Craig Hopson’s cooking career has been a constant upwards trajectory, which took him from Australia to a three-star Michelin kitchen in France to Le Cirque. But he fell into the profession with little foresight. “When I was 16 years old, I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he says. “I was surfing all the time. I didn’t come from a food family, and I didn’t have ambitions growing up to be a chef. But I got a job at a local hotel cooking mediocre bar food, and it was just a job.”
Soon, though, it came time to choose an apprenticeship, part of education in Australia, and Hopson opted to stay in the biz so that he could travel the world and continue to surf. He landed at a hotel restaurant in Queensland, where, he says, he got his ass kicked, and that eventually propelled him to Sydney to a bigger and better restaurant. After his tenure there, he contemplated continuing to climb the rungs in his home country, but instead chose to move to Europe, where he wrote a letter to every three-star Michelin restaurant in France, and Lucas Carton took him in.
“That was a great experience,” he says. “It was the first time I really saw that average people in the street knew who famous chefs were. That was a surprise to me. And then there was the food quality, from baguettes to meats to fruit and vegetables — everything was perfect. Everything tasted amazing. You ate a sandwich in France, and it was the best sandwich you ever had.”
A brief return to Sydney followed, and then a friend recruited Hopson to the States to help run a restaurant at the Ritz Carlton in New Orleans. He became focused on getting to New York, and after a move to Philadelphia, his chance materialized: Hopson scored a position at Artisanal and then finagled a lead role at Picholine, where he stayed for four and a half years, seeing the restaurant through its two-star Michelin coronation and learning the New York City restaurant industry in the process.
After departing, he spent a few months trying to breathe life back into One If By Land, Two If By Sea, but when he realized it was a battle he wasn’t going to win, he jumped ship for the executive chef role at Le Cirque. After that career pinnacle, he was ready to strike out on his own, but the project he had planned with a partner never materialized. Earlier this year, he joined the team at Beautique (8 West 58th Street, 212-753-1200), where he’s serving New American fare to a well-heeled Midtown crowd.
In this interview, Hopson weighs in on why fine dining will never die, where you should cook when you’re young, and what cooking in the real world — as opposed to culinary school — is like.
What’s the hardest thing about opening a new place?
Getting a routine in place. It’s easier said than done. The recipes themselves are not the problem, it’s getting all the cooks to make the recipes, and getting them in a routine to do their jobs. That means cleaning and dishwashing and the whole thing.
Tell me about your food philosophy.
I want to cook food that’s enjoyable to eat. It should be challenging enough that it excites you and you’re looking forward to it, but it shouldn’t scare you. I want you to remember tomorrow what you ate today. So often I go to dinner, and I wake up and can’t remember what I ate. So exciting but enjoyable. I like using usual ingredients in unusual ways. I want you to say, “I’ve had duck, but never like this.”
What about the biggest lessons you learned from Picholine?
I learned from Terrance [Brennan] about flavors. Stuff really has to taste good. And pumpkin soup needs to take like pumpkin. That was one of his things — if it says chicken, broccoli, tarragon, potatoes on the menu, those components should be integral parts of the dish. I also learned the importance of getting the best products, looking for the best products, and cooking them really well. His food is French, yeah, but the sauces are really flavorful — it’s not just chicken with chicken jus. There are contrasting elements and levels of acidity on the plate. The flavors should be exciting.
Australian culinary school is quite different from what it is here in the States. Any thoughts on attending?
It’s very valuable to learn from master chefs, to learn the classics. It’s a blessing and a curse that cheffing is so popular. At the end of the day, whatever brings publicity to my profession is a good thing. But you’re not going to be the next Mario Batali or Bobby Flay coming out of culinary school — those guys worked in the trenches for a long time, and what they do is a bit more glamorized that it should be. Don’t expect to come out of culinary school and be in a high paying and high profile job; it’s not going to happen. It’s valuable to have that technical training on good solid foundation, but it’s not the real world. The real world is a grind — you do the same thing over and over, and fast, because you have things to do behind that.
Has food media precipitated that change?
The advent of the internet made the industry more global, and that’s probably a good thing. Before that, if you wanted to find out about a restaurant in France, you could read about it in a magazine once a month. Now, it’s easy to find the hottest trends there. Because of that, you have a similar outlook and trends in restaurants around the world — they mirror each other. That can be bad. And everyone’s a critic with the internet and Yelp, so instead of looking out for the New York Times critic, you have to be nice to everyone. New York’s always been a city where you have to be on top of your game every night, but it’s even more so now. But the media is there and it’s not going away. So use it to your advantage. A lot of restaurateurs are.
How has the industry changed over your years in it? Where does it go from here?
Food trends are changing, but New York has a good balance between classic and nouveau, and everything in between. As far as the restaurants themselves, I don’t know that the industry has changed fundamentally, but there’s a lot more competition, so it’s more important than ever to be on top of your game and ahead of the curve. As for future trends, who knows? Everything is cyclical. In the last couple of years, many restaurants have gone tasting menu only — so it’ll probably come around to regular a la carte menu, because people don’t want to be condemned or committed to a tasting menu. And you’ll continue to find more ethinic food. Regions of Southeast Asia will give way to subregions.
Is fine dining dying?
There’s always room for fine dining, and in every city, there’s room for the best handful of restaurants. No matter where you go, there’s always going to be a situation where you say, “Take me to the best restaurant.” There’s always a market for that. New York is big, so there are 10 best restaurants in town. So fine dining will always be there — it won’t die. But service will become more serviceable than stuffy. Fine dining restaurants will have music playing and a lively atmosphere, but at the end of the day it’ll still be fine dining. You can’t go to a rowdy bar every night.
Can you name a couple of rewarding moments over the course of your career?
I feel like I have something to prove — I want people to recognize that I have talent. I’ve got something to achieve, and I don’t think I’ve achieved it yet. One day, I hope I have, and then I’ll retire. But once I reach my goal, then I have a new set of goals. I come from a small town in western Australia, from a non-food family with not much food culture. To have been the chef at Le Cirque — it’s all been a great journey.
What’s the best meal you’ve had?
In the dining room at Ritz Carlton in Atlanta. I was on vacation from Australia, and I had sautéed foie gras with peaches. It was the first time I’d had sautéed foie gras — and it was a revelation of how good stuff could be. It was classically French, but contemporary. That was a highlight.
Any advice for young cooks?
While you’re young and you can live off small paychecks, work in the best restaurants you can. You’re going to get paid less and work harder, but while you have the energy and can live like that, do it. Spend a couple years here and there, and your next job should always be equal to or better than the one before it. Don’t go backwards in terms of quality. Don’t go from Daniel to a diner — even if the diner is going to pay you five times as much. Down the road, you’ll be paid more than you would have been otherwise. You’ll have learned from great chefs. Keep your eyes and ears open and learn.
What are your goals?
To get good critical following and a good culinary reputation at this restaurant, and then to parlay that into other projects in the future. To be known as great chef.
Best place in the city for a coffee:
Best place in the city for a beer or a drink:
Angel’s Share for cocktails.
Best special occasion restaurant:
Best no occasion restaurant:
Quintessential NYC restaurant:
River Cafe. It couldn’t be anywhere else in the world.
Person you’d really like to cook for:
Person you’d really like to have cook for you:
Person you’d be most nervous about cooking for:
Dish you could eat forever:
Favorite sushi restaurant:
Pressing industry issue:
How hard it is to find quality staff. Profitability of restaurants doesn’t allow us to pay more or offer more, and in the industry as a whole, that’s kind of problem. And the disparity of union versus non-union jobs is amazing. Union jobs are not sustainable either, but there should be a medium.
Best dish you’ve had out recently:
The short rib at Betony.
An underrated restaurant:
An underrated person:
Something you love about New York City restaurants:
They’re always changing and evolving. Everyone’s pushing each other creatively, there’s always camaraderie, and there’s a chance to create something new all the time.
Something you wish you could change:
The long hours.
Any hobbies outside of work?
Surfing. Watching movies. Taking the dogs for walk.
Any part of your story that you think has gone untold?
My creative process — I’m influenced by other restaurants, by what I see on media and the internet, and sometimes stuff just comes into my head randomly. I go through life and remember things I like here, there, and everywhere. I might not realize it in that moment, but then I turn it into something. I’m influenced by ingredients out there. And the weather. Now that it’s finally warm, I’m inspired to do something floral on the plate.