This blog has seen a lot of blessings this year. Providing me the opportunity to travel and talk about food styling. Getting a stunning redesign by my dear sweetheart. We’ve also gotten heaps of praise from all over the country…and there were few as flattering and incredible as being featured on CNN’s Eatocracy, their online foray into the world of food. So, still reeling over being featured on their blog, you can imagine how aflutter I was when I got an invite to their first-ever Secret Supper here in Atlanta. It’s location was kept secret until the morning of…and when it was revealed, I let out a little squeal.
Tucked away in a secluded corner of Restaurant Eugene, one of Atlanta’s top restaurants, a group of us came together to discuss the nature and nurture of Southern food. There was no one better to lead this charge than the chef behind Eugene, James Beard award nominee Linton Hopkins. Chef Hopkins is a staunch devotee to local Southern ingredients and his passion for the preservation of Southern food and techniques has led him to also be the President of Southern Foodways Alliance, whose mission it is to celebrate and document the food culture of the American South. The work the organization does is brilliant and important…and that dedication to all things Southern could be felt from the minute you walked in the door.
To say that a food is “Southern” is often a very polarizing term. People think that it has to be cooked with fatback or country fried to count. Chefs like Linton Hopkins (alongside folks like Anne Quatrano, Sean Brock, and Steven Satterfield) are making the push to show the world that Southern food is based on the quality of its ingredients and its traditions. In the South, folks depended on local purveyors and farmers to provide them with ingredients to cook with. The Southern tradition is built on small animal farms and a huge heap of agriculture in a region that can grow lots of stuff for long periods of time. It’s the ultimate in “farm-to-table”, a term which was widely discussed and has become the latest buzz word in culinary cultures. For folks like Chef Hopkins, farm-to-table isn’t a trend – it’s a lifestyle and a conscious choice.
The face of Eatocracy is the amazing and super wonderful Kat Kinsman. She, Sarah and the rest of the CNN crew did such an amazing job with this dinner and planning a seamless event. Hearing Kat speak about the things she’s passionate about – which that night was Southern food, bourbon and daily pimento cheese intake while in Atlanta – really energized everyone about the food and the conversation we were about to experience that night. Do follow her on Twitter, as well – her handle is @kittenwithawhip. She’s a hoot, I promise.
We started off with a Southern “antipasti” spread which included country ham and coppa made from locally raised animals, trout tartare that was swimming four hours earlier, pimento cheese fritters with pepper jelly, and a locally sourced fennel & beet salad that was in the ground hours beforehand. We settled in for some spirited chatter about the oppressive burger trend, the unfortunate “farm-t0-table” misuse, and our secret love of hot dogs.
I’ve never met a short rib I didn’t like (well…almost) and this version was incredible. Simply braised and perched atop Anson Mills grits, every single part of this dish was Southern sourced. See those carrots that top the dish? Those were brought to the restaurant by Joe Reynolds of Love is Love Farm here in Georgia. Eating food that was literally picked out of the ground and put on your plate…you don’t just taste food like that. You feel it.
Chef Hopkins and his entire team were so knowledgeable and gracious throughout the entire night. While it’s easy to say that a party like this gets special treatment, the care that went into the service and the food that night were stellar.
There were lots of smiles that night. Not only the cheshire cat grin of Chef Hopkins but on the faces of all of the guests. I was in truly remarkable company that evening: Christiane Lauterbach (longtime Atlanta dining critic who is shown above), John Kessler (main man at the AJC), Carolyn O’Neil (CNN alum and current AJC contributor), Virginia Willis (southern food rockstar & author of Bon Appetit, Ya’ll) and several others.
The dessert spread was certainly a highlight…and this comes from someone who lacks a sweet tooth. Several cookies and mignardise were set out alongside a maple pot de creme, which came topped with a thinly sliced candied pumpkin sliver and caramelized pumpkin seeds. Paired with a St. Bernardus ABT 12 Quadruppel, it was a bold dessert statement and the pairing was brilliant.
Then…there was the sorgum cake. The tradition of sorghum is waning and Chef Hopkins is one person who is trying to hold on to the use of this ingredient. Due to it’s labor intensive production process and the shrinking supply of American farms, this heirloom ingredient is in short supply. Chef Hopkin’s dedication to sorghum takes him to Blairsville, Georgia where he obtains it for recipes like this. Warm, not-too-sweet but full of earthy flavor, this cake is incredible. On the side there? That’s bacon caramel corn.
The evening ended just as it began: deliciously, warmly, and beaming, content faces. As a tribute to our hosts for the evening, the wildly talented bar staff at Eugene put together this culinary tribute to Eatocracy on the bar for everyone to watch unfold. The Eatocracy Secret Supper is hoping to have dinners such as these – addressing local cuisine and food topics – across the country…and I wish for you all to be able to attend something as inspiring as this supper was.
Photography courtesy of Mark Hill/CNN