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Linton Hopkins

Since we pressed play and pushed Food Republic live last year, as editor, I’ve gotten to meet many of the foremost food personalities in the world. I’ve left few of these meetings as impressed and inspired (and full) as I have after sharing a breakfast pizza and grilled croissant at NYC’s Pulino’s with Atlanta chef Linton Hopkins

This man is passionate about food, cooking, eating, teaching, helping. He’s a grilling god. He’s thoroughly Georgian; I even think his name sounds like a character from an R.E.M. song. He’s got a beloved fine-dining restaurant, Eugene (check out the menu!), that helped earn him a 2012 James Beard Award for Best Chef, Southeast (well, he shared it with Hugh Acheson, and Hopkins says he was glad to), and a pub-type place called Holeman & Finch that may be the first restaurant to borrow from sneaker culture by featuring a limited-edition burger. And in this interview, he covers a lot of ground, discussing everything from the political implications of obesity to why we need more greenmarkets to the misconception that cheeseburgers are “the enemy.” Yup. 

Besides meeting all these cool chefs in the past year as editor of Food Republic, I’ve also learned that people don’t read long interviews on the Internet, but if you’re into food, I implore you to take some time and indulge Linton Hopkins. This man speaks the truth.

You’re using fresh ingredients, cooking seasonally and locally. I talk with a lot of chefs who are similarly inclined. Why do you think we got away from that in America and how do we get back there?
As a family, we always cooked from scratch at home. I didn’t eat in restaurants. What I’m finding professionally is I’m training 21-year-olds, that is not their context of food. There is no mom and granddad cooking from scratch. Vinaigrette [for them] was a bottle. My grandfather Eugene made vinaigrette every single night. He snipped lettuce from his garden. He was a gardener, that was his thing. I grew up where food was family, food was sitting at the table. Sunday was roast lamb with rice. That context of how you grew up is a big thing. You’re seeing chefs where their context is fast food and Pizza Hut.

Are you encouraged by the movement that’s making farmer’s markets more popular?
I’m an optimist by nature. I contend this is a national security issue, and the very fabric of our humanity. Without a living, breathing food culture we have a dead culture. We created supermarkets with dead food. We irradiate [foods] and kill them and destroy their enzymatic activity. We have done so well at preserving food that we’ve actually killed it. If you have a dead food, you have a dead culture.

I like to look at food and people through time, and what food means to people. Agra and culture, that’s a core reason why humans came together. If we hadn’t created an agricultural system, we would have just been hunter gatherers. We started farming and organizing. Arts and architecture and housing, plumbing — all these crafts. Community food. All the stuff came out of gathering together in groups. Our industrial food society, it’s not bad, but it can lead to some bad things. It’s created this convenient food system where we’re robbed of a culture of food.

It’s a difficult thing to overcome, it’s 30 years of corporations marketing this stuff.
Everything is towards speed and convenience. Speed and convenience can be good. Fast food is not the enemy. Fast is good. I love cheeseburgers. Cheeseburgers aren’t the enemy. I stand in front of a bunch of school kids and I’ll say, “Who thinks cheeseburgers are bad for you?” They all raise their hands. They are getting programmed that cheeseburgers are the enemy. I say what about fresh baked bread, grass-raised beef, and real cheese, mustard and pickles.

But that’s part of the battle: getting into communities where this is foreign and kept beyond their reach because the message isn’t able to get to them.
That’s why we have food deserts and you’ve created economic access points to who can have good food. That’s why groups like Wholesome Wave — my wife Gina and I started Wholesome Wave Georgia with Michel Nischan — to double the [food stamp] benefits. This has to be good food for all, or else good food will die. It can’t be good food for the elite. Thomas Keller is wrong in a sense [Edit note: Thomas Keller clarified his stance after this interview was completed], for my fine dining restaurants it’s a small percentage of people I’m not responsible for my carbon footprint. Well actually, you have a very big voice and you are responsible as a citizen of this world to be active in making our world better. That’s not a role of being a chef, that’s the role of being an adult. Whether I’m wearing a chef hat or a father hat, you should be the same civically active person. I believe in government by the people — I’m big into the American experiment — but you’ve got to fight for what’s good. You’ve got to have a voice and say something.

What do you think about the current administration and whether or not they should take a stand against GMO’s, which they’ve been reluctant to do for obvious political reasons? 
It’s got to be a baby step kind of thing. We went into my kids’ public school across the street from the restaurant. They asked me to write the Wellness Plan, because the government said everyone in the country has to write a Wellness Plan, they said that to the schools. I put in all the Alice Waters stuff: Let’s create an edible schoolyard; I put all these dreams in there. That was jumping into the deep end. A lot of stuff we couldn’t change because of Sodexo and government contracts and stuff. But my wife was smart, she said let’s just do baby steps. I got someone to donate money for raised-bed gardens. There’s a parent who is a master gardener who devoted time to it. And a teacher fell in love with it so he uses it for his advanced program. It’s a slow thing. In the cafeteria, it was a big success that we got bottled water, because they were just serving milk and flavored milk and sugar milk. So we started a little thing to appeal to the kids with celebrity fruits and vegetables. Or famous: the famous apple juice. and it’s just showing it’s real apples.

That is such a huge thing. I was walking around the street the other day and I saw a huge Fresh Direct truck go by and it said “Long Island asparagus.” It made it look like a celebrity vegetable. For me growing up, me and my friends in high school, we wanted to skip third period and go to McDonald’s. That was exciting and we could eat that junk food. But if someone told me they were growing asparagus on Long Island, I’d be like, screw that.
It’s not French fries!

It’s a big learning curve.
Have you seen cuties? The oranges? They had billboards in Atlanta celebrating this beautiful citrus. It looks appealing and bright. It’s smart marketing.

Vidalia onions too. Some of these ingredients need to be celebrated.
And that’s going to be access to markets, that is a big part of that. Saxby Chambliss, the very-Republican senator from Georgia, he is powerful in the agricultural community and the Farm Bill passes through him. He writes terrible things about how farmers markets are only for the elite, saying they are not part of a good culture. Georgia has grown to over 250 markets in the past 10 years from 10, and the farmers market Gina and I started, we started with six vendors and last year it had $4.5 pour through that market with 60 vendors, and that leads to $12 million in economic impact in Georgia. So this idea that farmers markets are not part of a solution, this idea that big problems can always be solved in big ways, that’s the mentality in D.C.

How can we change that?
Saxby comes to my restaurant, so I sat down with him on Capitol Hill, and I told him point blank, you can’t get rid of cornbread and fried chicken and the small community of food. I think [change is] going to happen, hopefully, because he’s a granddad and his wife is a school teacher, I know the real guy. He’s a nice guy. If we can find a way to talk to him like real human beings, maybe there can be some change from the inside. That’s why working with Billy Shore from Share Our Strength was great. Chefs are walking the hallways of Capitol Hill. We have access to things we didn’t have before. The White House is even saying things like sustainability and let’s rebuild this USDA food nutrition program. It’s a huge step. It took 30 or 40 years to destroy our food system, it will probably take three times that to rebuild it in the right direction. 

It seems like more and more chefs are going directly into their kids’ schools and trying to educate from the inside, but not everyone has this type of access.
There are food deserts all around us. When I came into the school [helping out], I was there one day and the woman who is working for Sodexo, which runs the [corporate catering] for public schools. She’s an older woman and I asked her if there’s anything I can do for you, let us know. I know we’re in your space. And she said, “You’re not my chef.” And I said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend. I’m just here to talk to the kids, my kids go here.” She got in my face screaming at me and took a swing at me in front of fifth graders and actually hit the assistant principal and had to be held back. Obviously she was starting to feel pressure from the Sodexo chain and the PTA. Like you’ve got to cut the apples for first graders. Access to water. These were the fundamentals we had to fight and obviously felt like, you can’t tell me what to do and this is antagonism to me. It made me realize this whole culture of lunch ladies that Jamie Oliver talked about — they even drove him out of there, in England. They were like, who are you, you’re not my boss, you’re not in my chain of command. You’re a meddling parent who has some kind of voice. 

Does the optimist in you see the ability for ideas to win out over this very large obstacle?
Yes. What it takes is for the people who plan this, they have to work in their small neighborhoods. “I just want to take care of my five traffic lights.” I want to talk to garden clubs who are all moms and grandmothers. Women change the world more than anything. If we get women to dial in for better food for their babies, we’ll change the world. They’re the army. It will all happen with women. I was saying the other day in a grocery store, I’d buy a pack of Oreos. I love Oreos. Damn everything on the label. Gina won’t let Oreos in our house. So no Oreos. As a husband I’m not going to go to war over Oreos. You gotta pick your battles.

What role if any does the stuff you’re doing — and Sean Brock and John Currence — getting into more heritage and re-introducing seeds and things like that, play in improving the food system?
It creates economic incentives. On Sapelo Island, on Georgia’s coast, I met this wonderful doctor. He wants to build the economy back there. I contracted with him to grow 2,400 pounds of Sapelo Island purple peas. Beautiful heirloom purple peas. That’s going to be real money for that farmer who can turn that into $25,000 revenue. I can distribute that to a handful chefs that are friends of mine.

That’s cool.
We’re going to lose a lot of our Southern foods if we don’t create these incentives. Now Allan Benton, “Mr. country ham and bacon,” he was starving to death until Blackberry Farms said, Oh my god, at our backdoor is the greatest bacon and ham in the entire South; I’m going to pass it on to other chefs.  Now Allan can afford to send two kids to medical school and he’s got a thriving business. That’s where the world of chefs can really help. We know those ingredients are better. That bacon and ham is better. That’s what’s great about Southern group of chefs, it’s very collaborative. The moment one of us finds a product, everyone has that product. We don’t hold it as our own.

I did want to ask: beyond the kitchen, what are you into. What do you do to unwind?
I love the symphony and the opera. I fell in love with a new radio station 1690 Voice of the Arts. What’s so great about it? It’ll be a book reading and it’ll go into Willie Nelson and then it will go into some country blues, and then into Mahler’s Third. I love the culture of arts. I believe in it. I think it makes for a great city. I love exposing my kids to my deep love of classical music. And I love the world of film.

Is Oxford Books still open in Atlanta?
It closed. I worked there. That was the place. I used to love it. I got the idea to go to culinary school from there. I remember this red book, Guide to Culinary Schools. I remember reading through the history of culinary school. 

What are some of the books that also inspired you?
From a cookbook standpoint, Charlie Trotter’s first cookbook. That was a world of chef food and then it led to me to study French chefs like Ducasse and Robuchon. And I love English cookbooks, like Fergus Henderson’s stuff. That led me to John Egerton’s Southern Food. It made me realize, why are French chefs considered great? They are dialed in and connected. They are using family memories. And they are exploring the people who connect them to their food.

Well hopefully it’s starting to happen here too, a lot of younger chefs are starting to pay attention to that stuff, right?
A lot of my cooks are Georgians. I tell them all the time, you do not need to go to New York to learn to cook. Cook from personal memory and stay and make Georgia better. The South’s been making New York better for hundreds of years. Why don’t we make the South better? Let New York take care of New York. 

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