April 2, 2016

The Art in Culinary Arts (Part II) || Restaurant Eugene

Are you sick of my 1000+ word blogposts yet? Not to worry, this is the last (for a while ;]), and we're closing the three-part series off with a big finish (or so I hope to).

In the first part, I retold our trip to Chef Asha Gomez's Spice to Table/The Third Space, where she graciously shared her delicious masala chai recipe with us and where we also met Chef Linton Hopkins for the first time. In the second post about our trip to Holeman & Finch, I introduced Chef Hopkins (Chef) in greater detail.

I left off with us finishing our food at H&F: after we polished the food off of our plates, we headed out the door, and walked straight to Restaurant Eugene, where our very same servers held the door open and guided us to our tables. Upon entry, I quickly noticed the instant change in ambiance -- while H&F had plenty of natural sunlight and looked pretty fancy, it also gave off a rustic (maybe even a little rough) vibe. Restaurant Eugene, on the other hand, made us stand up a little taller and sit up a little straighter with its clean and elegant, monochromatic color scheme. Instead of sitting down at a communal table, we all split into a few tables of 5. Here, tables weren't lined with brown parchment paper -- instead, each was dressed with a floor-length, crisp, white table cloth, and three rain-drop shaped vases that held yellow-green flowers. The ceiling-to-floor windows (okay, I'm not 100% sure that they were that tall, but they were rather big) soaked up so much natural sunlight, that I don't think that there was any use of artificial lighting in the dining area. All the while, soft jazz hummed in the background. Chef even threw in a fun fact: the handoff between CEOs of Coca-Cola occurred right in his restaurant, at the booth behind the table that I was sitting at!

We sat down, timidly and wide-eyed. The servers came by again and asked if we wanted sparkling or regular ice water -- like most people, I chose regular ice water at H&F. At Restaurant Eugene, I was part of the 50% who changed and chose sparkling water. To be honest, I've never loved sparkling water, but you have to try everything, right? Well, I'm glad I did -- maybe it's a consequence of the placebo effect/bias, but Chef's sparkling water (same as the one served at H&F) just tastes better. This sparkling water is also the very same that Chef grew up drinking at his grandfather's house in Alabama.

Not only did he bring his grandfather's favorite sparkling water to his restaurants, Chef also named Restaurant Eugene after his grandfather, Eugene. As he listed words/phrases that he found to be synonymous with H&F earlier, he did the same here -- Restaurant Eugene is "jazz, dressing up for each other, sophistication, escapism, poetry, and feminism" (shh, please, now is not the time to argue about gender stereotypes).

As Chef believes that everyone should have equal access to wholesome, fresh foods, he also believes in the "American experiment" -- that everyone deserves to be a king and queen. He thinks that everyone should have equal opportunities to enjoy fine dining experiences that include servers in suits, flowers, and slow music. Food is not just about the physical food itself, it's also about the dining experience. Chef asked us, "Have you ever eaten scrambled eggs on fine china?...You should do it sometime...". As most people in other countries find it ironic or silly, I agree and think that it is a pretty "American" habit to eat the plainest or "un-fancy" foods on fine silverware (my mind is gravitating towards Rick Riordan's "The Red Pyramid", where the UK-raised sister scoffs at the idea of pizza served on fine china and coca-cola served in a glass). Maybe Americans do like to play dress-up...maybe it is a nod to the American experiment, that everyone should have a chance to indulge. As Chef says, "this world is not about closed access to others", it's about equal opportunity.

Now going out to enjoy a fine dining experience is a luxury and privilege -- I for one have never even considered experiencing anything like Restaurant Eugene before (which, by the way, costs a fixed $90 per person each night for dinner -- they're only opened for dinner). Chef equated this indulgence, richness, and nobility to aristocracy. Now aristocracy often connotes with feudal class systems and inequality, but Chef spun the meaning and related "aristocracy" to service.

Service has a more positive connotation than servitude (...or slavery); to me, service is performed out of a willing heart, and Chef claims that it's the "greatest thing we can do for each other". On the flip side, Chef urged us to "watch how people treat servers" as an indication of their integrity. One of my former teachers, (who is also one of my role models, a mentor, a dear friend, a sister), has recounted a few of the unpleasant moments she's faced as a server, and I vividly remember reacting with indignation --- how dare someone treat someone who I care so much about like that?  As obvious as it may seem, servers are still people who deserve to be treated respectfully. I sat there thinking about how the idea of service comes full circle: if someone provides us with the luxury of being served, then we have to respond graciously. Maybe the act of service is the "greatest thing we can do for each other" because it fosters equality from both sides: we should have equal access to service and we need to treat servers with equality.

Chef continued by comparing the ritual of setting a table attentively to service. The etiquette of set table demonstrates that "you care for someone else". Like the Japanese tea ceremony, attention to detail, even to the most minute details, matters. In class, we learned that taste is influenced by a variety of factors, including flavor perceived by taste buds, smell perceived orthonasally and retronasally, visual appearance, preconceptions/bias, temperature and texture. Chef spun that idea and said that the "neurology of taste is influenced by humility and celebration", which, in essence, is what the Japanese tea ceremony, and to him, service, are about. At that very moment, the servers came up with petite, individualized portions of cornbread served with a pat of house-churned, whipped, sorghum-sweetened butter.

The cornbread was browned and slightly crispy around the edges, but retained a soft, moist, and fluffy interior. The butter made me realize why Paula Deen loves to throw butter onto anything and everything -- it was sweet, fresh, and perfectly rich in the most authentic way possible.

I tend to stray away from butter because, despite its low amount of lactose, it makes my stomach hurt, but this was so worth the pain-- you'll see how I threw caution to the wind throughout the rest of this meal (all was very worthwhile).

Cornbread, or corn meal, more specifically, is traditionally a poor man's food, evoking a "sense of poverty". However, returning to the idea of equality, Chef said that "everything is worthy of respect", and elevated a humble ingredient to nobility.

As we listened to Chef talk with awe, we were simultaneously stunned by the servers who served us so gracefully. Chef called it a "ballet dance around the table" -- the servers all moved around the table simultaneously, in a clockwise fashion, always setting our plates down on our left side and refilling our glasses on the right side. Don't dismiss the job of serving too quickly -- these servers have to memorize about 170 things to say/do! (I even noticed that whenever anyone got up to use the restroom, a server would go to their seat, refold the napkin cloth, and wait there to help the person into their seat......WOW.) The many steps of service all point back to the desire for synchronization in order to avoid accidents and to do things as effectively and smoothly as swans. Chef uses this comparison pretty tactfully; from the surface of the water, swans appear to move so gracefully and effortlessly, but an underwater view will reveal that the swans are actually doing a lot of work. Likewise, the servers act with so much grace and fluidity that the customers don't really notice how much effort and work is done "behind the scenes". The servers even communicate covertly through eye contact, hand signals, and body language, noticing even the most subtle signals and behavioral cues. This way, they can all help each other and work as an entity. Chef admitted that he tends to fall into long conversations too easily with guests, so he relies on his servers to give him covert signals to move him along so that he gives equal attention to his other guests and to his kitchen!

Side note: While the entire restaurant is quite posh, there is no dress code. Ironically enough, the most common complaint received at Restaurant Eugene is from guests self-policing and complaining about other people's attire! 

Following the cornbread came shrimp over adzuki beans --- if you read the second blogpost about H&F, you'll notice that there's a recurring theme; Chef planned everything very strategically. Most of the ingredients in the dishes that we ate at H&F were the main components of dishes that we ate at Restaurant Eugene! The key differences -- preparation and presentation. As the shrimp was being served, someone asked Chef whether or not he cooks with the same finesse and attention to detail at home as he does in his restaurants. He responded that there is "no difference in skill" between fine dining and casual dining; likewise, he's the "same guy wherever he is". Sometimes he does take the time to set the table nicely! Chef added that he's a big fan of one-pot dishes; he loves to cook paella, and his family will all eat out of the same pot! Speaking of family, he'll even simulate "Chopped" at home with his kids and give them mystery baskets to cook from ;).

Now returning back to the food, the fresh shrimp (delivered each morning) was delicately placed on top of a small bed of adzuki beans (note how large the plate is and how small the portions are -- everything looks so clean and simple!).

As each plate was placed in front of us by one server, another server came around with a dark grey teapot and poured a salty broth on top.

This tableside pouring of the broth was such a wonderful and elegant element of surprise. As Chef said, "The beautiful thing about cuisine is surprise...it should make you sit up straighter". Sometimes, he'll go so far to surprise people that he'll set a whole roasted pig on a table (probably at H&F, not at Restaurant Eugene!), prepared via "la caja china" method. The idea of a giant hog on top of a table is uncomfortable, to say the least, for many Americans, and Chef lamented that people are unable to embrace food as it is. Guests may be so surprised that they feel offended, but in his own words, "I'm the guy who likes to ask for forgiveness not permission".

Chef's audacity complements his aspiration for continual experimentation and improvisation. Restaurant Eugene's menu alone changes multiple times each night! He compares this culinary improvisation to the finesse of jazz musicianship; improv itself is an art that requires skill and attention.  --Remember how Chef compared his two restaurants to music genres (H&F as rock'n'roll, Restaurant Eugene as jazz)? Well it makes perfect sense that he looks to musicians for culinary inspiration!

And now for a brief intermission of random facts about Chef Hopkins:
1. He believes that lunch is underappreciated.
2. He loves socks (like Dumbledore!)
3. When asked about career advice, he answered: "the best engagements are those that allow you to pursue everything. A career better be who you are and not just a job." He uses his own experiences to support his claim -- he chose to major in anthropology because it meant everything!
4. He encourages everyone to visit libraries and museums --- go to the primary sources! "How can you appreciate art without viscerally being there?" 
5. He doesn't buy modern cookbooks, only the cheap, old cookbooks. Competition in the modern day has caused chefs to leave out ingredients in their recipes, which results in cooking disasters -- Chef once picked up a cookbook with a recipe for cornbread...that forgot ("forgot") to include cornmeal!! With that being said, the good old fashioned cookbooks are the best. He's watched Julia Child since he was young, and he reminds us all to read recipes through!
6. Speaking of recipes, Chef stated that "recipes don't make you a good cook; you just have to cook again and again and make disasters." Experience is crucial, and a good chef should be able to understand nuances between ingredients -- from water pH to elevation! Additionally, a good chef should fully comprehend the importance of seasonality on taste!
7. He considers his favorite dishes as his favorite teachers. A childhood favorite of his is chicken and creamy rice, which has given rise to his love for risotto. One must cook risotto, for example, over and over again in order to fully understand the nuance of rice and how it dissolves. Other simple favorites include mayonnaise -- the chemistry of lecithin and oil is so complex!, hand-churned butter, roast chicken, spaghetti and meatballs, and chicken Kiev (he was nine when he started to make it!).
8. As he mentioned roast chicken, he also shared a recipe with us: pick a small bird that's ethically raised (without hormones), season with salt and place in a cast iron skillet in a 450*F oven until cooked. Simple, basic food at its best.

Now back to the food -- to my favorite dish: this dish is an homage to the humble turnip as turnips were prepared seven different ways!
The rectangular stack on the left is a turnip crutan, thinly sliced turnips cooked with buttercream and salt, stacked like a delicate and light lasagna. I don't think I could ever fully describe just how tender and light this tasted; it just melted and coated your mouth with the lingering taste of rich buttercream.

On top of the turnip crutan is a turnip top pea stew. Swirled around the plate is a turnip puree mixed with turnip top pea puree. The purple leaf is a turnip green, and on the right is a slice of raw turnip on top of a roasted piece of turnip

The seventh form of turnip? Take a closer look at the dark crumbs sprinkled on the plate: that's burnt turnip ash

As we marveled at the plate, Chef added onto the idea of "charcoal" -- he makes his own using onions and carrots. He likes to use charcoal as a means to play into memories; charcoal on a plate evokes the olfactory memory of smelling charcoal as he stands over a grill. Connecting to memories, Chef's created an elegant salad that was inspired by leftover ingredients on a Sunday plate. Elegant and leftovers -- you don't associate the two very often.

If you look closely, you can see just how thinly the turnip was sliced!

So you see all this experimentation, technique, dedication, and finesse. Yup, dining at Restaurant Eugene is truly a luxury, one that even Chef can't afford to indulge in every night! He related his situation to that of an Italian sock maker -- the man makes high-end socks that cost thousands, so much that he himself can't afford to even buy his own socks! And that situation is precisely what Chef loves. The high expense of Restaurant Eugene is mostly due to labor (with a small part due to ingredients). In his own words, you pay "an artisan to give up his life to a craft"

To further illustrate this idea, Chef provided two stories: that of his good friend, Massimo (which you can find here), and his own. As Massimo endured hardships, so has Chef Hopkins. One morning, during Restaurant Eugene's early days, Chef walked in to find that the condo above, which was not sold, had flooded completely -- his wine cabinet was a "horrible, beautiful waterfall", with labels peeling off of the wine bottles. Chef had already taken out a one million dollar loan, and he could not continue business with his restaurant in such a state. The plumber who was to blame for this flood was brought to court, but did not pay the fees. As awful as this situation was, and as tempting as giving up would have been, Chef and his wife pushed forward. This husband and wife team, with two kids under the age of five, closed the restaurant for a month to fix everything up. When the restaurant opened again, the landlord contributed a $50,000 check so that Chef could pay his staff. 

Wow --- what a comeback, right? Well the story doesn't end there, because just a few months later, Peachtree Road, the road that his restaurant is located on, flooded completely. He didn't describe this second flooding in detail, but Restaurant Eugene is still standing and thriving. This story painfully reminds us all of the realities of business. Most business owners in general put everything on the line, aka sacrifice a whole lot, to produce what they produce. For this very same reason, Chef asks his farmers and vendors to charge him more so that he can charge his customers more; Chef understands the high value of sacrifice and dedication, and as he knows that his farmers and vendors have sacrificed a lot in order to dedicate their lives to produce their goods, which he purchases, he wants to compensate them more. In return, his prices will increase as well, and the pattern of 10% profit can be carried out throughout all levels of business. While most people assume that the farm-to-table movement promotes the use of whole, unrefined ingredients, Chef points out that it's also about transparent profitability. The transparency of the food supply chain and of values is tied to finances; you should be aware of where your food comes from and you should be aware of its value. Understanding your food's value increases your appreciation for the farmers who are responsible for producing the food -- allowing for proper compensation of farmers and an ethical agricultural system. 

On a similar note, as transparent profitability is an ethical and logical business practice, sanitation is equally an important in agricultural business practices. Chef criticized the act of banning of certain foods instead of upholding strict sanitation regulations -- take raw cow's milk for example. Who knows how terrible the conditions of some dairy farms are? Raw cow's milk is banned from many countries (only 28 states in the US allow it to be sold) because the chance for food poisoning is so high due to unsanitary conditions. Yet raw cow's milk is significantly more potent in enzymes, vitamins, immunoglobulins, and calcium, so a lot of people are missing out on some quality stuff. Laziness, unfortunately, is one of the underlying sources of this issue.

I think that's a pretty deep and frustrating topic that can be lead to a much longer conversation, but it's necessary to bring it up. On the other hand though, let's finish with a few positive stories, shall we?

Let's begin our ending (oxymoron there) with the last dish we ate: Carolina gold rice risotto with shaved truffle

I think this may have been the first time that I've eaten a truffle (the mushroom kind, Mom ;] ). I know without a doubt that my brother would absolutely love this creamy, rich dish. My only dissatisfaction is that the rice was cooked "al dente", and I expected a pillow-y, soft grain like the one we ate at H&F. Aside from that, you best believe that all the dairy was worth it!

While I've heard of truffles before, I had never understood their value. According to Chef, the "ancient Romans believed truffles were powerful" --- their high value kind of explains why they're so expensive! Chef typically imports fresh Paragould truffles from France, but now that they're out of season, they preserve the imported truffles in-house using their special techniques. How cool is that? Chef's going back to the older, simpler traditions of preserving food that's not in season!

Chef's value for truffles is a little more specific than just "powerful": he thinks that truffles saved his lifeChef is a cancer survivor, and his first diagnosis completely changed who he was...so much, that he bought a motorcycle and a pound of black truffles.  He ate truffles all the time, even for breakfast! "Food is our medicine", he said, and the nobility and exuberance of food should help us live life more fully. "Eat caviar like a tsar", "be exuberant and live the life of food as if it were an opera".

After this awe-inspiring story, someone asked Chef where he gets inspiration for his restaurants, particularly because the two that we went to were drastically different from each other. Simply stated, he "loves civilization and the wild", and "doesn't like sameness". While each of his restaurants are different, the value behind each one is all the same, kind of like how he said that he's the same cook at home and in his restaurant --- the food can differ in presentation/style/taste/texture/etc., but there's one chef responsible for all of it. When he was beginning his career as a restaurateur, he and his wife went to 5+ restaurants every night on select nights, to determine what they liked and what they didn't like. He realized that his criticism influenced him too strongly in a negative way, so he began to focus solely on what he liked. "Open your mind to experience", he said. Experience is how we gain understanding and refine our tastes.
Side note: he recommended the following restaurants: Floataway Cafe (or any restaurant by Anne Quatrano, really), Cakes and Ale (run by Chef Billy Allen, who invests in charity and good food for all)

Speaking of charity, Chef reminded us of his belief in wealth and going back to help society (he named Andrew Carnegie, Bill Gates). He does not think that wealth is a bad thing, but a wealthy person's ultimate responsibility is to give back to society.

Before we left, he reminded us of a few other things as well:
1. Your daily choices are important
2. Agricultural strength determines human strength
3. Cheap agriculture means someone isn't getting paid
4. Don't be a zealot, but be responsible.

I've been mulling over these last four reminders in particular since we left Restaurant Eugene, and I'm very grateful for the opportunity to hear his perspective and to be so inspired. I thoroughly enjoyed how Chef referenced movies, music, history, and his own experiences with whatever he said --- like everyone else, I could listen to him talk all day too. As we left, Chef thanked us for giving him the opportunity to host us; he was reminded to be more conscious and aware of his restaurants and of his choices, and he paid attention to the details a bit more...he is one humble guy.


And all of that concludes the longest blogpost that I've ever written. I do apologize for the choppiness, but there was just so much information to synthesize into one post and I wanted to share as much as possible from this incredibly meaningful trip.
I hope you've enjoyed this mini series, and I'll be back with more recipe posts soon :)


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