Part one of my interview with Pearl & Ash’s Richard Kuo ran yesterday. Here in part two, the chef divulges his desert island food, names a top problem with the New York restaurant industry, and talks about his locksmithing hobby.
What would you like to see more of in the New York culinary scene?
Authentic ethnic food. Not the Americanized shit; that stuff is really bad. I really like authentic ethnic food. I love Ethiopian food.
What do you wish would go away?
Snacks. The novelty of having snacks at restaurants has really worn off for me. It’s more about the chef than the food or the people, and I really dislike that. And by snacks I mean one-bite kind of things that are very technique-driven and look like something else. First it needs to taste great. And it has to accomplish something. What’s the objective there?
What’s your guiltiest pleasure?
Fried chicken. In any form. If it’s chicken and it’s fried, I’ll eat it.
What’s your favorite meal to cook at home?
One pot wonders: Anything that requires one pot to cook start to finish. I hate washing dishes, so I only use one cooking vessel. Spaghetti bolognese. Stew. And soups. I make a big batch, and it lasts for days.
What’s the most memorable meal you’ve ever eaten?
Dinner at Blue Hill Stone Barns. There was this specific dish–it was so simple–cod cooked in coconut milk and coconut foam with pea puree. It was three things executed perfectly; it was phenomenal and in harmony.
What do you wish you could put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell?
Eel. I love eel. I would do it smoked and roasted, if only we had the facility to bring in live eel and do it ourselves. I love smoked eel.
What music is best to cook to?
Billy Joel and Kiss.
What one tip would you offer an amateur cook looking to improve his or her cooking?
Keep it simple. People get carried away with trying to replicate what they see.
What do you wish you could tell your line cook self?
Shut the fuck up and move. As a line cook, you should be seen and not heard. Focus, keep your head down, do the work, and move.
What’s your favorite dish on your menu right now?
Octopus for the same reason that I liked the dish at Stone Barns. There are very few components, it’s very simple, and it’s very well executed.
What are your favorite local purveyors?
I like using Windfall Farms from the market. They have a nice array of seasonal greens and edible flowers. Then there are these guys I refer to as the potato guys. They have a strawberry farm. They’re the potato guys with the strawberries.
What’s the most challenging thing about working in the New York restaurant scene?
If you want to get anywhere, you have to take a beating. The cost of living is high, and immediate financial rewards are disproportionate. You have to know that you really want to do this to make it worth it to invest the time into perfecting the craft.
Describe your craziest night in the kitchen.
When I was younger, I worked in a restaurant called Restaurant 41. It was on the 42nd floor of the building (it used to be on 41st). The Scottish sous chef set a person on fire. One night, he’d rolled up the kitchen mat and hurled it across the kitchen over the whole line at someone. But later, as a practical joke, he put flammable gel on someone and set it on fire. I was like, “See ya.”
What’s your proudest culinary moment?
Getting the Pete Wells mention in Diner’s Journal when we were still in Brooklyn doing the Frej project. One day to the next, our inbox was full. That’s when we began to feel like we might have accomplished something.
What’s your desert island food?
Fried chicken. On a desert island, you don’t have a lot of stuff to eat. It would keep you well-nourished.
What’s the most pressing food issue today?
Lack of education in cooks. A lot of people change careers and come into cooking with mismanaged ideals and expectations. They soon realize cooking is nothing like they thought; it requires far more time and labor. So the attrition rate is very high. Restaurants aren’t investing time into training or nurturing cooks and giving them education. These 300- or 400-seat restaurants promote people who aren’t qualified and teach people incorrect skills. It’s a self-perpetuating downward spiral. Culinary schools should be held accountable for some of these issues; they could be doing a better job. They’re not preparing the students well enough to go into the real world. Several schools tell people they’ll be chefs as soon as they get out, and the first job they have is a sous chef position. They don’t take time to work their way up and hone the skills along the hierarchy in a way that makes sense. That’s not doing the industry justice.
What’s always in your refrigerator at home?
Beer. And Arizona Iced Tea.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten?
A fried ant from Colombia. A sous chef of a place I worked just came back from Colombia, and ants are only available there for two or three weeks a year while they migrate. They’re considered a delicacy. But it was disgusting. It was all crunchy exoskeleton and then goo, like when you step on a cockroach.
Favorite food-related item to give as a gift?
A cookbook; it’s usually very specific to the recipient. I have a couple of rare books that I’ll keep copies of when I can find them and give them to a person when the time is right.
You can have anyone in the world cook for you. Who is it, and what are they making?
I would have Paul Bocuse make me fried chicken.
Have a hobby that’s totally unrelated to work?
Archery. Rock climbing. Locksmithing. I studied that for a year. It’s an interesting skill set. It’s very underrated and not very common.
What’s next for you?
The three of us are working on the Renegade Wine Connoisseurs; we have the second dinner coming up in a couple of weeks.We could take this in many interesting directions. We’re also expanding downstairs. We’ll be able to do things that are more fun. Right now, we have a lack of production, storage, and research and development. It’s impossible to do higher level food consistently.