grill Room at the Windsor Court Hotel (New Orleans, LA)
This is an early 1990s dish from chef Kevin Graham that stayed on the menu when I worked here with Jeff Tunks. We hung Long Island ducks for 24 hours, rubbed them with salt, immersed them in honey water, and roasted them on high heat. They got super black, but although it’s well done the meat is so juicy. Served with an orange-coffee sauce, it’s just so delicious. It’s a dish that taught me a lot because when I first started making it, I ruined my mom’s oven with it, caking the inside. I’ve played around with it since then and now have a version using sorghum and a red-eye gravy with ham scraps. (Photo via johnmariani.com)
Chicken Liver Paté at FIG (Charleston, SC)
Mike Lata was working with Jean Banchet in Atlanta when he first made this chicken liver paté, which he now serves at FIG. It is hands-down my favorite version. The pork fat is emulsified with the chicken livers, which makes it rich and creamy and reminiscent of eating foie gras. It became the inspiration for my own recipe with apple-cider gelée and toast. It’s not about copying dishes, but being inspired by and honoring other chefs. It’s like we are all a bunch of Dungeons & Dragons geeks in 7th grade. (Photo: FIG/Facebook)
Chicken with Tarragon Cream Sauce at Auberge du Père Bise (Lake Annecy, France)
One of the two dishes original to Madame Bise is this chicken, roasted in a pot with cream and tarragon. They bring the pot out to the table, show you the chicken, carve the breast, and lay the sauce over the top. While you are eating that they take the rest back and fricassee the legs in tarragon, so out comes another course of soft, pink meat. We just went there last year and my son was blown away by it. I was, too. I love how a dish can be so perfectly cooked. It’s a statement of purity. (Photo: perebise.com)
Chicken Pot Pie for Delta Air Lines
When Delta Air Lines asked me to work with them I knew I had to make food that was delicious. I love chicken pot pie and there’s a simplicity to ours, with pasteurized Georgia chicken, Vidalia onions, and puff pastry made in our bakery. The chickens are ethically raised, the crust is buttery, and it’s just so good. Most importantly, it proves to me that regardless of the setting—whether an airplane, a school, a stadium, or a hospital—you can make great food. For anyone who tells us we have to compromise our food quality based on where it’s being served, this chicken pot pie is a statement proving otherwise. (Photo via Eater)
Bread Service at Le Louis XV at Hotel de Paris (Monaco)
I was working in New Orleans when I went to Harrah’s and got lucky at the roulette table. I won $10,000 and I spent it all on a week in France. I had no money except that, but I blew it all eating at Michelin-starred restaurants and staying in wonderful places I had no business staying in. I stayed at the Hotel de Paris and ate dinner at Le Louis XV, where there was a cart with maybe 20 different types of bread and five different beautiful types of butter hand-churned in the countryside. Bread becomes this forgotten item, but seeing that cart roll up reminded me how you need to stop and make it a special moment. (Photo: Trip Advisor)
Seasonal Vegetable Plate at Restaurant Eugene
On our à la carte menu is the vegetable plate, a signature dish that builds inspiration and creativity in my cooks and chefs. It’s seasonal, and so it changes every night depending upon what’s available. It’s become so popular here that even diners ordering off the tasting menu will get it on the side. It could have a little Japanese eggplant stuffed with rice and peas, or a gratin of squash, maybe roasted mushrooms, or pickles. When you look down at the copper plate it’s served on, it’s a story of connectivity. It’s become my touchstone. (Photo courtesy Holeman and Finch)
Burger at Holeman and Finch Public House
The burger, with American cheese, homemade bread, pickles, and our own mustard and ketchup, has shaped me, teaching my wife and I an important lesson about the business. It was never on the menu and so it became this big thing everyone wanted to order and we started to hurt because it became too dominant. Our sales were going down over this silly burger. Ever since putting it on the menu we still sell a good amount a night, but now diners realize we have so much more to offer. (Photo courtesy Holeman and Finch)
Sweetbreads at Clancy’s (New Orleans, LA)
Eating at Clancy’s as a young cook opened my eyes to the world of sweetbreads. They had a little mustard sauce and sautéed spinach and it was perfect. I always have sweetbreads on the menu at Holeman and Finch, and every time I’m making them I’m chasing the memory of that dish—the acid of the mustard sauce, the green of the spinach, and that creamy, pillowy texture. (Photo: Urbanspoon)
Tower of Crab at DC Coast (Washington, D.C.)
Jeff Tunks makes a lusty, strong statement on food at DC Coast. When I followed him to Washington, I helped create this dish: a jumbo lump-crab cake atop crispy soft-shell crab with lemon butter. I loved it so much that when I opened Restaurant Eugene I said we had to serve it. While access to soft-shell crab was easy in New Orleans and D.C., it was challenging in Atlanta. Crabs coming through our door in D.C. were still moving because they were transported quickly from the water and weren’t refrigerated to death; in Atlanta, the crabs just aren’t as alive, so I couldn’t make it anymore. It’s a dish that showed me how important freshness is and tells a great story of how sometimes you just might not be able to replicate a recipe. It’s a dish that only works on the coast, and I lost it in a lot of ways. (Photo: Facebook/DC Coast)