When Atlanta star Ford Fry (the chef and owner of No. 246 and The Optimist and Oyster Bar at The Optimist restaurants), asked E.J. Hodgkinson to step into the role of executive chef at JCT. Kitchen & Bar, the popular Southern farmstead-style restaurant that opened last year, the young cook didn’t think twice.
Hodgkinson (most recently the chef de cuisine at Woodfire Grill) took over the range this month, so we asked him why Southern cooking rocks–and to reveal his flavor du jour.
Current ingredient obsession:
All forms of chile peppers, in particular guajillo chiles.
Why do you love them?
I am really enjoying the amazing properties they have, and their potential to impact flavor. The guajillo chile has a sweetness to it that no other chile can match. When the chile is dried, the skin takes on a dry smokiness that combines amazingly with the fruit-forward flavors of the pepper itself, which has very little to no up front heat.
How do you prepare them?
Most often you find guajillos dried (a fresh guajillo is known as a mirasol pepper). The raw pepper has a decent amount of heat, and when I find them, I go crazy, I make pickles, deep fry them, I have even juiced them in order to make fresh mirasol pepper vinegar! The dried guajillo has so many amazing characteristics, as with the drying of any fruit, the flavors concentrate, the sugar content becomes higher, most of the heat dies off and the palate can pick up on so many more flavors. I use the dry chiles in a number of ways, most recently as an addition to multiple marinades for meat, done by steeping them in coffee, pureeing them with garlic and lime juice into a paste and marinating meats and even some vegetables in it. I also add them to stocks and soups, as the subtle sweet-smokiness of the pepper allows the palate to pick up on more flavors. Quite often, I dont even tell people they are in the recipe, I just let them provide a wonderful backround note that will keep customers guessing.
What’s your favorite new item on the menu at JCT Kitchen & Bar, and why?
Our updated beet salad. Beets grow year round in Georgia, showcasing the quality of our local produce, through technique and execution, is what sets us apart. In the salad, the beets are paired with a local cow’s milk fromage blanc, soft boiled farm egg, local fennel, guajillo chile oil, sunchoke chips, and a parsley vinaigrette made from the stems of the parsley, which creates a super bright flavor.This is a composed salad, requiring much initial preparation. The baby beets are roasted, peeled, and cut into segments, then marinated under compression with olive oil and salt. The soft boiled farm egg is served chilled, cut into quarters and seasoned simply with salt–there is nothing like some egg yolk with some vegetables. The plate comes together with all the ingredients seasoned and dressed separately, with the parsley stem vinaigrette and chile oil are drizzled over the final composition.
Trout, chicken and dumplings, shrimp and grits and deviled eggs topped with Benton’s country ham…your menu is brimming with Iconic Southern ingredients. What does “Southern cooking” mean to you—right this moment? (e.g. modern southern cuisine/southern cuisine in Atlanta, etc.)
Being that I am originally from northern California, coming to the South was quite a culture shock. That being said, I am absolutely inlove with the it. Southern cuisine is one of the most important components of our culinary heritage. The deep history of the South, from Appalachian cookery to Cajun cuisine of Louisiana and country cooking from the hills of Tennessee and Kentucky, along with whiskey and moonshine, makes for so much terroir. That is what makes it so special to me.