One If By Land owner Oscar Proust began upgrading the food at his restaurant last year with the hiring of chef Gary Volkov, who brought the quality to levels it had never achieved before. After Volkov left to open his own restaurant, Prince Street Café, Proust hired renowned chef Gary Robins as a consulting chef until a new permanent chef was found. That chef has arrived in the person of Craig Hopson, who seems to be fitting right in. Hopson has been given more freedom than any other chef before him to raise the standards even higher. One if By Land is a restaurant traditionally known more for its atmosphere than its food, but in New York, nothing ever stays the same.
Interview with Craig Hopson
NYRI: What is your background and training as a chef?
Craig Hopson: I’m from Australia and that’s where it all started when I was 16. I was surfing at the time and I thought it would be cool to work at night and surf during the day, only to realize that there is an art to cooking. That led to an apprenticeship at a local hotel. Then I traveled to the Gold Coast in Australia, where I worked under a really great chef named Stephan Codron. After working in Sydney for 5 years, I took the next step and traveled to Europe. I spent one year working in Geneva, and then a year in Paris working under Alain Senderens at Lucas Carton, where I had an unbelievable experience. I returned to Australia where I helped a friend open a restaurant in Brisbane, called Circa. America has always been a place I wanted to travel to, and the opportunity arose when my friend Frank Brunacci opened up the Ritz Carlton in New Orleans. I spent a year there with him and after that I worked at the Ritz Carlton in Philadelphia. After all these experiences, I came to New York and worked with Terrance at Artisanal before becoming the Chef de Cuisine at Picholine.
NYRI: What sort of changes did you think were necessary in the cuisine when you came here to OIBL?
Craig Hopson: From what I know or had heard about the restaurant, it didn’t have a reputation for its food, so I wanted to change that. Also, the food was kind of old-fashioned and heavy with a lot of ingredients on the plate. I wanted to lighten it up, make it fresh and contemporary; that’s the style of food that I do. Fresh tasting with deep flavors and a simple presentation.
NYRI: What sort of changes have you made thus far?
Craig Hopson: I spent the first week in the kitchen looking at what the style of service was and what the kitchen was capable of. I designed dishes around what will fit into the style of the restaurant and what we can execute successfully, as we do large numbers here. I had a look at what they were doing and implemented changes over time. There were some dishes that HAD to change soon. I started off with some dishes that were simple but tasty, and in my style. It has progressed to more complex dishes, and in fact it is very much still a work in progress. A big part was to re-configure the kitchen. We put in a new hot line, re-positioned the dishwasher area to create a garde manger, and we built a better pastry area downstairs. I had to hire the right staff and train the original staff on how to work my way and cook in a different style. I also spent time re-organizing the kitchen in terms of how the dishwashers worked, the expediting system, and how the food runners delivered the food.
NYRI: What are some of your new dishes you think will become popular here?
Craig Hopson: The gruyere gnocchi with burgundy snails is fast becoming a signature dish. The beef Wellington was the one dish that had to stay, even though I have updated that. It is a tough dish to do because there are so many variables. People like the turbot poached in coconut broth with peekytoe crab and mango. I like the black bass with roasted grape salad and the cushion of veal with parmesan and butternut squash. I’m also introducing a small plates menu available at the bar that I’m really excited about.
NYRI: How much of an influence do you think your time at Picholine will have on what you will be cooking at OIBL?
Craig Hopson: A huge influence. My time there was a defining moment in my career. I not only learned a lot about cooking, but also the way New York restaurants work. Terrance is a great influence in my style of cooking and I am truly grateful for that. He really taught me how to impart a lot of flavor into each dish and use really definitive flavors. There’s an emphasis on making each dish delicious and flavorful. However, I’m using my experience from working all over the world and using those flavors that I know how to use. I love mixtures of spices and using techniques of flavors from Asia, the Middle East and Europe. That, combined with my experience at Picholine, will be included in a more contemporary approach for OIBL.
Interview with Oscar Proust
NYRI: Tell me about the design changes you’ve implemented, you’ve been there since ’91 so you must be excited to see some physical changes to the restaurant?
Oscar Proust: Yes, the restaurant has gone through several transformations since I started but this one has been the largest in scale. We’ve redesigned the entire kitchen which hadn’t been done since 1997. I also worked with interior decorators Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hersheimer to update the look of the dining rooms while keeping the historical integrity of the building. I’m very happy with the results! We changed all the lighting, removed the smoked glass mirrors from the back garden room, installed banquettes along the wall in that room and the back of the mezzanine, removed the carpeting in the bar, and installed reclaimed wood on the floor. We purchased chandeliers and sconces from a company that makes beautiful reproductions of colonial-era lighting. We have a large bar area and wanted to separate that from the dining room and serve more casual food there. Removing the carpeting and changing the lighting started that process. Then Christopher and Melissa found an artisan who designed a retractable door that has a wooden base and thick hand-blown circular glass panes. Now the bar and the dining room are truly separate and the effect is beautiful.
NYRI: What is your favorite story or stories of customers who came into your restaurant for romance?
Oscar Proust: Oh, there are a lot of them! We had a gentleman who got married in the restaurant ten years earlier and told his wife they should come back for their anniversary and show their children where they got married. She thought it would just be the four of them having dinner, but we closed the restaurant for them that night. He invited everyone who had been at their wedding and had a justice of the peace here so they could renew their vows. She was really shocked when she walked in. This past New Year’s Eve a gentleman told us he would be proposing before dessert. He also told another man at a nearby table who told the next table. By the time he proposed the whole room knew. The band started playing “their song” and the manager brought the ring to the table disguised as a dessert on a silver-domed platter with rose petals. As she entered the room with the platter everyone stopped talking and all heads turned to their table. The “dessert” went down and he barely proposed before the whole room broke into applause.
NYRI: There are so many restaurants in New York, why do you think OIBL came to be known, and still is known, as the “most romantic”?
Oscar Proust: I think the space lends itself to romance. It’s a very old building with a lot of exposed brick, four fireplaces, and a viewing garden. We have three dining rooms and a garden alcove so each space can be intimate and you don’t feel like you’re dining in a large restaurant. There are some areas, however that are not romantic, and since we have a vibrant corporate business clientele, we usually accommodate those guests in the less romantic areas.
NYRI: Tell us about what decisions have been made about modernizing and improving the cuisine here in the last two years. Gary came and improved the food, but has left, was his time there a positive influence?
Oscar Proust: I was very happy and honored to work with Gary Robins this past summer. He is an incredibly talented chef. When our former chef Gary Volkov decided to open his own business, we began a search for a chef. Gary Robins offered to come in as a consulting chef while we were searching. He launched our Sunday brunch which has become very popular. In addition, he tackled the re-working of the individual beef Wellington dish and taught our cooks some nuances about sauces that was much needed.
NYRI: You managed to get a terrific young chef, Craig Hopson, will you be allowing Craig a lot of freedom to update the menu?
Oscar Proust: Craig is wonderful. I first tasted his food when he was chef de cuisine at Picholine. Craig has total freedom with the menu and much to his credit he began changing it the first week he was here. Obviously, the beef Wellington remains, but Craig has added his touches to that dish as well. We’ve had a very positive response to his food from our guests and I personally love his food.
NYRI: Have any changes been made to the service or other aspects after Bruni’s comments in the NY Times?
Oscar Proust: Actually, we began making service changes before Mr. Bruni came in to the restaurant. I felt it was important for the service to match the food. Our waiters came out of tuxedos last summer. Since we’re now open for brunch, we had to hire more staff and we’ve got a great team in place. We have a wonderful new service director and wine director. I think all the changes make the whole dining experience better.
NYRI: Anything you’d like to talk about that you feel is important to share with our readers?
Oscar Proust: Most people in the industry know that public perception is the hardest thing to change. Because we are known as a “romantic restaurant” we do get a fair amount of people who are not experienced diners, and therefore might not understand our new food, but I want OIBL to be one of those restaurants that educates diners. The service team we are putting together will be one that informs, but does not judge, one that shows our guests an enjoyable time where they were able to experience something new, and go home and tell their friends about what a unique experience they had with us. As we grow and change, so do our customers, and I am excited to have found a chef who understands the tastes of our current and future guests. I believe we are a rare breed of restaurant that made significant changes because we wanted to, not because we had to.
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