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Le Petit Cafe Chef Roy Ip (Photo by Kelley Fryer/elan )
Le Petit Cafe First Course: Chilled premium jumbo shrimps served with European cucumber, Japanese soba noodles, and spicy sesame vinaigrette. (Photo by Kelley Fryer/elan )
Le Petit Cafe Second Course: ORGANIC SALAD DU JOUR SERVED WITH PREMIUM ARTISAN CHEESE. (Photo by Kelley Fryer/elan )
Le Petit Cafe Dessert: Pear poached with prunes in spiced burgundy wine(Served warmor chilled) (Photo by Kelley Fryer/elan )
Le Petit Cafe Dessert: Crispy apple tart served warm with caramel sauce and creme chantilly. (Photo by Kelley Fryer/elan )
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The four of us walk in, ready to celebrate. One of us just got a promotion. Two of us recently received awards for our work. One of us just got into law school.
We arrive at Le Petit Café, just off the Branford town green, at 5 p.m. We walk into the cozy French bistro, following another party of three people, one of them carrying a small, blue gift bag, a present to bestow as part of their celebration. The party that comes in just after us includes two young people, their small child held in arms, and more gift bags and a balloon.
Winnie Lui, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Roy Ip, greets us, gives us a cheerful greeting and gets us seated. Moments later our waitress Ivanna is at our table, ready to take our drink order. Two of our party have been here before, to celebrate wedding anniversaries, many years ago. We are giddy with excitement. We know we are in for an evening of excellent service and outstanding food in a fun and relaxed atmosphere, at the best place on the shoreline, and one of the best in Connecticut and in the country, to celebrate family, friends, and success.
It's one thing for a restaurant to put out a good meal, or to have a good year even. Roy and Winnie have been successful year after year after year after year.
To write this story, I meet him at his restaurant at 10 a.m. the day before as he and his crew started to prepare that evening's meal. I tell Roy I am interested in exploring the notions of perfection and consistency, and in every conversation we have for the rest of the day, he comes back to those ideas, along with the importance of family and teamwork, two of his favorite topics.
'Like tiki taka football'
Roy, the consummate team player, takes the lead in the kitchen, working with what is, to me, an astoundingly small crew. They don't go by titles, just names and nicknames. There is Roy. And Geovanny, who takes the lead on meats and sauces. And Tanny, who is in charge of pastry, dessert, and bread. And Ippo, who mans the dishwasher and otherwise keeps everything spic and span. The four move effortlessly among the tasks required, taking the lead as necessary, and backing each other up as needed, all of them with an eye on, and an ear out for the small Sunbeam timer clipped on a high shelf that ticks off the seconds then beep, beep, beeps when the next task is required. It's like that small timer is in charge.
Roy moves between the stove, and the oven, and the counter all day, all the while also answering the phone, taking reservations, calling the fishmonger to make sure the order is all set, and attends to a myriad of other tasks, including staying connected with his family, friends, and customers on social media. I post pictures on my Facebook feed throughout the day as Ippo, Tanny, Geovanny, and Roy work, and one of our friends writes, "The secret to that level of success is the chef!!!" Moments later, Roy has responded, "The team work is the KEY." Both comments are true.
"We are a team, we are a family. And they know who calls the shots." He pauses for two beats with a stern look on his face. "Winnie, my wife." He laughs and it is clear he is serious about the enormous respect and admiration he has for his wife and her work on behalf of the restaurant and their family.
Roy deliberately keeps his staff small. "Too much staff? People relax too much and they make mistakes." He talks about the Barcelona style of playing soccer. "It's like tiki taka football," he says, where the ball is moved player to player quickly with just a touch on the ball. Passing and moving, passing and moving until the ball is near the goal. Then, the killer pass that sets your teammate up for the goal. "We do a beautiful job," he says. "We watch soccer together too," he says, in the kitchen on their iPhones and, for big matches, on an iPad.
As for consistency, he says, "It's like storytelling. It's not just the story itself. It's how to tell it in the best, freshest way. It's how you execute it."
Having a passion for what you do is important. "If you don't have passion, you will lack the energy to move faster, be better."
Roy says never consider yourself and what you are doing as the best. "Saying you are the best sets a limit." He sets goals impossible to reach. "It's like being on a treadmill. If you set it for 10 minutes, you will get tired at 8 minutes. You're tired! If you set it at 15, you will feel fine at 8, you will feel fine at 10, and at 12, you'll be like, what the hell!" We both laugh.
"If you set a limit, you will limit your creativity, your potential. Yes, maybe the last time was good. But today will be even better."
While we talk, Roy and his team are working hard, bustling about the kitchen. Roy calls several times about the fish, concerned that seasonal shoreline traffic might prevent the truck from arriving on time. He's trimming the pork, cutting the tenderloin away from the ribs, which are popped into the oven for a mid-morning snack for the team. When the fish arrives, he starts to cut perfect fillets.
Nobody is Perfect
As for perfection? It's a goal, not a destination.
"Nobody is perfect," he says, standing by the phone where he has just taken another reservation. "That's why I want to be a nobody." He laughs uproariously at his own joke, making me laugh. I can see Geovanny nearby, in the kitchen sharpening knives, crack a smile, I think from the sound of the laughter.
"Oh my son hates that joke," Roy says, holding his head in his hands. "He would say 'how could you do that?'"
Roy walks to one of the walls of the dining room. They are are covered with baskets, trinkets, keepsakes, signs in a variety of languages, photographs of celebrities, and award after award after award. Since the restaurant's opening in 1997, Le Petit Café has achieved a rating of Extraordinary from The New York Times in 2005, has consistently earned a top rating in the state and in the country for its food from Zagat, and has been featured among the Top 30 in the nation by Zagat and USA TODAY. It's all up on the walls. Roy goes right for a picture of his son, Kevan, who is now 22, a recent college graduate headed for medical school. The picture is of Kevan when he was a baby, right before the family moved here from Hong Kong. Roy then shows me a picture on his phone of his son's recent graduation.
"Graduating from Yale," he says, shaking his head. He is so proud of his son. "Especially, because we are nobody."
Later he says he's also proud to help other immigrants, from Ecuador and Malaysia and other countries, get their start here in this land of ample opportunity. "Our family bond is important, it keeps us all moving forward."
As Roy, Geovanny, Tanny, and Ippo work, the kitchen smells like bread baking, apples roasting, and sugar caramelizing. Along with the sound of a whisk beating against a metal bowl full of creme chantilly, knives chopping produce on the cutting boards, and the phone ringing with someone else calling about a reservation, the song Hotel California is playing from speakers connected to Roy's cell phone.
Roy returns from answering the phone and says it's his favorite song. When he was a kid growing up in Hong Kong, he taught himself English by listening to and singing along with this song and others.
The following night, Ivanna and Julie provide perfect service in the 45-seat dining area, as Roy, Geovanny, Tanny, and Ippo toil in the kitchen.
Our starters include sautéed French escargot with a cognac sauce on an herb accented puff pastry and day boat sea scallops from Maine served ceviche style with Valencia orange, field ripened pineapple, and jalapeño-cilantro vinaigrette.
For dinner, pan-roasted wild Alaskan halibut served with ratatouille, tapenade, and fresh basil oil and a baked miso glazed Chilean sea bass (MSC certified) served with sautéed baby pea sprouts, and miso-ginger sauce. Both are cooked to perfection. Roasted premium aged New York strip steak is served au poivre style with watercress salad, french fries, and Roy's signature cognac-black peppercorn sauce. In the fall, Roy will switch in new items on the four-course, prix-fixe menu, rotating in a French onion soup, and likely a cassoulet.
Dessert? They are all magnificent, but the flourless chocolate cake, served warm with a raspberry sauce and creme chantilly, particularly so. It comes under a sparkling spun sugar dome, with a candle in it.
The evening is relaxing and full of laughter and such a success. We haven't even left and we can't wait to come back. My time with Roy has reminded me, our time with friends, family, and the people who make up our team is precious. We should celebrate with them often.
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