In Mark Twain’s immortal “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” The King and The Duke may take on the trappings of royalty, but they’re scoundrels at heart – con men insinuating themselves into high society for nefarious purposes.
Atlanta’s King + Duke has more noble intentions – namely, crafting high-quality food rooted in American traditions – but they share a mischievous gleam with the “Huck Finn” villains. The restaurant sees itself as something of an impish interloper in the city’s high-end Buckhead neighborhood.
Regardless of its rogue intentions, King + Duke has taken its rightful place alongside Buckhead’s chic art galleries and trendy boutiques. Just five years since opening its doors, K+D has been ranked one of the country’s best restaurants by both GQ and Esquire magazines. That’s due in no small part to Executive Chef EJ Hodgkinson’s commitment to fresh and sustainable ingredients.
“As far as food is concerned, my moral compass is dictated by where I grew up,” says the California native. “I grew up in a small town, and every day after school I would walk to my grandmother’s house from school. She had a little garden, all organic, and we’d pick vegetables, we’d pickle ‘em, can ‘em, preserve ‘em in any ways that we could. So I grew up eating really great food that had as little done to it as possible.”
Executive Chef EJ Hodgkinson from Atlanta's King + Duke.
The lessons that Hodgkinson learned at his grandmother’s knee couldn’t help but influence his cooking – but they’re also lessons that the world at large has slowly caught up with. “As time went on and I became a professional chef, ‘organic’ became a buzzword,” Hodgkinson says with a chuckle. “It’s funny that at this point in my career something that so many other people are gravitating towards is something and something that’s informed my food from the early stages of my life and that I’m very comfortable with.”
With his passion for responsible butchering, organic and locally-sourced ingredients, and direct-heat cooking, Hodgkinson’s food is another win-win, this time for visitors to King + Duke, who are treated to delicious, smoky, and environmentally responsible meals. Hodgkinson stresses the importance of finding partners who reflect his and the restaurant’s values.
“It’s fairly challenging to find purveyors that can stand behind 100% of their products,” he says. “With companies like Revere Meat, we end up being able to find really great product from people that we can get behind, and they’re able to provide that for us on a scale that we can sustain at a restaurant this large. It’s kind of a no-brainer.”
King + Duke’s menu – like the restaurant itself – is built around a 24-foot open hearth, a breathtaking centerpiece that reminds patrons of its dedication to old-world open-fire cooking with every lick of its flames. Hodgkinson’s dishes combine the most primitive of cooking techniques with a remarkable finesse.
“Cooking with wood over an open hearth informs the way that you cook,” Hodgkinson explains. “It means that you want to focus in on very simple, very high quality ingredients and treat them very, very simply. The entire idea behind cooking over open fire and over wood is getting that flavor, which is what we seek to do with every single thing we do on our menu.”
While that menu may offer anything from a grilled swordfish to a hearth-baked lasagna, its keystones are its two namesake dishes: The King, a 35oz. bone-in ribeye steak served with grilled bone marrow and locally-baked sourdough bread; and The Duke, a 9oz. burger made from brisket and chuck ground daily in-house. Both, along with most of the menu, are focused on ingredients sourced locally, a guiding tenet that can also provide challenges to such a large-scale establishment.
“It becomes harder and harder the larger an operation gets,” Hodgkinson admits, “to not utilize things that would go against what would be considered organic practice. The only way that we’re able to do that is by supporting [local purveyors]. We actually have the power to sustain some farmers and cattle ranchers, all the different types of business that we can support locally, and if they’re continuing to deliver the product that we’re looking for and are in line with our values and principles, then it’s a win-win for everybody.”