Branford —- Chef Roy Ip lays a side of halibut the length of a pant leg on the counter and gently runs his powerful hands over the snowy flesh, probing for stray pin bones.
Suddenly, Ip leans in close, his nose less than inch from the fillet, and inhales.
"Smell it," he invites his guest. "Smells like nothing."
As it should, explains Ip, owner and chef of the acclaimed Le Petit Café in Branford. Fish, he says, should never smell fishy.
It's 11:30 a.m. and the 51-year-old Hong Kong native is already deep into preparation for that night's dinner service. Water roils in pots on the 12-burner gas range as the overhead exhaust hums a deep baritone.
Dressed in a blue padded Patagonia vest and sweat pants, stubble lining his face, Ip moves cat-like around his cozy rectangular kitchen. He and two assistants methodically clean vegetables, prepare curly-cued puffed pastry baskets for the restaurant's escargot appetizer and slide freshly constructed apple tarts into the ovens.
All is in keeping with Ip's philosophy that everything, from his rustic country bread to his truffle butter, both recipes closely guarded secrets, must be fresh, the best quality and homemade whenever possible.
The key to success in the often brutal restaurant business?
"You never anything for granted," Ip says. "Keep your integrity. Cherish what you have. Cherish the loyalty of your customers. And keep the consistency. Let the food talk to them."
That devotion to excellence has catapulted Ip to the pinnacle of the local and national restaurant world, along with the pressure to stay on top.
In its most recent Connecticut ranking, the respected Zagat website, which rates thousands of eateries nationwide, named Ip's Le Petit Café the best restaurant in the state and one of the 30 best in the United States. Diners awarded the food at the intimate 50-seat bistro on the Branford Green a nearly perfect 29 out of a possible 30 points.
The ranking put Le Petit Café in the same league as some of the nation's most famous restaurants, including Thomas Keller's French Laundry and Eric Ripert's Le Bernardin. In contrast to others in the top 30, Ip achieved his top rating without a publicist, advertising or marketing.
"I believe in putting my money and my effort into the menu," he said.
But even as Ip savors his success, he and his wife Winnie, who co-owns the business, can't relax.
"We won't say we are negative," Ip says, sitting in his dining room with pictures on the walls of him with French cooking legends Jacques Pepín and Julia Child. "We are always concerned. We are always worried about what is next. It's like preventive health care. We do well, but the most important job is to keep up the standards. How to keep what you have."
It's an attitude born of Ip's hardscrabble childhood, his unlikely metamorphosis from Hong Kong gold trader into top chef and his long journey to success in a new country sometimes resistant to the idea of a Chinese chef cooking French food.
Sleeping on a Shelf
The fifth of six children, Ip was born in 1962 in Hong Kong. His father and grandfather had fled their south China home for the then-British colony not long before the 1949 communist revolution.
An electrician, Ip's father set up a small shop that doubled as the family home. The store was the size of a small living room, Ip says. The entire family slept in a two-to-three-foot-high shelf set inside one of the shop walls and reachable by ladder. His mother cooked food for all eight of them on the street.