"That's how I grew up until I was 10 or 11 years old," Ip says. "It was a tough childhood. There's no privacy. In the 1960s, that's how most (people) lived in Hong Kong. It's poor. It's really poor."
At age 6 or 7, Ip did his first cooking, making rice on a gasoline ring.
But cooking was not in the cards for Ip, at least not yet. A talented soccer player, he played professionally in Hong Kong for about two years after leaving school.
"One day, I wake up and think, 'I have to find a real job,'" Ip says.
At 19, Ip got a night job at a Chinese financial firm giving stock, gold and commodity quotations over the phone. Ip eventually became head Hong Kong gold trader for the Swiss UBS Bank.
In late 1980s, Ip met his future wife Winnie, who did not like the gold trading business. In addition, Hong Kong's turnover to China was approaching, leaving both concerned about the territory's future.
Winnie Ip was born in Hong Kong, but grew up in Brooklyn and was an American citizen, so in 1995, the couple moved to Manhattan. Giving up the gold business, Ip, now in his mid-30s, had to remake himself in a new country. He considered several trades, including car mechanic, before deciding to attend the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan.
"It's a coincidence," said Ip, who speaks no French and has never been to France, of his focus on that country's cuisine.
While at the institute, Ip met Madison resident Pepín, a dean at the school. Pepín had started Le Petit Café with a partner and used it for a TV series on opening a restaurant with $50,000. The restaurant was for sale. In 1997, Ip and his wife bought it and moved with their infant son to Connecticut.
'Don't Turn this Place into a Chow Mein House'
Ip quickly put his stamp on the already popular restaurant, changing its menu much to the consternation of some customers. But he was sure of his vision.
"I like classic," he said. "To me, their menu was too old fashioned. But I do think classic and old fashioned are different."
And then there were those who questioned whether a Chinese chef could cook French food.
"They asked me, 'Do you use MSG?" Ip says, shaking his head. "One woman said to Winnie, 'Don't turn this place into a chow mein house.' For us at that time, we had to prove what we can do."
Even today, almost 16 years after he took over Le Petit Café, when Ip buys boxes of goat cheese for his salads, clerks ask him why he's buying so much. Asians, so the stereotype goes, don't eat cheese.
"They wouldn't say that to you," he says to his white guest, an impish grin on his face.
Ip is quick to add that most people are open-minded. He treasures his numerous repeat customers, many from the Yale University community, where he has a strong following. Now a citizen, he is immensely grateful for the opportunities and success he found in America.
"America gave me more than I ask for," Ip says. "It's a great country."
It's All About The Service
It's 5 p.m., an hour before the evening's first dinner service. Freshly shaven, Ip pulls on his chef's jacket and sips his pre-service espresso. His goal: to pitch a perfect game this and every night.