In New York City, restaurants come and go on a near daily basis. So when a restaurant stands the test of time, it’s clearly doing something right. Le Cirque is one such example, so we got in touch with chef Craig Hopson to learn more about what it means to helm a venerable institution.
Tell me about your background.
I’m from Perth in Western Australia. I started cooking when I was 16. I just fell into it and then worked around Queensland and Sydney. When I first started it was just a job, but then it developed into a career and I put my mind into it. Then I spent a year in both Switzerland and Paris and then went back to Australia, and I’ve been here for 11 years now.
What brought you to New York?
I had always wanted to come here. A friend of mine was working over here and he got me a position in New Orleans at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. And then I went to Philadelphia and then New York. I was at Picholine and One if by Land, Two if by Sea, and now Le Cirque.
So did you learn to cook on the job or in school?
In Australia we do an apprenticeship. For four years, you’re an apprentice to a single employer. You go to school four days a week and to the technical center one day a week. The difference between there and here is that you come out as a qualified tradesman. You’re like an electrician or a plumber.
Le Cirque is such a venerable spot that people associate with the 1980s. How do you keep things fresh?
The décor is actually quite modern. We respect the classics on the menu, but I work a lot with seasonal ingredients. We do a four-course seasonal menu and I can have fun with that. There’s definitely an opportunity for people to stay with the classics or venture and try something new. Many of the dishes I do are fresher, without cream sauces and stuff. The more classic dishes are quite a bit heavier.
Do a lot of people still try to order the pasta primavera?
Sometimes. It’s an off-the-menu item. I think what happens is that one person sees it on another table and another orders it and it cascades, like dominoes.
Do you see a renewed interest in fine dining?
I don’t see a renewed interest at the moment, but I think that in the future it’ll come back. There will always be positions for restaurants to serve fine food and cuisine. We’re romantic and comfortable and there’s always room for that. The world is going more casual and food prices keep going up, and wholesale reflects selling prices. It’s hard for a place that’s built around luxury ingredients.
Will you be going to the James Beard Foundation Awards this year?
I’m actually not because I’m going to be in Italy. I’m working on a line of Le Cirque products that we can sell in gourmet supermarkets, so I’ll be there to work on a couple of recipes as prototypes. The line is going to be based around truffles, like truffle spreads and truffle vinaigrette. I’ll be in Umbria for a few days and then go up to Rome.
Any predictions for who might win?
No, you can never tell. But for best chef in New York City, probably Michael White.
Check back tomorrow, when Craig talks about franchising Le Cirque to cruise lines and reveals the last great meal he ate.