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Linton Hopkins on How to Read Cookbooks, Literary Criticism, and Mayonnaise

Welcome to The Cookbook Shelf, in which Eater talks to all manner of food professionals about their book collections. Warning: serious book nerdery ahead.

Linton Hopkins. [Photo: Sara Hanna]

Chef Linton Hopkins is a Beard Award winner, a Food & Wine Best New Chef alum, Board President of the Southern Foodways Alliance, and the chef of Restaurant Eugene and Holeman & Finch in Atlanta, Georgia. He's also really into cookbooks. He's so into cookbooks, in fact, that he actually teaches a class to his employees on how to read them. Below, Hopkins talks about the dialogue of recipes, menus as poems, and why five $2 community cookbooks are worth one $70 "glamor chef's cookbook."

Cookbooks played a pretty big role in your decision to start working in restaurants, right?
Well, yeah, just as in cooking in general. As a boy, I love hollandaise and my mother was not going to cook me hollandaise when I wanted it. [Laughs.] So I found a copy of Julia Child's cookbook and I learned how to make hollandaise from there. And so it really led to me going to books, like Joy of Cooking taught me how to make Chicken Kiev. I'm eleven years old, twelve years old making Chicken Kiev.

So my mother would say, use this book or find a recipe that you think you would like to eat. I mean that's the whole reason I got into cooking, was eating. I was hungry, so the books were a really good guide for me, for self-knowledge. I've always loved books, not just cookbooks...Books are just part of who I am. And then, of course cookbooks are such a great genre of books and I voraciously read all of them.

And what made you make the leap to considering cooking as a career? Because you were going to become a doctor, right?
There was one book, The Guide to Culinary Schools — I was working at a bookstore and I remember seeing this red spined book. I was pre-med at that point, and I started reading about the seriousness of the [culinary] profession, that it was a career for life, where it came from, that it was a guild. I had cooked my whole life, and I had never even thought about working in a restaurant even as a summer job or an after school job. So I was really just amazed that I could do this for the rest of my life. And that book was really the one that said, here is another way besides medical school.

Obviously professional cooking is so different from home cooking. So the idea of being a professional cook is: how do you translate the reason we love food, just good tasting food, into professional restaurant recipes? A lot of books don't talk about that transition. Even chef cookbooks fail to fully explain: how do you set up a system to actually do this recipe professionally day in day out. And that's really what the culinary schools do, is teach mise en place. That's been part of the learning not through cookbooks, but through trial and error.

So, that said, which books have you found to be particularly influential in terms of the food at your restaurants?
I love Larousse Gastronomique, compendiums of large amounts of knowledge of different recipes. I was about learning how to cook everything at that time, and building up my skill level. There was a time, obviously, when I didn't know how to make risotto. So I would read about risottos in all the cookbooks and try to find the risotto I liked. What is it about risotto? The idea of al dente rice was a mystery to me. I grew up in a rice family, but in the house it's just boiled rice and it's pilaf style. And I didn't even call it pilaf, we just called it rice.

And I was really influenced in book reading by this one book by Mortimer Adler, it's called How to Read a Book (available on Google Books). And it was a book I read when I was freshman in college at Emory. It was the first time I realized that a lot of people think they know how to read a book, and a lot of people don't. They read the words and get the plot, but that's a very basic understanding of book reading. He breaks book reading into four levels and the final one is what he call syntopical reading. Actually, he created a Syntopicon on which is really a precursor to the worldwide web for being able to start asking books questions and have them yield answers.

So that way of thinking is very important to me in learning how to cook because I would say to my books, what are you going to teach me about chicken stock? And I'd look at my pretty large collection of cookbooks and find every chicken stock there is. I would write them down and learn how to do all of them and track them and find out which chicken stock is mine, which chicken stock do I really like. All these ideas for home cooks about what is great chicken stock. And so I did that with a lot of things: risotto, beef stock, the whole world of sauces, butchery, making bratwurst, I mean really everything.

I guess that level of analysis defines the truths behind these recipes. There's this great quote that really influenced me about recipes — it's Southern, I think it was Leah Chase, from New Orleans. It's that recipes are not what make a good cook any more than sermons make a saint. And it's true, recipes are a guide to how to do something, but we've become recipe obsessed about how to teach cooking. Cooking is tasting and eating and failing and experimenting and trying and doing it over and over again for a lifetime. I used to make terrible brown sauces when I was a boy from my mother's spice cabinet. I'd just keep adding stuff to it, they were almost like these weird bad curries. And so I've learned a lot about that experimental process of using a book to find who you are as a cook.

And so do you think that because of that the books, for you, are more about the technical description of individual dishes than they are about learning the actual cooking process?
Well, for me, reading a book is just to have a conversation with the author about what it is they are trying to say using their recipes as the language they're communicating with. The literary philosophy of Umberto Eco, he was a big fan of the idea that a book is an open work, that it's a dialogue and so that's what I see. So I'm less and less interested in the flashy photographs and I want to more influenced by their ideas not what they do on a plate. See how they think about garlic, or a vegetable, or parsley, and see how they work their way into different chefs' thinking.

I do a class at the restaurant where I do my cooking and taught about a whole range of subjects to get them to become thinkers about food and one was on how to read a cookbook or why to buy a cookbook. And you're probably better served by a cookbook like a community cookbook that someone sold at a garage sale for two bucks, it gives you just as much as a $70 cookbook in Spanish if you just know how to read it.

Now, I went through the steps with them, Mortimer Adler's mechanical process of reading books, to teach them how you find value in recipes. That's how we need to appreciate books, because a lot times it's a glamor chef's cookbook, they all become the same. I mean they're different with different chefs, but they offer the same message. And so that's why it's important to look at a wide range of the styles of cookbooks to find different voices.

Yeah, I think you're right. There are a few publishing houses that publish these chef cookbooks and they all start looking the same after awhile.
I know. You see a lot of the cookbooks that are coming out that are all the same way. I find myself buying old books now more than ever because it feels like there was a little more diversity in the publishing world.

What have you been reading lately, then?
I have two unpublished cookbooks that were edited by a really good friend of mine, Bill Thomas. One that's called Cherokee Cooking. First, you should know about me that I'm really interested in defining Atlanta, Georgia: what's going on in Atlanta? I don't consider myself a Southern chef, actually, I feel like I'm more a terroir-driven chef. We just had made t-shirts that say "Biodynamic Terroirist." It looks like the Clash t-shirt with the star on it.

Because that's what it's about, being a chef. It's knowing where you are, what time it is, what season it is, who are your guests, what family you're cooking for or which restaurant or even at home, but it should all really be the same ingredients. It's not about shipping everything everywhere. So the books I'm really focused on right now are helping me define the terroir of Georgia.

This book Cherokee Cooking is the only cookbook I've found that is written by a full-blooded Cherokee about their cooking in North Georgia. It's written by the Clemmons family; he just passed away last year and his wife Nancy is a widow. [The book] is just wonderful and it's broken up into all the clans of the Cherokee and their general ways of approaching their food. So whether it's coarse corn, green corn versus aged corn, all these different corn recipes. 50% of their diet was foraged, so this book leads me now to being able to identify things the way a Cherokee would with their diet. These different wild herbs, there's one, it's good with beans, but it's not really good eaten raw. It actually kind of tastes like English leather. [Laughs.] But with beans it becomes something substantial and wonderful. And there's a language in there on how to evaluate foraged ingredients, which is very important to me. It's a how-to, it's a real guidebook.

There's this one recipe, it's for sour corn and they would age corn like whiskey, but it's captured at a different stage of evolution. Like one day old or two days old, it happens very fast because of all the sugar. And it's amazing, it tastes like a fresh corn salad. It's a sour corn dish, we served it with shaved smoked fatback. It really has this amazing natural sour dramatic flavor.

And this other book is called Geechee Cooking. It's really all about the Geechee culture on Sapelo Island in Georgia, and it has great recipes for things like shrimp head powder. What's so good about these older cookbooks is that they talk about the cuisine pre-refrigeration. The quality of the food that could be developed by a population without refrigeration was just amazing. I've been reading those two books and taking notes on them for the last six months. They're filled with so much information.

So tell me a bit more about the classes you teach in the restaurants. Which books do you recommend to young cooks?
We get that question quite bit with young cooks, what should they get? And it brings up simple things like Food Lover's Companion. You'll be able to just to learn the language of the culinary world.

And I've always recommended Southern Food by John Egerton. That's one of my first books I recommend when someone wants to recognize what it means to be on the South. I also recommend Larousse Gastronomique which is a great entryway to this art. We've got a whole range and variety of techniques based on a French model, which I admire. They were able to basically take the cuisine that they grew up with from their grandmothers and elevate it. That always appeals to me, those stories behind food. So those are probably the primary two. And then I encourage them to go to garage sales and find treasures.

What I do with that first class in the kitchen was I brought in one of every type of cookbook I have, one of each representative category and said look for this kind of book. One of the two books I'm obsessed with was actually released by Esquire magazine. It was written 1945 and it's called The Handbook for Hosts. It's really a guide for guys cooking at home to put on a party, but the stuff in there is just amazing, little canapés, quick dishes so the host can actually be in the party and not stuck in the kitchen. And my belief in cooking is of course hospitality and service, so it's really tied to that in big ways. One of my cooks found that book at a garage sale and showed it to me. Some of the cooks really get it and are bringing in books and showing me what they got at garage sales and I consider that one of the great successes. I am a firm believer that you would be better served buying five $2 books than one $70 book.

And you need to go onto Amazon and find used books, you need to be in a world of used books. I'm just old fashioned sometimes. I use modern methods, I use sous vide and compression and all that stuff but only because it's grounded as one of many cooking techniques, it's not the only way. People get so geeked out about the "latest," all they care about is new, new, new. But I have books from the 1800s that have foams and sponges without molecular gastronomy. Everyone thinks they've invented everything.

And I'm sure you find new ideas in these church cookbooks and things, that people aren't really doing in restaurants today.
Oh, I have so much inspiration in there. I mean after one book I have a White House cookbook and it was from 1898. And in the back it did have a market list of that age in Washington, DC broken down by months. It's just amazing what diverse produce and seafood and meats were available to them. And it can teach you right there how to be a chef and create a monthly understanding of what's available in the markets. Really, books are great teachers.

Let's talk about your actual collection a little bit. What books do you have that stand out?
I got one of those things before we opened our bar, Eugene, where I read about [19th century bartender] professor Jerry Thomas. He's considered the father of the American cocktail. I'm not a real bar guy. I'm wasn't really that into cocktails, I always thought they were too sweet. Then I read about this guy seeing the bar the same way a chef sees the kitchen: everything from scratch, the celebration of ingredients, seasonality of the drinks. I said, now, that's a bar.

And so I got the book, it's called The Bon-Vivant's Companion (available on Google Books) It's written in 1862. I found it at an antique bookstore in Germany and shipped it here. It cost a pretty penny to do so and my wife got mad at me, but it's still in Bar Eugene and it's the guiding principle of everything we do. The lemonade recipe is insanely delicious. It's an old book and it has stamped red letter binding. They just made books so beautifully.

You know it's funny, I use my iPad a lot, I'm very digitally inclined, and all the Foxfire books are available for free. The Foxfire series was a series out of the mountains of North Carolina of true Appalachian mountain cooking. Like wild stock, how to make your own moonshine, all that kind of stuff. So you can get a lot great free cookbooks online when you use your iPad.

One of my favorite books is the Vincent Price cookbook, he was quite the gourmand. It's so awesome because he was traveling around to his favorite restaurants getting the recipes. I just love it. It's funny, I actually go back to that book a lot. It's really a personal favorite of mine. He's got recipes from trains. I love trains and I love this idea that they used to have amazing train foods. That's the way you could get a lot of regional American cookery happen on trains, because they would cook based on the region.

Have you ever thought about doing your own book?
Oh, I have. I think about it a lot. I just want it to be different. And I get approached a lot, like, "Hey, here's a Southern chef and he's got a James Beard Award, and we need a Southern chef with a James Beard Award to do a book for us." That's how publishing houses seem to think. That's not how I think. I joke sometimes that I'm going to have a book and I'm just going to call it Mayonnaise and it's going to be about mayonnaise and how it weaves its way through Southern food and the crab cakes, and the marinades, chicken salad, and it's really a staple of the South.

I want to do something different, so possibly it's not going to just be a restaurant chef book and it's not going to be a Southern book. I see so many of [those] now which are, "Here are stories about my grandfather." It's sort of painful 'cause I've got a lot of great memories. I named my restaurant after my grandfather. I have a lot of great food memories about my grandfather, but I don't want them told in the same way.

To write a book to me is a very personal thing, and the best books you can tell are labors of love and were extremely personal. It was not part of, "Okay, I'm a chef now. I need to write a book." I read a poem, an homage to pork, it got me to love poetry, it's called "Ode to Pork" [by Kevin Young]. It makes me to think that a menu actually is poetry. It's short verse, there's a physical structure to how it looks and it's using words with a multiplicity of meaning a lot of times. I've thought about turning how I think about a recipe like chicken stock into a poem which will tell you how I think about chicken stock. And then you can go take a cookbook recipe — every cookbook has a recipe for chicken stock. But with a poem you walk into a thought process. You know, what am I looking for? What is the value of chicken stock? And so I think to be a good cook above all else you need to be thoughtful, you need to care. And so how do you make a picture of thoughtfulness? [Laughs]

I do think that could be really useful: if you can communicate to people that you're looking for a chicken stock to have a certain quality when you use it later in other recipes. I think that kind of understanding of food is very valuable and not often written about.
I think so too. It could be a handbook, sort, of, that you could pair with every cookbook you have. And it would be about fundamentals, like using butter or olive oil. Just start talking about olive oil, but not in the structure of a lecture, more in the ephermeral idea world poetry can offer.

A meditation on olive oil.
What is appealing to me now because I just can't seem to get my head around the traditional [recipe] format I'm seeing right now. I loved Notes From a Kitchen for that reason. I've actually been talking to [photographer] Jeff Scott] about being a part of his next book. Because it shows process, I think that is a very valuable cookbook for cooks to read. How does a chef go through the process of coming out of the void, basically, and creating structure with their food? There definitely will be a book, it's just I've got to get to the process of doing it.

· All Linton Hopkins Coverage on Eater [-E-]
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Restaurant Eugene

2277 Peachtree Road, Atlanta, GA, 30309

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