What powered Chef Craig Strong onto the international hospitality stage were twin goals: A desire to own a convertible 914 Porsche, and a passion to be the best chef he could be.
Those aspirations, emerging when he was just 15, propelled him toward the hospitality industry, and inspired him to work very hard to seize every opportunity. Doors opened for Strong.
Some of the best kitchens in Paris and Spain eventually welcomed the hard-working young man. And under the tutelage of some of the very best, Strong learned to run a kitchen, manage a menu, and most importantly, please his diners.
And just last month Strong opened his very own restaurant on the California coast.
Ocean at Main in Laguna Beach represents the culmination of a lifelong dream to own a restaurant.
In this week’s Q&A with Boxerbrand blog Recipe for Success, Strong explains further.
Q: How did you find your way into the restaurant world?
I entered the hospitality arena because I have loved cooking from a very young age, and at the age of 15, I gravitated toward the restaurant industry. I had an additional goal in mind at that time, which was to earn enough money to buy my first car— a convertible 914 Porsche. I did get the car, but in reality, I gained so much more from the culinary experience.
I fell in love with the restaurant industry, especially the cooking; I just found so much joy in it. I love knowing my cooking plays a small role for others as they celebrate their birthdays, anniversaries or other special occasions. This experience is part of the joy of being a chef.
Q: What was your inspiration?
I grew up in a big family, which I find to be similar to working in a restaurant, because you have many different personalities coming together in one place, sometimes at the same table. And, I love that aspect. I felt that cooking was my calling because I loved it … and it came naturally to me.
Growing up, my family loved to travel, and my dad worked for an international company. I learned early that having international experiences helped me grow as a person, to become more well-rounded.
So, I knew when I decided to pursue being a chef that I wanted to live in another country at some point. France was my first choice, as it is with many chefs, but when an opportunity to go to Spain came, I took it. I’m so glad I did because at that time, El Bulli (a Michelin three-star restaurant that inspired him) was the number one restaurant in the world, and Spain was experiencing a culinary emergence. The timing was perfect. Now having Spanish style cooking in my repertoire is a major benefit, instead of French only, especially here in Southern California. And being able to speak Spanish has come in very handy.
Q: You’ve been a major influence at famous restaurants. Now that you own your own business, what has been the biggest challenge?
For me, what gave me the most sleepless nights was hiring my team.
The easy part of opening a restaurant is buying furniture, plates, china, glass and silver. But the truly complex part is finding the right people. Our general manager and I went through a careful selection process of looking for people who were going to fit our culture.
It was very important for us to find the right mix, and, as my dad told me, your number one asset is your associates. But it didn’t really sink in until I started hiring my own people. The secret is to find like-minded people, so your words and thoughts can resonate with them. Once we had our team in place, I knew the most important part of the equation had been solved. And today, it makes me proud to hear guests commenting on how nice our staff is.
Q: What advice would you or your team offer to someone entering the hospitality business?
General Manager Dylan Cloughen says it best. He says: Stay focused, stay vigilant and stay dedicated. Be adaptable, imaginative and innovative. Listen to your intuition and stay guided by your values.
Chef Strong has been a major player in the hospitality world since graduating from L’Academie de Cuisine near Washington, D.C., at age 19. He has cooked at numerous Ritz Carlton properties around the world, as famous restaurants. And has worked with chefs in Paris and Spain. Before seizing the opportunity open his own restaurant, he worked 9 years for famous, fine-dining establishment The Studio Restaurant in California. —Chef Strong uses Boxerbrand’s Linen Naturals in his table presentation. Thank you!