With the 2010 release of Seasonal Recipes from the Garden and the launch of my new food show Garden to Table, I find myself immersed in a community of folks who are passionate about eating locally grown food. I have to admit I like it here. I enjoy talking with people who are passionate about preparing and eating dishes made with ingredients produced in their region.
One person in the locavore world that I am anxious to meet is chef Linton Hopkins. Chef Hopkins and I share a taste for Mountain Valley Spring Water, which is bottled here in Arkansas. In fact, it was my friends at Mountain Valley who turned me on to his restaurant in Atlanta, Restaurant Eugene. Chef Hopkins co-owns the restaurant with his wife Gina. The fare is classic Southern comfort foods stamped with chef Hopkins’ innovative style. Don’t expect the same dishes year-round because the menu is based on what’s available through a network of local farms.
I found chef Hopkins’ personal history, love of Southern culture and passion about food quality intriguing so I asked him a few questions. Here’s how he responded.
It seems we both started out as pre-med in college, but were called in another direction-me to the garden and you to the kitchen. Childhood summers spent on my grandparents’ farm in Tennessee was a huge influence on my decision. How about you?
My childhood memories influenced me. Memories of being with my grandfather, Eugene Holeman, cooking. Food is a part of all of my early childhood memories-frying eggs in a little bacon grease and a cast-iron skillet with my father on Saturday mornings, a leg of lamb roasted every Sunday by my mom. I can still see the Mountain Valley Spring Water on my grandfather’s table being poured into my grandmother’s pineapple-shaped glasses.
Explain the concept of a “farm-to-table” restaurant and how you base your menu on seasonal, locally grown ingredients.
Farms come first. That’s where everything comes from. It’s not about fitting farms into our menu. It’s about building our menus around the farms… being involved in seed selection so that I can write my menu. It’s seed to plate. It’s about understanding that our restaurant has an agricultural responsibility.
Were you set on a farm-to-table restaurant from the get-go or did you grow into the idea?
I grew into it as I learned more about how to select the best items to cook with. The more I learned, the more I realized I needed to be purchasing and using the agriculture of our area. In order to cook the best carrot, I must be a part of knowing my growers and selecting that carrot.
What’s on the menu right now?
Soft-shell crabs, Georgia white shrimp, Sapelo Island clams, beets, carrots, three types of radishes and cabbage. Plow Point Farms’ baby chickens. To name a few things, but frankly those are just some highlights, because everything we can get from local farms, we get. I just got some purslane today. I’m excited about that.
Having grown up in the South I have a very clear idea of what a Southern restaurant should be. How would you describe a Southern eatery to someone who has never been to the South and how does Restaurant Eugene fit the tradition?
I believe that I am still trying to discover what a Southern restaurant is. It has to be more than a celebration of things we did in our past. It should also embrace the now and the future of the foods and cultures which comprise the modern-day South. Those foods and cultures are as relevant to Southern cuisine as anything from the past. Southern ingredients are the ones grown in our soil. Southern food is anything that uses Southern ingredients. Southern food can certainly intelligently reference our traditional techniques such as pickling and preserving while reinventing southern cuisine. For example, you can have a bok choy cabbage fermented with local peppers and have that be Southern cuisine because it’s from our soil and we have a long history of fermenting pickles in the South.
Any insider tips for guests to Restaurant Eugene?
Have fun and try things you wouldn’t think you would normally like, because I bet you would like them here. People who say they don’t like okra are coming from one viewpoint, but I may serve them an okra that doesn’t fit with their pre-conceived notions and change their mind.
You have a solid network of local food producers that supply the restaurant with everything from meats to veggies to wine. What tips can you share with readers about finding locally produced ingredients?
Go to farmers markets. Shop for your cooking at farmers markets. Develop personal relationships with the people at the farmers markets. Join CSA programs to guarantee delivery of farm-fresh foods.
I see that you are the board president of the Southern Foodways Alliance. Celebrating Southern culture is near and dear to me and Southern food is such a strong component. What do you want readers to know about SFA?
The most important thing about the SFA is that we are celebrating a culture of food in the South where everyone of every race, culture and religion is welcome at the table. It is a reflection of Southern thought and personality of embracing our diversity. It is a smart South with forward-thinking ideals. That’s why it’s important to me.
It seems we both grew up drinking Mountain Valley Spring Water. Growing up there was always a jug on a water cooler in the kitchen. As you mention in your blog post Mountain Valley is a “Southern treasure.” When it came down to selecting bottled water for your restaurant what qualities made Mountain Valley the clear choice?
Other than because of my memories of my grandfather, Eugene Holeman and his love of Mountain Valley Spring Water, the water wins me because it has crisp, clean flavor and refreshment. It just tastes good. There’s great minerality, but it’s not bitter at all.
I’m a sucker for Mountain Valley Sparkling Water. I like to drink it infused with seasonal fruits or use it to add a little bubbly to lemonade. Would you mind sharing a drink recipe with us that incorporates Mountain Valley Sparkling Water?
Combine fresh fruit shrub* with crushed peaches, Mountain Valley Sparkling Water, muddled mint and Pappy Van Winkle bourbon 12 year, with a dash of bitters.
*A fruit shrub is vinegar infused with fruit and sweetened with sugar. Check the Internet for fruit shrub recipes.