An insider's view of the Connecticut dining scene
Sep 20, 2013
11:31 AM
The Connecticut Table

Roy Ip and Le Petit Café in Branford Give Guests 'More Than They Expect'

Roy Ip and Le Petit Café in Branford Give Guests 'More Than They Expect'

Kevan Ip

Roy Ip.

While it sometimes seems as if all our great chefs learned to cook from a French papa or an Italian nonna in a farmhouse kitchen in Provence or Tuscany, chef Roy Ip breaks the mold. In more ways than one. His first kitchen was a gas ring on the pavement in front of a small electrical shop where he and his parents and five siblings all lived, in one of the poorest sections of Hong Kong. “We all worked,” he says. “We all pitched in.”

His first culinary exploit? Cooking rice for the family. Culinary career inclinations? None. “It was just another chore.”

In school, Ip’s prospects brightened. He became a soccer star, graduated with highest honors and played professional soccer for several years before leaving the game “to get a regular job.” Starting on the lowest rung of a career in finance, he worked his way up to become head gold trader for the Swiss bank UBS in Hong Kong. Dismissing his talent and affinity for hard work, he says his life has always been blessed with good luck. Most fortunate of all, he met and married a brilliant investment banker, who happened to be (and still is) as drop-dead gorgeous as she is enthusiastic and versatile. They were happy and secure.

And then it was over. Asia was in turmoil, and Hong Kong was on the verge of takeover. Roy Ip and his wife, Winnie Lui, moved to New York.

Now, years later, chef Ip and I are chatting at a corner table in his restaurant Le Petit Café, which has just earned a top food rating for 2013 from Zagat. It’s noon, a brief interlude in Ip’s whirlwind, prepping, cooking, do-it-yourself day before the restaurant opens for dinner. He tells me that before he came to America, he never imagined himself as a chef or restaurateur. “But to make a new life in a new country,” he says, “I had to make a new me.” He enrolled at The French Culinary Institute in New York (now The International Culinary Center), graduating with highest honors, snagging a job at Raoul’s Restaurant in Soho, where he cooked with the celebrated chef Claude Alain Solliard, and then some years later having a son and falling in love with Branford, Conn., and the charming café we’re sitting in today.

While other restaurants frenetically reinvent themselves, Le Petit Café, spick-and-span, with crisp white lace curtains on the windows and French posters and framed photographs on the walls, looks much the same as it did when it opened. Instead of paying for costly remodeling, Ip says he’d rather put the money into the food. “Give people a little more than they expect” is his mantra. It’s not enough for restaurant food to be good, he says, it should be better than what people can or want to cook at home or can get elsewhere. As I listen to him talk about consistency, keeping standards high, making his customers feel comfortable and cosseted, I am struck as I have been over the years by the empathy Roy Ip brings to a task some see as simply cooking.

His menu, handwritten with Gallic insouciance on a slate blackboard, looks surprisingly au courant. And why should it not, when the newest farm-to-table restaurants are scrambling to emulate home cooking the way French bistros did a hundred years ago? As I leave I catch a warm yeasty scent: Today, as every day, there will be freshly baked baguettes at Le Petit Café. Roy Ip wouldn’t settle for less.

 

Roy Ip and Le Petit Café in Branford Give Guests 'More Than They Expect'

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