Food Issue - Origins: Linton Hopkins goes by the books

A lifetime of cooking began in the business section of a bookstore

I spent an hour this morning sharpening my knife on a Japanese whetstone. After that, I worked on a recipe for a sorghum red-eyed glaze for pork belly.

Sometimes, I can hardly believe that’s my job. It’s so rewarding, challenging, and fun. It still amazes me that, until I was 21, I never considered being a chef.

It was spring 1992 when I finished Emory University and took the MCATs. I planned to either return to Emory or attend the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta. I filled out the applications and obtained all the necessary transcripts and recommendations. I worked at Oxford Bookstore, and I felt that a year off between college and medical school would be a good thing.

The truth was, I was sick of school.

I’d always assumed I would be a doctor. I grew up in Buckhead, less than a mile from where my physician father grew up. I attended Westminster Schools, as had he. Westminster’s high school course work is comparable to many colleges, if not more intense.

My father was joyfully engaged in being a doctor, and I thought that following into that career would be good for me, too. I would go on weekends to the hospital with him when I was a boy and run up and down the halls of the virtually empty Emory Clinic. My summer job after 10th grade was as a intern in neuropathology at Emory Hospital. I loved learning so much about the inner workings of the hospital and the science of medicine.

So the feeling of dread I felt about going to medical school wasn’t about not wanting to be a doctor. It was that I didn’t want to face a rigorous curriculum that was so familiar.

At Emory I became tired of traditional education. I remember enjoying many classes, but I was accomplishing things in a haphazard fashion with no real purpose. I was an anthropology major, history minor with a pre-med track.

I had also cooked my entire life. My earliest and most fond memories are about cooking and eating — making hollandaise from a Julia Child recipe; eating hushpuppies so hot that you had to blow on them first. I was making omelettes for my family by the age of 10, and I nailed down a solid recipe for chicken Kiev by 14. We never went out to eat. My grandfather Eugene cooked from scratch. I thought that’s what everyone did. I had no reference for entering cooking as a profession.

My cooking epiphany occurred in summer 1992. I was working at Oxford Books in Peachtree Battle Shopping Center, walking from Fiction to go see my friend in History. To do that you had to pass through Business, which held many professional schools and career guides. A red book caught my eye: Guide to Culinary Schools. On my break later that day, I began to read it.

The preface described a profession with a long history, its own code, standards, and inherent qualities. I was dumbfounded. Here was a career in which you could cook for the rest of your life.

In that moment, I knew I would forego medical school for culinary school.

At that time, three schools stood out: the Cordon Blue in London; Johnson & Wales in Providence, R.I.; and the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. I chose the CIA after talking to graduates from each. Then I told my parents. They were extremely supportive. They could see my joy when I described my culinary goals and how I was going to achieve them. I could envision the journey I would have as I took the culinary path.

Because I had worked in a professional kitchen and had a graduate’s recommendation, I was accepted. (I had held summer and after-school jobs as a dishwasher and prep cook at a small gourmet food store called the Easy Way Out, and as a pizza cook at the now-defunct Mellow Mushroom in Little Five Points.) In fact, the school told me they had a space for me in three weeks if I was ready. I drove a moving truck to New York and was at the CIA in chef whites by the end of the summer.

My first class, Introduction to Gastronomy, wasn’t even held in a kitchen, it was in a classroom. We watched film, read books, and discussed the culture of food. I was hooked. I’ve never looked back.

I still love my job. Cooking is such a rewarding profession that challenges me physically and mentally. It has taught me the importance of agriculture in our society to the point that when I look at careers I would love my children to go into, farming seems especially appealing. The experience of awakening I felt is one I’d like to offer to my kids. I now know a job should not be limiting, it should give you the opportunity to achieve personal freedom through what you do. Even (and perhaps especially) if what you do is sharpen knives, make glazes, and cook hushpuppies so hot you have to blow on them.

Linton Hopkins is the chef and owner of Restaurant Eugene and Holeman & Finch.

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