The new executive chef at Sofitel, Australian Craig Napper, had a grandmother (his ‘nan’) who used to make delicious tortellini. Napper carries on his grandmother’s influence to this day, following a successful career cooking French, Japanese, Italian and other types of cuisine.
“As a kid I used to love her desserts. I always remember her for making tiramisu. I used to help her making dumplings. When she was growing up she had worked in restaurants; that’s how she learned.”
Napper’s signature dishes include fois gras with puffed wheat, chestnut puree, truffle with parmesan custard and seared scallops with kohlrabi puree with a pea crumble and lavender essence.
“We have thyme smoked Australian lamb, presented tableside with a crockpot, au jus, with pommes and gruyere cheese.”
He makes a mille-feuille dessert of vanilla bavarois and nougatine with cocoa crumb and water chocolate ganache, spice and orange oil.
Napper, 40, arrived in Phnom Penh on December 17 to take over as Executive Chef at Sofitel, with responsibility for all the restaurants, banqueting, the club floor and the bar.
“Any food at any outlet.”
As a young man on Australia’s Gold Coast, dissatisfied with university and the idea of becoming an architect, Napper went to work as a waiter and a chef du rang at a little seafood restaurant called Grumpy’s Wharf in Mariner’s Cove.
“I asked for an apprenticeship, worked 70 hours a week for minimal pay and loved every moment of it.”
After nine months at Grumpy’s Wharf, Napper went to work at the Hattie’s Restaurant in the 5-star ANA hotel on the Gold Coast. There, he met French chef Jean-Marc Heiustner.
Heiustner was pushing the boundaries and Napper learned everything.
He started doing sous vide, cooking sauces in a bag at low temperature.
“I learned some techniques that Australia wasn’t doing.”
In Queensland during the 1980s, olive oil was barely heard of, Napper said.
Another thing he learned from Heiustner was presentation.
“He said people look at a plate and see its sexy, they’ll say if this is half as good as it looks, I’m going to love it. It heightens your senses. The look is a big sense. He was training me how to do it: specials of the day: think of an idea. We would come up with an idea and we would create a dish.”
Another influence long the way was pastry chef Tim Choung of the Singapore International Culinary Team who Napper worked with and learned the fine art of making French pastries, chocolate and truffles and tortes.
When he was still an apprentice, Napper won gold with distinction in the Salon Culinare for pastry. His winning entries were a life-like octopus sculpted of butter and an innovation with pastry where he came up with poached fruits in a grand mariner and chocolate terrine with a tempura chocolate truffle along with seasonal fruit with a brandy snap wheel as well as grapefruit sherbet.
By this time, Napper was 23.
His next move was to the Hyatt Sanctuary Cove where he worked in The Grange restaurant for two years, perfecting modern Australian cuisine including kangaroo and crocodile. One signature dish was emu gazpacho with Tasmanian pepper berry.
After two years in that job, Napper went to work at London’s Metropolitan Hotel at the Nobu Restaurant. It was a Michelin Star Japanese restaurant.
The Nobu had seven teppanyaki chefs.
“Japanese chefs have a lot of honour and if you weren’t in their good books, you couldn’t go anywhere near them. They have incredible knife skills and I watched them use 30-inch blades to cut something tiny into a perfect pattern.
For a year Napper paid his respects to the Japanese chefs and improved his knife skills, working on high quality seafood, sashimi, with exactly the right size cuts. He learned to never accept second-rate food and picked up the cleanliness habits of the Japanese chefs.
His next adventure was at Berterelli’s Italian Restaurant in London where he worked as a sous chef on a mixture of classic and contemporary Italian food.
“We were putting out lots of high quality food. We went through five wheels of Parmesan cheese, each weighing 300 pounds.” Berterelli’s is where Napper learned to work with truffles which arrived directly from Italy. The experience caused him to remember the influence of his Italian grandmother.
He prepared dishes like chestnut ravioli and gnocchi ala romana.
“You’re either going to be restaurant or a hotel chef. You really need to be able to multi task different priorities. I decided I wanted to be an executive chef at a 5-star hotel.”
Napper later worked at the Hyatt Carlton Tower in London, as a sous chef in charge of multiple outlets and banqueting.
During that period, at The Rib Room and Oyster Bar he met famous chefs Marco Pierre White and one of his favourite chefs, Jacques Ramond.
Celebrities including Lady Di, Nigela Lawson, AA Gill and others would come in to enjoy the food.
Napper worked a short stint in Dubai at Jumuriah Beach followed by a service as a head chef in his native land of Brisbane, including work as a corporate chef for a bank, on 101 Collins Street in Melbourne.
Back in Brisbane, he served as head chef at Augustine’s on George French Restaurant located next to Parliament House.
He served Kevin Rudd and his team a private dinner, cooked for John Howard twice and a special evening cooking for Peter Gago, the head winemaker at Penfolds.
“Kevin Rudd came into power, he had his private dinner with team of advisors and I cooked for John Howard twice. My favourite dinner was cooking for Penfolds private dinner for Peter Gago, head winemaker.” He also cooked for Julia Gillard a few times.
He’s noticed an increase in requests for healthier food, gluten free, nut free or lactose free.
“A lot of people ask me to create vegetarian meals for health reasons, within the last decade more and more. People are becoming a lot more conscious about wine and food.”
His next job was as Executive Sous Chef at the Sofitel in Brisbane and was he proud to receive the Chef’s Hat, the Australian equivalent of the Michelin Star, on behalf of that Sofitel. That’s where he heard about the Sofitel Phnom Penh, and arrived here in December.
Napper will shortly be joined by wife Ann, son Lewis, 8, son Curtis, 3, and baby daughter Ashling, 1.
He plans to explore Khmer cuisine more and more. He’s now seeking out a river asparagus called samphire and tonka beans as well.
“I really want to meet the locals and regulars and give them something different. I want to get Wagu beef from Tasmania and lamb from Flinders Island, which are fantastic because they feed on the salt bush.”
Napper is preparing a special presentation of some of his contemporary French dishes for the media and others today at Sofitel.
To contact the reporter on this story: Stuart Alan Becker at [email protected]