Here, in part two of our interview (see part one here), chef Linton Hopkins discusses the Southern practices and traditions that are in danger of extinction, the importance of drawing from various disciplines, how he balances the modern with the traditional, and how having a globalized local cuisine doesn't make it any less authentic.
Let's talk about the forces against preserving or bringing these traditions back.
You know, if it weren't for Glenn Roberts at Anson Mills, we wouldn't have the diversity of grains or the network of distribution. That's one of the strong forces against preserving these traditions: there isn't a distribution network. That's the problem with a lot of these southern foods: in terms of generational impact, they could fade away and die. My fear is that we'll lose Georgia sorghum unless it stays an economically viable thing that people are interested in making and using.
We get grits from this place in Hickory Flat, Georgia. They make the most amazing grits — it's like eating a grit rice pudding. There is no distribution system. I met someone who knows this person and I went up there and got their entire stock for the year. They only mill three times a year, and I hope they do it next year, because I'm addicted to them. That's how it works in many cases.
How do you protect these things, then?
Glenn, in his way, is building a network where there's a way to have nationwide distribution with small farmers. But these small connections, you have to pass them along to other chefs, spread the word, and try to strengthen all of it. There's a very strong sharing network down here among Southern chefs, especially thanks to the Southern Foodways Alliance. It's a central place to gather, built on the spirit of sharing, communion, celebration, and not letting these things go quietly into the night. We sit at a table, share a whiskey together, eat, and talk about how to make all of these things more economically viable.
But to what degree are some of these things in danger?
I don't know what the tipping point is, honestly. There was one sorghum called Harold Wimpy Sorghum from North Georgia, for example, and a few years ago, it just disappeared. Maybe Harold was getting old, and there was no generation to pass it down to.
Now there are mostly small families selling sorghum, and some of them are going to fade away. I doubt we'll lose it all, but there are fewer and fewer places. I don't know what the answer to your question is. I'd just say that you need to spread the word to preserve something that defines so many of us cook.
Can you reflect on how you balance this emphasis on tradition, preservation, and research with an interest in the modern?
I believe our job as chefs is to stay current on what other practitioners in the world of cooking are doing — what our community is doing around the world. You have to learn from every culture, taste everything, learn everything you can, and in the end, remember a little bit. You have to be a voracious reader, talk to people, travel — all of these things combine to make you a more aware chef. You can't live in a cave.
Myself, personally, I think that we should explore all those advanced thickeners and hydrocolloids. I mean, Escoffier alluded to the fact that in the future there would be more advanced thickening agents. What I find, as well, flipping through old books, is things like sponges and foams. Take a dish like syllabub, which was made by foaming cow's milk shot directly into a sugar-alcohol syrup. You would just serve the foam, shimmering and beautiful. These things were done pre-refrigeration, so I think there's a lot of genius in that.
One thing I've been thinking about a lot lately is the nature of cooking vessels. One thing that we're going to have, if we're not careful, is that all professional kitchens — I love sous vide and I love the control of temperature that that provides, as well as maceration and many other things like that — will just be using stainless steel and plastic bags. We risk losing the diversity in the cooking medium, I think.
Not only do we need to use cast iron and French black steel, but we need to cook in things like clay again. It's ancient and magical, slow and overnight. There's an amazing symbiotic relationship going on in that oven. The heat passing through, in and out of moisture, through that porous clay vessel that might have some fennel, root vegetables, or roasting fruit in it. We've been playing around with that a lot.
If you look at the history of cooking, it's important to realize that a lot of things shouldn't go away. Styles and things like that will change, but it's our job to keep certain ingredients and methods current. I don't want it to be an all stainless steel kitchen, like I said. The gas grill is a good example here: it's not really a grill. You're just charring and not providing that smoke and wood.
So anyone who hears you talk about searching for sorghum or using an olive oil that hasn't been around for centuries would be totally mistaken to conclude that you reject modernist cooking?
One does not exclude the other. It's this classic human preoccupation with thinking that two forces invalidate each other. Look at evolution and creationism. Evolution doesn't invalidate creationism, or vice versa. It's not an either/or game. If you talk to a Ferran Adrià or Grant Achatz, they probably won't tell you that they're molecular gastronomists that throw away the past. To the contrary, they'd likely argue that they are building a direct line with the past. You don't have to be one or the other.
That would probably extend to cultural influences in your food, right? We talked about Robuchon and the pot au feu, but when you look at his restaurants and his food, there is so much of the world in there.
You have to draw from everywhere. If you look at what the south is — John T. Edge and I talk about this all the time — the south is the Buford Highway in Atlanta. It's Korean food. David Chang has done a great job of being an example of that, blending and expressing his personal upbringing. He's a Korean-American kid who grew up in Virginia. That story is in his food. There's great Indian food here, and if you look at our coastal cities, they have always been hotbeds of this sort of dialectic between the voyages into and of other cultures working their way into regional food. You see it all throughout history. You have rice culture from Africa, the use of tomatoes in Europe — there's this big food swap meet that's been happening all throughout time.
To say that we've reached a point where we have to stop that and create a static definition I think is not being aware of this continuing dynamic that has always pushed food forward. You can have a globalization of your local cuisine and still have it be true to its regional heritage.
You had a liberal arts education, right?
I did anthropology at Emory and pre-med.
That might contribute to your openness as a chef and to the academic nature of some of your work, don't you think? It's obviously not necessary for that, but you look at guys like Dufresne and Chang — I don't want to speak for them — but they went to college first. How crucial was it for you?
This goes back to what we were discussing earlier. You have got to be aware and open to everything. To have a liberal arts education and see that there is a pursuit of knowledge, excellence, and craftsmanship in so many disciplines, whether it be medieval church history, the study of the Kung San, or math, you make yourself better at what you end up doing.
Being in a kitchen is philosophically valued rhythm, and to have an understanding of the philosophical constructs and value systems developed throughout history is invaluable. I look to everything I can to get inspired and to inspire our teams. We have a meeting once a week with our culinary team called "Kitchen Think." Every Wednesday, I want to hear from the young men and women that I work with. I don't want to lecture them or have it all come from me. I want to hear their ideas and have them think about things and have their brains open up beyond the tasks at hand. Being in a kitchen should be a really educational environment, I think.
Of course there has to be the emphasis on craft — on mincing those shallots — but we should be able to get together once in a while and have a discussion. It's critical to being a better chef.