“One of the great joys is knowing things,” says chef Linton Hopkins. “It’s almost like peeling back an onion. I want to know things. I’m a curious person.”
In addition to overseeing six Atlanta restaurants, including C. Ellet’s steak house and the Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence–winning Restaurant Eugene, Hopkins has made it his mission to learn all he can about the beef industry. His goal is ambitious: to pioneer the first Kobe-grade beef program in Georgia. (Read more about the project.)
If Hopkins, with the help of the University of Georgia and the Georgia Department of Agriculture, can succeed in implementing the extremely high standards for top-grade Wagyu steak within Georgia, he hopes not only that it will elevate his game and that of restaurateurs like him, but also that it will lift the whole community of Georgia cattle farmers, butchers and beef distributors, all to the benefit of diners and home cooks. Ultimately, he submits, it all comes down to an abiding impulse to create: “As a cook, I like making things from scratch.”
Of course, Hopkins doesn't expect you as a cook to learn everything there is about beef before you shop for steak night. But he does believe you should get to know a solid butcher and rely on their expertise. “It will make your life better,” he contends. “The butcher will cut you better steak. So it’s sort of Old World that way. But I think it’s what we need more of.”
Even without the help of a butcher, you can apply a few basic standards to the steak you buy for the recipe that follows. “The look is going to be one of the first keys,” Hopkins says. One reason Kobe is prized is that it is abundantly marbled, meaning there is a good amount of fat dispersed between the muscle fibers. Look for a fairly even distribution of white bits throughout the cut, which will help it cook evenly. In a hot pan, the melting fat will both keep the meat moist and impart flavor.
“To get the right caramelization-to–internal temperature ratio,” Hopkins recommends buying steaks 1 to 1 1/2 inches thick. It’s worth noting that “where it was cut in the strip is important.” If you can have your strip steak cut to order, he suggests asking your butcher to cut it from the rib end, where the cut will be one continuous, narrow muscle. If it’s cut from the sirloin end, closer to the back of the animal, it will come as two pieces divided by a vein, which is harder to cook evenly.
The meal has supporting roles from broccoli rabe cooked with chile paste and lemon juice, as well as slowly simmered, buttery onions.
For the onions, Hopkins notes, a heavy-bottomed pan is a must; steer clear of the thin aluminum ones. “They scorch too easily; they don’t regulate heat evenly across the bottom of the surface,” he says. “I can burn water in a bad pan. And I have.”
The onions are cooked low and slow in butter. “You’re coaxing it into this golden-brown, soft, velvety fondue state.” He suggests considering the process, often called “sweating” onions, with a measure of empathy. “If it’s too high heat, you’re gonna die. But if it’s like a good sauna, you get a good sweat and it’s healthy, you know?” Ultimately, he says, “You’re purging the onions of their moisture that’s starting to blend with the butter to create this magical thing.”
How do you know if you’re doing it right? “You should be able to hear it,” he counsels. “That’s an important thing. There should be a slight little sizzling, bubbling sound.”
And how long is long enough? “Take it for a ride,” he suggests. “Take it out there and see how long you can go.” If your heat is in that perfect mellow zone, you almost can’t overdo the cook time.
For the steak, Hopkins likes to get the pan hot but not too hot before adding the meat, which he says ensures that it adheres to the pan’s surface, “getting maximum caramelization from edge to edge across the steak.” He recommends heating the pan, adding the oil and then immediately adding the meat rather than letting the oil heat as you normally might.
“I find if the oil is crazy hot and the pan’s crazy hot, I have less perfect stick,” he explains. “If the steak is cooked properly, it will release, and then that’s when you know you’re in a way done: You start seeing the cooking come up the sides of the steak.” At this point, you can flip the meat (Hopkins notes you should flip away from yourself, never toward) and baste it in butter.
What you wind up with is a very fine steak-night supper from someone who really knows his steak, even if he’s too modest to admit it. “I’m still learning,” Hopkins says. “I love that about food.”
For more tips on how to approach pairing this dish with wine, recommended bottlings and notes on chef Linton Hopkins’ inspiration, read the companion article, "New York Strip Steak With a Chilean Red," in the Dec. 15, 2018, issue, via our online archives or by ordering a digital edition (Zinio or Google Play) or a back issue of the print magazine. For even more wine pairing options, WineSpectator.com members can find other recently rated South American reds in our Wine Ratings Search.
1. About 1 hour before cooking, remove steak from the refrigerator.
2. Place 1/2 stick butter in a heavy-bottomed pan set over medium heat. Melt butter, cooking just until foamy; do not let it brown. Add onions, stirring to coat well with butter. Add bay leaf and cook, stirring gently, until the onions are translucent and soft. This step can be achieved in about 5 to 10 minutes, though for ultimate butter-and-onion luxury, you can go for 30 minutes. (It’s worth it, I promise!) The key to slow-cooking onions is to gently achieve a golden hue with no browning. If they start to brown, turn heat down to medium-low. Season onions with salt to taste and set aside, covered to keep warm.
3. Prepare an ice-water bath in a medium bowl and set aside. Bring a large pot of salted water to a rapid boil. Add broccoli rabe and cook until just shy of crisp-tender, about 2 minutes. Transfer immediately to ice water to chill. Drain, pat dry and set aside.
4. Season the steak generously with 3 teaspoons each salt and pepper, pressing the seasoning into the steak’s surface. Turn on the hood system and/or open a window or cooking the steak will smoke up your house. Heat a 10-inch cast-iron skillet over high until just beginning to smoke.
5. When the pan is hot, add the oil, swirling to coat, and immediately add the steak, pressing down with a spatula to ensure the entire steak is touching the hot surface. Cook for 2 minutes, then reduce heat to medium-high. You are looking and listening for a strong sizzle. Cook for another 2 minutes, then carefully flip the steak. Smear remaining 2 tablespoons butter across top of steak, and top with the thyme sprigs.
6. As the steak cooks and the butter begins to melt, spoon the hot pan juices over the top of the steak. The butter should be dark. As the hot fat bastes the thyme, it will sizzle vigorously, so stand back to avoid splatters. If thyme sizzles too vigorously, reduce heat to medium.
7. Cook until the meat feels like it is just beginning to tighten, about 3 to 5 minutes, or until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the steak reads 135° F for medium-rare. Transfer steak to a meat board and let rest, tented with aluminum foil. Carefully drain the drippings from the skillet and discard.
8. Heat the steak pan over high. Add olive oil, and when it shimmers, add broccoli rabe and press into a single layer. Cook until the bottom starts to brown, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the lemon zest and chile paste and stir to combine. Add lemon juice, season with salt and pepper to taste, and remove from heat.
9. Cut the steak into 1/2-inch-thick or 1-inch-thick slices across the grain. If steak is particularly wide, slice crosswise as well, if desired. Divide the steak, broccoli rabe and melted onions among two plates. Serves 2.
Read Could the Peach State Become the Beef State? for more about chef Linton Hopkins' effort to create a Kobe-level beef industry in Athens, Ga.