Watch chef Richard Kuo in his tiny kitchen at Pearl & Ash, and you’ll see someone intensely focused on his craft: The chef is often immersed in a state of deep concentration even as the restaurant buzzes loudly around him. He’s concentrating on turning out hundreds of plates to a dining room that, honestly, is probably too big for his galley, and he’s unwilling to sacrifice technique or quality to do it.
He has high expectations to meet–the molecular gastronomy mecca wd-50 and Corton alum was a partner at Frej, an innovative Williamsburg pop-up that earned him and his former partner, Fredrik Berselius, soaring accolades before they parted ways in a manner that “was less than ideal,” according to Kuo. That sent him searching for his next gig, and he landed this project when he responded to a Craigslist ad placed by an old owner. When Pearl & Ash opened in February, Kuo’s textural, technique-driven fare was front and center. And not long after, he and his management team, which includes sommelier Patrick Cappiello (formerly of Gilt) and general manager Brandon McRill (King & Grove) took the ownership reins when the original proprietor departed.
With that résumé, it’s hard to believe that Kuo fell into this field “completely by accident,” but he insists that’s how it happened. “I was disillusioned at the end of high school,” the Australian explains. “My mom suggested taking an apprenticeship, so I opened the newspaper to the jobs section, and the first two pages were chef jobs. I called up the first three, one offered me a job, and I took it.” He worked the cold salad station at that restaurant, which was a 700-seat seafood joint. “It was not that glamorous, but I worked under a great chef. He understood the objective, and he taught staff how to do something the right way. That’s where I began building the basics.”
That chef kicked him out of the kitchen, though, a year later, insisting that Kuo go work elsewhere to hone his skills. “A lot of chefs want to hoard their best chefs, but he wanted me to thrive,” he explains. “He told me to get exposure.” Kuo skipped around a lot after that–“I didn’t work at very many places for a year, which is not a great thing as a young cook”–working burners in Australia and Vermont. While he was in New England, he started thinking about heading up to Montreal–until he stopped through New York to visit a friend. During that trip, he worked a stage at wd~50, then moved to the city on a whim when he was offered a job in that kitchen.
In part one of our interview, Kuo weighs in on why vegans shouldn’t eat in regular restaurants, the standard for kitchen beers, and why the brand of knife a chef uses should be irrelevant.
Up next, Kuo talks about why he finds Steve Ells inspiring.
Describe your culinary style.
classically trained in a French kitchen with French cooking school teachers. I don’t think I have any particular style, but there are particular things that I’m more naturally drawn to. I’m more adaptive. I work with what I have, and I live off the land.
Describe how you run your kitchen.
Very, very calmly. I used to be slightly less calm, but people change over the years. There are many ways to do things, so I identify people’s strengths and weaknesses and use that to get the most out of them. Everyone’s different, so you can’t expect the same from everyone.
How do you develop your recipes and menu?
From a core idea of some kind, like a vegetable that’s in season or meat, poultry, or game. I look at that and expand from there. Alternatively, there might be a technique that we’re really interested in. We identify the technique and ingredients that would work and build out from there. Take olives, for example. We have this trout dish with olive pearls. Traditionally olives are olives. People eat them whole or cut, sliced, or shaved. We wnat to present the same familiar profile but in a slightly different form. That’s a very Wylie-[Dufresne]-at-wd~50 way of thinking. It tastes the same but has a different mouthfeel or texture, and we devise a dish around it. We ask, what does it feel like to eat it? What do you think of this component? And we keep building around it.
Who or what inspires you?
Steve Ells at Chipotle. He bridged the gap between serving food with a lot of integrity and making something that’s consistent for the masses, and that’s really difficult to do. He has a good personality.
What chefs or food people do you most admire?
Guys that I’ve worked with and for: Paul [Liebrandt] and Wylie [Dufresne]. Paul is definitely very stubborn, but it really comes through in his food because he never stops pushing–it can always be bigger, better, and more extravagant. Wylie encourages you to think outside of the box. He cultures a really great kitchen mentality about living in the moment, developing camaraderie, and enjoying what you do.
Who do you look to for feedback on new dishes?
Patrick Cappiello and Brandon McRill, my partners. They both have extensive fine dining backgrounds, but they come from very different fields and perspectives, and they bring different pieces to the table. Patrick may find something bitter, salty, or sweet, and Brandon might look at it from a different light. It’s an interesting contrast. When it comes to taste preference, everyone’s different. So you ask, how much of the spectrum do you want to go for? Eighty percent of people with palates in the middle can be swayed either way, and 10 percent at either extreme are going to hate something or love something. We go for the 80 percent for the most part. It’s like at McDonald’s: The Quarter Pounder covers the spectrum, but some people want Filet-o-Fish. Lamb belly is never going to be the best seller, but some people will love it.
What brand of knife do you use and why?
I don’t have very many great knives. I have one Japanese knife, and I take reasonably good care of my knives. It’s more the tradesman than the tools. If you know how to use the knife, you should be able to fabricate things correctly. It goes to that same understanding of identifying strengths and weaknesses.
On the next page, Kuo divulges a food he can’t stand.
Are you partial to any of your spoons?
Very particular. There are kitchen spoons and restaurant spoons, and the difference is the level of curvature. Restaurant spoons are for quenelling; they’re steeper with a deeper cavity. Kitchen spoons are lighter. They’re aluminum, they have less of a cavity, and the surface area is greater for holding as you’re plating. I’m very particular about having the right spoon for each thing. I plate purees with a restaurant spoon. If I’m basting, I’m using a kitchen spoon. Not an enormous one, but a little guy that’s flatter.
What’s the most underrated kitchen tool?
The whisk, specifically a flat-bottomed whisk. It gets in the corners and bottom of the pot.
Favorite item in your pantry or walk-in?
Nuts, because they’re always there when you want to snack on them. When you’re doing stuff in there, you have to eat something.
What’s the most underrated ingredient?
Garlic. A lot of people take it for granted, but if I had only a couple of ingredients to use for the rest of my life, they’d be garlic and sugar. Independently. There’s a multitude of applications.
Is there a food you won’t eat?
Ripe papaya. It’s a food memory issue. I had it when I was very young, and it reminded me of vomit. I cannot have that thing around me without wanting to throw up.
Is there a special request you really dislike or won’t accommodate?
Vegans. If you’re a vegan and you go to a regular restaurant, what’s the point? I will cook for you, but I’ll be unhappy about it. And who am I to tell you how to spend your money? That being said, you’re missing the point of going to that restaurant. Sometimes it’s out of necessity because you’re with a group, but if you know, what are you doing? It would be like going to Marea and asking for a cheeseburger. It’s not relevant to what the restaurant is about.
Is there an ingredient you won’t work with?
No.There are a lot of things I dislike, but if one of my cooks is working on a dish and they can justify to me how something works, I’ll be happy to use the ingredient. Part of what we do here is not about cooking for ourselves but for people–what do people like to eat?
Up next, Kuo talks about why he hates seeing tomato, basil, and mozzarella on menus.
What do you hate seeing on menus?
I really don’t like seeing tomato, basil, and mozzarella on menus in that specific combination. It’s just so boring. I know everyone wants to celebrate a nice piece of fruit and great cheese, but I can buy that at Whole Foods. I don’t want to go to a restaurant for it. I go to restaurants to do my homework, and sometimes, I just want tacos and French fries–the kind of stuff I don’t want to make at home.
When customers want to thank you for a superb meal, what do you wish they sent to the kitchen?
Beer. Any type. Some sort of booze. That’s a universally welcomed form of gift in the kitchen. The cheaper and nastier, the better. The standard is PBR.
What’s next for New York restaurants?
On my management team, we all feel that it’s going to be more fine dining restaurants but dialed down to a more casual environment. We’re moving toward more content-driven concepts. It’s like fine dining with no tablecloths, but it’s still technically inclined and correct. We’ll see less labor-intensive food that still layers flavors and depth.
What local bar or restaurant do you frequent?
Whiskey Ward on the Lower East Side and Taqueria LES. It’s very accessible, very cheap, and the food is really good.
What’s the most underrated restaurant in New York City?
I’m inclined to say Taqueria LES just because I have such an affinity to it. And Laut. It does Singporean, Malaysian, and Thai food, and it has a Michelin star. The food is really good.
At what New York restaurant do you celebrate a special night out?
Whiskey Ward or Taqueria LES. I’m a creature of habit. Also Popeye’s. I get a big bucket of fried chicken and sit on my rooftop with some beers. It’s good times.
Part two of my interview with Richard Kuo runs in this space tomorrow.