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Stephen Hopcraft Talks About His Journey From Dishwasher To Top Chef

For the last four years or so, Stephen Hopcraft has served as the Executive Chef of Michael Mina’s Seablue in the MGM Grand.  It’s been quite the journey for him, growing up in Ohio, then onto Santa Cruz where he first got into cooking, then up to San Francisco where he honed his craft and eventually made his way to Our Little Twinkle in the Desert.  Along the way he picked up a wife, a couple of kids and a little bit of reality show celebrity. Not bad for a kid from Shaker Heights, Ohio.

Executive Chef of Michael Mina's Seablue, Stephen Hopcraft

Executive Chef of Michael Mina's Seablue, Stephen Hopcraft

From Ohio, Hopcraft went to Cabrillo College in Santa Cruz, CA where he was going to be a Sculpture major.(just when I thought there wasn’t anything more useless than my Music degree) Like many college kids, he got a job starting off as a dishwasher at a local restaurant, and like so many in The Life of the culinary industry, life in the kitchen became much more attractive than life in the “real” world.  It was at The Dolphin on Santa Cruz’ Municipal Wharf where Stephen first cut his teeth in the kitchen, working his way up from Dishwasher to practically running the restaurant.  As The Dolphin was basically a “fish n’ chips” joint, Stephen sought out cooking that was a little more involved, wanting to learn the craft.  He looked around town and found Café Bittersweet and Chef Thomas Vinolus.

Hopcraft credits Vinolus with really teaching him how to cook.  How to make sauces, how to make soups and the fundamentals of cooking that every chef lives or dies by.  After Chef Vinolus felt he taught Hopcraft all he could, he suggested to Stephen to enroll in culinary school and that’s exactly what he did.  Stephen enrolled in the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco which not only rounded out Stephen’s education, but placed him in the area where he met the people he needed to meet to get to the place where he is today.  While at CCA, Stephen did his externship with Charlie Trotter. When his time there was done, he asked Trotter where to go from there, to which Trotter suggested Aqua.  Thus the relationship of Stephen Hopcraft and Michael Mina was born.

Before Michael Mina became the incredibly successful restaurateur we know him to be today, Mina was Executive Chef at Aqua in San Francisco.  Starting off as garde-manger (French for Salad Bitch), Hopcraft eventually worked his way up to a Line Cook in his first of what would be several working relationships with Mina.  When Mina left Aqua to begin an empire of his own, Hopcraft bounced around a few other restaurants in the San Francisco area until he joined up with Mina once again at Arcadia.

It was at Arcadia where he fancied the Pastry Chef, Catherine, and love blossomed.  Catherine wanted to further her career in Las Vegas, so Stephen and Catherine did the long distance thing for a bit until Stephen couldn’t stand being away from his honey so much. Stephen decided to take the Vegas plunge as well and eventually married the baker of his dreams.  Stephen started off at Bouchon in the Venetian as Mina had yet to take over Las Vegas.  He worked at Bouchon for about 8 or 9 months until he got the call from Michael Mina’s friend and now business partner, Andre Agassi, that he was getting into the restaurant biz and was opening Sedona in Summerlin (a neighborhood of Vegas filled to the brim with the entitled, for those not familiar).

Sedona was Hopcraft’s first real role as Executive Chef, designing the menu and doing all of the fun things that Executive Chefs do.  When Sedona was about to change hands, Stephen left to help open Mina’s Stripsteak at Mandalay Bay for about 8 months until the position opened up at Seablue where Hopcraft has been doing his thing as Executive Chef for the last 4 years.

Table setting at Seablue

Table setting at Seablue

Across the hall from Seablue in the MGM Grand stands Tom Colicchio’s Craftsteak.  The geography of this is important because Colicchio and the fine folks at Bravo were holding open auditions for Top Chef at his place.  Seeing the sign on his way walking into work, Hopcraft made one of those defining at-the-whim kind of decisions and gave the audition a shot.  The producers loved him so it was off to Washington D.C. to tape this latest season of Top Chef.

As fans of the show (although you might not be a fan of this season. Woof.) have seen, Stephen couldn’t quite get in a rhythm on the show.  Like Reggie Bush, he spent a lot of time on the bottom. (get it?) Like the good man he is, Stephen owns up to it.  Stephen told me about a lot of the Monday Morning Quarterbacking he’s done since the taping and his episodes have aired. He should have studied the show more, he should have gone with the competition more…these are all things he understands should have been done.

One of the big disadvantages Stephen felt he had is that his catering chops weren’t up to snuff.  As you may notice, many of the Elimination Challenges up front are buffet-style steam table events.  Cooking a la minute and restaurant-style plate the food, send it to the table kind of format is a completely different set of chops than cooking food that will do well under the conditions of a chafing dish.  Stephen kicks himself for not studying the show more to realize the more restaurant style challenges don’t come until later in the season, you know…the week after Stephen got eliminated.  So close, yet so far.

As Seen On TV: Stephen Hopcraft

As Seen On TV: Stephen Hopcraft

Stephen will be the first to tell you that the whole point of Top Chef is to get chefs out of their comfort zone. Stephen told me, “The whole thing is take you out of your comfort zone, put you on your heels and now go cook. That’s the show. Some people adapt to it better than others. For sure.”  I was surprised when I asked him about his preparations for the show if he called up any buddies that were previous contestants to get the inside track and he said no that he thought that was cheating.  It speaks volumes to the guy’s character, but even I, who I like to think is a fairly stand-up, honest fellow is scratching his head with that one.

Speaking of his character, I asked Stephen if he liked the way he was portrayed on the show, as the editing room can often be a cold-hearted bitch.  He seemed pleased and thought he came across as the easy going, fun loving guy that he thinks he is.  I definitely agree with that, both that he is and that’s how he came across on the show.  While Stephen can stand up tall with how he was as a human being on the show, he obviously has a few regrets with some of the cooking choices he made.

One that stands out in his mind is, of course, the dish he got eliminated on.  For those that need a refresher or haven’t seen the show, the challenge was to cook a dish for a bunch of international dignitaries that used the flavor profile of a particular country.  Stephen got Brazil, a country whose cuisine he was not particularly familiar with.  I can see that.  When I think of Brazil I think of two things; nether region waxing and women with tremendously fabulous asses.  Stephen opted to use products from Brazil and come up with something on his own; a marinated skirt steak over rice.  The flavors were well received, but it was the rice destroyed by yet another chafing dish that cut his Top Chef run short. You don’t cook buffet rice like you do when you plate it in the kitchen and send it out to the table to be served.  Oops.

Another tough thing for Stephen to wrap his head around were the difficulties of shopping. “You’ve got $200 to make 150 portions of food. You do the math on that one,” said Stephen.  Also what was difficult for him was shopping at the same place, Whole Foods, all of the time. On this Hopcraft says, “They have great products, but shopping at the same place for every challenge made it tough for me to come up with something in a new direction.”  Sometimes all you need is a change of scenery to have a change of mindset, something Stephen would be the first to tell you he desperately needed for the competition.

Hopcraft’s advice to future contestants on Top Chef is that, “the person that will always do best on that show is the person that is able to change and grow and really respond to what the judges are looking for and open up. I think there were some contestants, me being one of them, obviously I got eliminated, that kind of just got stuck on their own thing on what they want to do and really just kept on plugging away at that.”  He then added, ”I kept on trying to do something that wasn’t there, try to make something that was out of something it wasn’t. I kept trying to do that and make it happen when I should have backed off and let the challenge and the ingredients speak for themselves and do it in that way.”

While Stephen feels that he might have done a few things differently, he has no regrets doing Top Chef.  In fact, he has a few moments of pride, his Quickfire Toothpick Challenge entry being one of them, which he thinks he should have won.  He said, “I think that a lot of people got to see what I’m all about personality wise.  I don’t think it highlighted my cooking abilities, again, just because that’s not the way that I process things and cook.”

Chef Stephen Hopcraft In Front of HIs Home Turf, Seablue

Chef Stephen Hopcraft In Front of HIs Home Turf, Seablue

If you want to see how Stephen Hopcraft really cooks, there is no better time than right now as there are still a few days of Restaurant Week remaining (it goes through September 5th).  Hopcraft is proud of his Restaurant Week menu by picking some of the more “foodie type things” on Seablue’s menu, one of which is a first course choice of Tandoori Octopus.  Also on the menu are choices between Scallop Ceviche and Chicken & Chorizo Empanadas for the first course, Paella, Angus Ribeye and Arctic Char for the main and Bananas Foster Creme Brulee for dessert.  The three course meal goes for $50.10 with $6 of that directly benefiting Three Square.  That’s 18 meals for some people in need here in Southern Nevada.

While Stephen’s time on Top Chef has come to an end, there’s still a chance for him to bring home a W for the 702, and that is for Fan Favorite.  The polls are open now and close on September 8th for us to vote for Stephen as our Fan Favorite. A direct link to vote for Stephen Hopcraft as your Fan Favorite on Top Chef is here  Wouldn’t it be nice for his two lovely, fresh out of the oven, twin daughters, Chloe and Madison, to have a Daddy that’s a Fan Favorite?  10 G’s buys a lot of toys for them, so get out the vote and let’s bring one home for the 702!  (Oh yeah, and while you’re in the voting spirit, there’s another guy I know looking for votes)

Thanks to Chef Stephen for taking the time out of his day to chat with me for a bit.  It was nice getting to meet him and I look forward to testing out his wares in the near future.  Don’t forget his Restaurant Week selections, it’s one of the better looking menus of the lot.



MGM Grand Hotel & Casino
3799 Las Vegas Blvd. S
Las Vegas, NV 89109

(702) 891-3486

Follow Seablue on Twitter at @SeablueLV

Mike Dobranski is a professional musician, amateur blogger, eater of good food, poker junkie, master of the inappropriate comment and bad husband to a wonderful wife.

Follow Mike and Tasting Las Vegas on Twitter at @TastingLasVegas

Want To Be At The Greatest Party Ever Thrown On Earth? Then Vote Everyday From Now Through 09/30/10! Thanks!

Want To Be At The Greatest Party Ever Thrown On Earth? Then Vote Everyday From Now Through 09/30/10! Thanks!

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