When you work for a place as legendary as Le Cirque, it can be hard to find ways to convey your own culinary point of view. “There is obviously so much history with that restaurant, and a lot of standards that Sirio Maccioni keeps in place,” admits Craig Hopson, who served as executive chef for the seminal, midtown spot for five years. “I would say that about half the menu is set in stone, so I tried to get creative with the other half as much as possible, while still keeping the food in the house style.” But Le Cirque is a far cry from Australia where Hopson grew up, opting for a career in cooking, so he could spend his days surfing. (Yes, really.)
But now that Hopson has just opened his own, modern American eatery, Beautique, appealingly located just steps away from The Plaza and the famed Paris Theater, he’s got free reign to express himself to the fullest. His French techniques are applied to a contemporary, market-driven menu, featuring dishes, like Spring Pea Soup with Comte Cheese Dumplings and Mint Oil, Crab Flan with Crisp Pork Belly and Malt Caramel, and Confit King Salmon dressed with Buttermilk Vinaigrette and strewn with Poppy Seeds. His all-star collaborators include pastry chef Jiho Kim, formerly of Gordon Ramsay at The London, and James Beard-nominated mixologist Charlotte Voisey, who has curated the creative cocktail list. “We’re making fare that is light, but not overly fussy – a simple a la carte menu that feels accessible to a wide New York audience,” Hopson says. “I want fresh, very tasty food, focusing on a modern American – Mediterranean style.”
We spoke with the chef about how his Aussie upbringing also inspires his cooking, the restaurant trends he really gets behind (and which he wishes would just die already), and the strangest items currently in his home fridge.
Did you always want to be a chef growing up? What do you think you would have become, if not a chef?
When I was at school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was surfing every day and thought it would be cool to work at night and surf during the day, so a job came up at a local hotel and that was how it all started.
What job would you say really kick-started your career?
The Grange restaurant at Sanctuary Cove in Queensland Australia, where I worked with a Belgian chef named Stefan Codron. I totally got thrown in the deep end, but that is when cooking changed for me from just a job to a career.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received from a chef friend or mentor?
If they’re listed on the menu, ingredients need to be a vital component of the dish, not just a token dot or herb somewhere.
What advice would you give to young chefs just starting out?
Work at the very best restaurants that you can, put your head down, and absorb as much knowledge as you can.
What do you find most personally gratifying about being a chef, and what is the most difficult?
The most gratifying is the creative side, being able to come up with new things and constantly improve, innovate and never stop learning. The most difficult is finding dedicated and skilled staff and keeping them.
You’ve worked at a number of very high-end French restaurants, but does your Australian upbringing ever reflect itself in any of your dishes?
I always worked in French restaurants, but I think my Australian background broadens my horizons to a wide range of cuisines from all over the world. Especially those from Asia and as well the fresh, lighter cuisine that we have in Australia.
If you were to eat at Beautique as a guest, what would you order and why?
I would order the Rabbit, Fava and Grape Salad with shaved foie gras and verjus vinaigrette. It’s all about spring and utilizes a combination of high and low ingredients. For the main course I would choose the Mixed Grill of Lamb Five Ways – it’s a chop, confit shoulder, braised shank, lamb bacon and sausage. It sits on a bed of mint, caper and olive relish. Lamb is one of my favorite ingredients and I really like the variety in this preparation.
What really excites you about the NYC dining scene?
What excites me is the mid-priced crop of restaurants coming up now with chefs doing really creative things with humble ingredients, especially vegetables. Also people opening places specializing in great versions of humble foods, like fried chicken and hot dogs.
What current restaurant trends do you really embrace, and which do you wish would just die already?
Current trends I like are the use of local vegetables and introducing customers to new and exciting ingredients. The trend to go away would be beautifully plated food that doesn’t actually taste all that good – dishes that show presentation over flavor.
How do you think your line cooks would describe you as a leader?
I am not afraid to get in there and get it done.
What ingredients can you just not bring yourself to cook with or eat?
Green peppers can make things taste like cheap Chinese food.
What restaurants do you like do go to in NYC to really treat yourself, and what are your favorite relaxed, neighborhood spots?
When I go out, I always try to check out the newer restaurants trending at the moment, so I can keep up with what’s out there. Recently. I loved Betony and Estela.
What’s the strangest item in your home fridge right now?
Probably some of the weird Hawaiian snack foods that my mother in law sends us. The jury is out on some of those.
You’re on your deathbed; sex or dinner? And no, you can’t say both!