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Cover Story: Linton Hopkins

Restaurant Eugene

You can hear the excitement in Linton Hopkins' voice. He is describing the different arugulas he has been getting recently, and he sounds like a man in love.

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"It's just amazing," he says. "Four different farms supply me, and it's incredible how different the arugula tastes depending on which farm it comes from, and how tender and sweet and how crisp it is.

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"And compared to the mass-farmed stuff," he continues, "it's like the difference between supermarket ground pepper versus whole pepper."

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Hopkins moved back to Atlanta from Washington, D.C., two-and-a-half years ago and opened Restaurant Eugene, named after his grandfather who was an early influence in cultivating Hopkins' love of food. Since that time, Restaurant Eugene has been serving some of the most thoughtful, pleasurable and lovingly prepared food to come to Atlanta in a long time. His food recently earned him the title of Iron Chef Atlanta, where he competed against Anne Quatrano of Bacchanalia, Gerry Klaskala of Aria and Kevin Rathbun of Rathbun's. This week, he flies to New York City to compete on the Food Network's "Iron Chef America." The show is scheduled to air in February 2007.

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When Hopkins opened his own restaurant, he was very particular about weaving his business into the fabric of the community, and one of the keys was to connect with local farmers.

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"I know the farmers, and every ingredient that's on my menu, I can tell you exactly where and who it came from," he says. "I just love that; I love the sense of connection. And being from Atlanta, I feel a pride and almost a duty as an adult to make it a better place, and to highlight those people."

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To keep his menu as local as it is — he estimates that during summer months he is cooking with 80 percent local ingredients — Hopkins can't have a set idea ahead of time about what he wants to serve.

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"We change our menu based on the season and what's available," he explains. "Most of the time, I'll buy the ingredient before I even have an idea of where it's going to go. It's a great way to think about writing a menu. I don't give the ingredient a preconceived idea about what I want.

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"It's not easy, and it drives my sous chefs crazy, because all of a sudden these huge orders come from these purveyors and they say, 'Chef, this isn't on the menu,' and I say, 'Well, we've got to get it on. We've got this beautiful produce, and we've got to work with it.' It keeps us fresh and challenged, and that's always good."

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Hopkins understands the difficulties that other chefs have with using local produce, both in terms of logistics, and in terms of price. "In the restaurant business a lot of times, if you're working for a big group, they tie in your bonuses to cutting food costs and creating lower price points, and so you can't support the farmers that way," he says. "If you want better ingredients, you're going to have to pay more. It's up to us to show the public this is why it's more expensive. Why does salmon cost more here than at another restaurant? Because I pay for wild salmon that was caught yesterday.

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"And it's the same for local food," he says. "I'm going to have Brussels sprouts that were harvested yesterday morning at the optimum time for the vegetable. But I don't have an owner here telling me what to do."

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There are aspects of Hopkins' partnerships with local farmers that are very exciting from a food lover's perspective, and that highlight what a difference chefs can make in the agricultural life of their communities. Some of the farmers with whom Hopkins works are now bringing him seed catalogs to look at, so that he can request certain crops for his menu. This requires a relationship built on a great amount of trust that Hopkins will guarantee purchase.

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But the results of this kind of partnership can be of great consequence.

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"Georgia used to produce a huge amount of true red pimentos for pimento cheese, the classic Southern staple," Hopkins says. "But now it all goes to the canning industry. So you don't see them here anymore. The local farmers don't have them; it's all done by the big agribusiness. But now, after developing a relationship with these farmers, I can ask and I have Nicolas [of Crystal Organic Farms, see p. 46] growing true pimentos for me next year."

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And just like that, because of the relationship between one chef and one farmer, an iconic Southern crop is brought back to Georgia.

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Spring

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Linton Hopkin's Pan-Seared Columbia River Salmon Creamed English Peas, Wild Ramps and Morel Mushrooms (Serves 4)

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Creamed English Peas

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3/4 pound shucked English peas

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2 tablespoons minced shallots

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1/2 cup heavy cream

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3 mint leaves

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1 tablespoon butter

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Salt and pepper

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Cook peas in rapidly boiling salted water until tender (2-5 minutes, depending on size). Transfer to ice bath till chilled, then drain.

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Puree peas in food processor until chunky. It should look like chunky peanut butter.

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Melt butter, when foamy add shallots and sauté until translucent. Add pea puree, cream, salt and mint leaves.

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Morel Ragout

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1/2 pound morel mushrooms

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2 tablespoons butter

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2 tablespoons minced shallots

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3 tablespoons veal glace (available at gourmet markets)

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1 tablespoon minced parsley

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Salt and black pepper

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Thoroughly clean morels to remove grit. At the restaurant we use three baths of cold water. Cut off fibrous stems and cut mushroom in half if large.

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Foam butter in pan and sauté shallots till translucent. Add morels and cook over medium heat until slightly soft.

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Add glace and parsley. Adjust seasoning.

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Salmon

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4 skin-on Columbia River King Salmon filets

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4 cleaned wild ramps

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2 tablespoons peanut oil

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Season salmon with salt. Sauté salmon in peanut oil over medium heat on skin side. The whole idea is to try to cook the salmon on the skin side as long as possible in order to make the skin crispy. Turn salmon and cook to desired doneness, then remove.

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Wilt ramps in salmon pan until soft, season with salt.

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Place creamed peas in center of plate. Top with salmon, sauce with morels and curl wilted ramp on top.

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Serves 4.

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Restaurant Eugene. 2277 Peachtree Road. 404-355-0321. www.restauranteugene.com.

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? CL's 2006 Food Issue? ? ?



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