Interview: chef Linton Hopkins (Restaurant Eugene + Holeman & Finch Public House + H&F Bread Co.)

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Chef Atlanta


JL: What are the chances that your children follow you into the restaurant world?

LH: Well, first they’ve got to cook from scratch at home. That’s the first lesson. But Linton is going to have a summer job at Restaurant Eugene, he’s going to start washing dishes 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, just to get that sense of work, and that sense of what kitchens are really good at teaching is—you would maybe not think this—is a sense of humility. I think really to be a great chef is to be humble, and it teaches that. You should wash dishes, and be proud of it. It’s not something to escape from, it’s something to do very well. So I hope that Linton gets that sense of enjoyment that I found, because, again, the discipline of a kitchen can erase a lot of the BS that we have in our own lives regarding ego. I think the kitchens that I love to be a part of stress that. I’m so proud of our teams right now because they’re very thoughtful, non-ego driven cooks, that believe they’re doing something more than just punching in and out on a paycheck to get to the next stage of what being a chef or a culture is. They’re looking for meaning in their lives.

JL: When you’re hiring, what is it that you’re looking for to achieve those sensibilities?

LH: That they actually care about something other than themselves. To look in their eyes and talk to them about who they are as people. To see if they’re willing to go through what it takes just to be in my kitchen. To relish that responsibility and respect and humility. It doesn’t work out with everybody, but that’s what we have to have. It has to begin with young men and women caring about something.

JL: How do you gauge that when they walk through the door?

LH: You can’t right off the bat. You can be told a lot of amazing things at the beginning of a relationship that don’t pan out, necessarily. A resume is not necessarily a great indicator, as well. You can only really know by the time they leave. The exit is just as important as the entrance. If they don’t exit well, they hurt the same relationship about giving notice and building relationships. I consider my responsibility, when you come to Restaurant Eugene, you will leave better than you started. I will not just relegate you to some awful job. You will be paid, you’ll be promoted, you’ll be treated with respect, we don’t allow curse words in the kitchen, it’s a true sense of honor amongst us. How they leave is a big part of that. I’ll help them get jobs with other chef friends of mine, just to build again this guild that I care so much about. So only when they exit can you truly know the mettle of their character.

JL: The last time that you fired somebody, what was it that they did or did not do to warrant it?

LH: Usually when they do something that hurts the team. Walking out, because they got mad or in some fight with the chef. I had that happen recently. They ask to come back in, but I can never rehire at the same level. The only way back in is to start again at the beginning, which I think requires a greater deal of long-term humility that some people are willing to go through. I’m very old-fashioned that way. It’s mostly about attitude. If you come into my kitchen and you make a lot of mistakes and you’re clumsy, that’s not to be fired about, you’re to be taught. That’s the responsibility of the sous chef or the first cook to teach you. It’s about a willingness to learn, an openness, commitment, minimum of one year I think is critical, a minimum of one month notice to say you’re going to leave, because you should know what you’re going to do, one month from now, and to include me in that discussion. I will never fire you as a surprise, it will never just be some random thing. Being mean to front of house people is going to get you fired, eventually. You’ll probably have 10 warnings and sit downs before it would ever get to that point, and you should see it coming, you know, because I’ll say something like, “You understand if I sit down with you again, this will be the last time we have this conversation about your employment here, right?” And I’m pretty honest about that. I don’t get mad, I question how they treat other people and I just can’t allow that. My job is to not allow it.

JL: You quoted several chefs throughout your cooking demo. Who else in the restaurant industry, who’s still alive, do you look to for inspiration, guidance or advice?

LH: There’s so much. I mean, from reading Thomas Keller’s books, I mean I’ve never worked in his kitchen but I know him very well when it comes to his thinking about how the spirit of the kitchen, the spirit of the dish, from trussing kitchen to big water blanching to his methods of sous vide. I believe someone like Ferran Adria is a real master. And it’s not just about what he did in the last 5 years of his culinary existence in El Bulli, it’s looking at the transformation of his life from when he began as an unnamed chef with this business, to where he ended up, and I love seeing the transformation of a chef’s life. It’s sort of like watching an artist change. Look at Picasso, for example. It’s not just one period that I love, I love the whole style, and the stylistic change. Or even Beethoven. The difference between the First and the Ninth are just tremendous, they’re individual spirits. I’m inspired by local friends in Atlanta. Anne Quatrano at Bacchanalia is like a big sister to me. I feel like Restaurant Eugene and I can exist in Atlanta because of some of the groundbreaking work she did with establishing a farmer community in Atlanta and a culture of knowing where our foods are, a culture of cooks who love cooking from scratch and working hard. So yeah, we all stand on the shoulders of giants.

JL: How would you describe your transformation as a chef, from when you first started until now?

LH: It’s been nothing but change. I wasn’t really tied into the agricultural aspect like I am now. I now see myself as an agricultural extension agent, where I read seed catalogs and plan years out for ingredients and products. For example, last year I bought seven country hams from a pig farmer, or seven actual hams, hoof on, which I then had sent to my good friend Allan Benton, one of the countries best ham makers, to make seven hams and it’ll be ready in two more years. And I wouldn’t have done that as a sous chef cook, you know. That was more about, just saying yes chef and following, really according to the will of the brigade, which I enjoy, just the sense of here’s my station, here’s my work. Only when I started getting control of the order process, to start look at how to we improve a dish and the quality of the ingredients, when I started stepping into the role of actually having to teach people about this, that’s when I started changing even more about the quality of ingredients, and then what does it mean to be best ingredient? How do you say best carrot? Does that mean a carrot that I ship from Paris from the same carrot grower that grows for Joel Robuchon? I’m sure that’s an outstanding carrot, but am I going to support an air shipping, just to build my cuisine from FedEx? So there’s got to be something more than that. The reason Joel Robuchon’s carrot grower is so amazing is because Joel Robuchon’s built a lifetime relationship with him or her, and that’s why that carrot is so awesome. So, that’s where I am now, is really going granular on relationship building.

JL: What will it take for you to consider your work in restaurants a success?

LH: My own planned obsolescence. I really think that my job is to remove myself from the process. Like a perfect little microcosm, where they feel empowered to do their own thing, they understand the rhythm and the way I think about the quality of ingredients and the method of teaching, that we continue to stay relevant in the discourse of what is American regional food, and thereby global food, that sense of going on beyond my lifetime, is where my aspiration is. Again, food is more important than chefs and restaurants, and I just want to make sure that what I’m doing, within my own world of food, is adding to that specialness. Because right now, this is the first time in the history of chefs where we’re actually interviewed and talking about what we think. We have a responsibility to that, to not waste that. To start again, food is more important than what our business can make it. So that’s what I see as our success, that we get to really healing people, with what the food business is. Because remember in Cherokee, food and medicine is the same word. Come to the table, eat your medicine.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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