March 25, 2016

The Art in Culinary Arts (Part 1) || Holeman&Finch

Last week, I wrote about my transformative field trip to Chef Asha Gomez's "The Third Space". That very same day, I had a sneak peak at what was to come during our visit to Chef Linton Hopkins' two restaurants, located side by side on Peachtree Rd: Holeman & Finch and Restaurant Eugene.

Chef Linton Hopkins is an Emory University grad -- he majored in anthropology and was pre-med before heading to the Culinary Institute of America in New York City. He's been honored with the James Beard award "Best Chef in America" (the Oscar of the culinary world), and most importantly, he's incredibly humble, knowledgeable, and friendly.

During our "de-briefing" that took place in class a few days after our visit, we all agreed that he was very loquacious ;), but we also agreed that we could listen to him (and Asha, of course!) for days. Chef Hopkins, (I'll be referring to him as Chef), is so incredibly passionate about...everything, really -- during our few hours with him, he touched upon a wide range of topics, from music to civil responsibilities. Someone who's capable of talking about "school-like" topics in a non-school setting, while keeping an audience engaged, is pretty wonderful in my book. Here's what happened during our trip:

Chef Hopkins holding a smoked ham -- one of the dishes we ate was salted using a ham hock only!
Note: the magnificent, tall windows in the background.

We started off by going to Holeman & Finch (I'll refer to it as H&F; it's the pub located on Peachtree Rd, not H&F Burger located near Inman Park).  After a nauseating ride, we stumbled out of the cab, excited and disoriented, onto a Beverly-Hills-esque, drop-off deck that bridged H&F with its next door neighbor, Restaurant Eugene. The entry way of H&F is pretty narrow, and we quickly found ourselves standing right in front of a large window that looked right into the kitchen! I would have stood there for days, just watching the chefs prep, cook, and plate. The servers, 4-5 of them, all greeted us politely and gestured towards our long, communal table; the table, in fact, was composed of multiple 2-person tables packed together in a tight but well-lit (with natural sunlight streaming through tall windows) area. Other 2-person tables and 4-person booths lined the perimeter of our communal table, with each booth lit by a single light bulb on a long metallic arm (how hipster ;]). To my right, stood a glass wine cellar, and in front of me, a tall, "old fashioned" sketch of a hog inscribed with a meat lover's favorite words.

According to Chef, H&F is synonymous with: communal, rock and roll, blues, his personal heritage of being a Georgian (8th generation, I believe?), and Hemingway writing an honest sentence. Don't you just love how he described it? Those words/phrases pack in a lot of meaning, and they exemplify what inspired Chef as he was designing H&F (both in the culinary and conceptual senses). I felt an edgy, eclectic vibe as I walked in (granted, it's not as edgy as, say, a motorcycle gang's go-to bar given that H&F is pretty classy), and his descriptions perfectly described all of the vibes that I felt but couldn't put into words.

The main idea that Chef discussed when we were at H&F was social justice, particularly relating to food insecurity and the agricultural/food industries. Believe it or not, Chef's wife, Gina Hopkins, founded Wholesome Wave Georgia, an organization that strives to enhance federal food assistance programs, that promotes access to local, fresh foods, and that supports farmers. It is incredibly ironic how so much food is produced in our country, yet so many people continue to go hungry. The extent of poverty doesn't stop there -- while  some farmers may have access to fresh foods, most are living in poverty and do not know how much their food is worth -- that's like da Vinci not realizing his gift! much is wasted and lost. Now this information may not be novel, but it was valuable to hear it from Chef, because he actually urged us to do something! There's no point in having knowledge if it's not going to be put into use, and he said, "Our power lies in our votes and how we spend our money" -- as cheese-y as it may be, every vote does count, and consumer behavior, aka our behavior, is pretty influential. Urging political leaders to acknowledge important concerns and supporting businesses that adhere to high moral standards are just a few of the ways that we can put our awareness of social injustices to action. (Chef even asks his staff to look in a mirror and reflect on who they are each day, just like Michael Jackson's,"Man in the Mirror" -- taking time to self-reflect is more powerful than we realize.) 

My own self-reflection occurred with Chef's saying, "Cheap food comes with a cost" -- I've been buying my own groceries pretty frequently since last summer, and I'll admit that I gravitate towards the cheaper goods when I can. Unfortunately, someone is being cheated if food is that cheap, and I'm beginning to understand the value in purchasing foods that are rightfully more expensive (we'll come back to this later in my post about Restaurant Eugene). According to Chef, deliciousness is not an opinion about food that solely depends on our gustatory, visual, and olfactory senses -- rather, it "is derived from our value system", which, at the end of the day, is all we are and is reflected through our decisions.

Now it's easy, especially through documentaries, to view the heads of large corporations as culprits of injustice within the agriculture/food industry -- I've certainly aligned myself against them. But Chef reminds us of the complexities of all situations as he's worked with many large companies, such as Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines, and Chik-fil-a. In his own words, "it's not about evil heads, it's about the structure of the company". Bringing us back to the importance of understanding our authority in shaping the world to what we want it to be, Chef questioned, "How can you change [these companies] from within?". He himself is in the process of getting Delta Airlines to pay farmers first and changing Chik-fil-a's recipes to make them healthier.

Following food insecurity, Chef discussed food waste, another pressing issue in this country that even John Oliver covered. Back when he was starting out as a chef, he had the opportunity to learn from post-WWII French and Swedish veterans/chefs. The head chef would dump out the garbage onto clean, French linen each night and pick through the trash, questioning why food was being wasted, even if he found turnip skins among the other scraps (turnip skins could have been used to flavor a soup!). This experience has made Chef organize his kitchens in a very simple, traditional way: buy the whole product and use it up! For example, low-country ingredients not used at his high-class Restaurant Eugene will be incorporated into the menu next door, at the experimental, rock'n'roll H&F.

As the food was arriving, Chef began to divert the conversation to the concept of Southern cuisine. Now as a Northerner, I've associated Southern cuisine with fried chicken, biscuits & gravy, and grits...stereotypical foods that I found rather simplistic and uncultured. Well, Chef proved me wrong by describing the depths of the various cultural influences (Spanish, African, French, German, even Asian) that make up Southern cuisine. The menu at H&F was inspired by the combination of cultures in the South and the persisting influence that the civil war has on the South. (Again, as a Northerner, I have been very ignorant towards how some historical events, particularly the civil war, continues to have lingering effects on other parts of the country.) Due to slavery, food in the South, which was almost exclusively prepared by African American slaves for several hundreds of years (and, as Chef reminded us, racial inequality within the food industry persists today and must be acknowledged), is composed of many humble ingredients --- many of which were highlighted in the tasting menu that Chef provided for us: Carolina gold rice, turnips and turnip greens, beans.

The rice, which was simply prepared with a generous pat of butter, was heavenly. It was just as fragrant and intoxicating (in a good way!) as the coconut rice that we had at Chef Gomez's. I think I might start buying Carolina gold rice from now on (Dad, you would have loved this too!):

Chef even gave us a quick recipe for the turnips, which were incredibly refreshing and sweet (unlike the bitter ones I've had):
combine turnips with a sweet & sour gastrique (made of sorghum syrup and apple cider vinegar) in cast iron skillet!

The raw turnip green salad was delicious as well, although the dressing was rather salty:

And last, but certainly not least, the fresh (delivered each morning!) shrimp over beans (that were salted with the use of a ham hock):

I think that it was really interesting that Chef embraced the physical communal table in a thoughtful way: each person shared a meal with one other person only. This allowed for equal portioning (50:50 is easy to visualize compared to ...100/15 : 100/15) while simulating the communal, family-style process of sharing. Above all, Chef was able to present the food in the most aesthetically pleasing cast iron and porcelain dinnerware (scroll up to the top photo and take another look at the setting of the plates! Each server placed each dish in the same way across all 2-person, the cutlery was beautiful!)

And as we finished the food, we realized that there was much more to come at Restaurant Eugene....

....that story to come soon ;)

xoxo, han

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