The media has made much of the Korean-Italian mash-up at the heart of Piora (430 Hudson Street, 212-960-3801), the West Village restaurant opened by Simon Kim and chef Chris Cipollone last year, but Cipollone insists that to focus on fusion is to miss the point: “We’re a modern American restaurant,” he says. “Just for the record, that’s what we’re trying to do — not perfect the kimchi ravioli.”
The Italian bass note comes from Cipollone’s background; he grew up in Westchester, and his parents, who owned a wine store, exposed him to fine dining early. His family’s friends were chefs, so he spent a lot of time in the kitchen, landing his first job as a dishwasher when he was 14. He cooked full-time while he was in high school, which gave him an idea of the time demands of the profession, and after spending a year post-graduation in a kitchen, he packed his knives off to the Culinary Institute of America, where he honed his skills.
He graduated on September 9, 2001, and he was ready to go in for an interview at Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the twin towers, the next Friday. “I was going to set up a job and then go to Italy,” he explains. Two days later, the whole world changed, and in the aftermath, Cipollone decided to head to Europe anyway and deal with his career questions when he returned.
When he was back on American soil, though, no one was hiring in the city — so he spent more time in Westchester, landing his first chef job there at age 24. He finally made his way to the Big Apple via a job at Dylan Prime in Tribeca, and then he went to work for Scott Conant at Faustina before signing on as the chef at Tenpenny in the Gotham Hotel in Midtown, where he received a lot of attention for his menu.
When that contract ended, he spent some time mulling over his next project, which is when he connected with Kim, who took him to South Korea. The partners decided to open a restaurant that drew from their backgrounds, and so Piora was born.
In this interview, Cipollone talks about his philosophy, Korean food in America, and being a vegetable shaman.
What is your philosophy and how has it evolved?
You grow up as you go along — where I was at 24 in my first chef job to where I am now, it’s a whole different thing. I have less ego, though if any chef says he doesn’t have ego, he’s lying. I definitely have a more cater-to-the-guest business-driven look at things, and when you hit that mark, guests respond to the creative force, and that’s where the magic is. I firmly believe that you’ve gotta give a restaurant a soul, and that will sustain business. And that soul should come from the people who work in the restaurant, from top to bottom. The people who work with you, their passion pushes the restaurant along.
What was the vision for this place? What is the soul?
It all stems from Simon and me — when we got together and said we’re going to do this, we said we’re going to create the restaurant that we’d want to a) work in every day and b) go to. The restaurant I want to work in has employees that are happy, no bad relationships, everyone cares, and is about the team and not the individual. But I would want to come to Piora and eat at the bar or have a date night or pop in for a drink.
Talk to me about the trip that inspired this place.
We’ve been coined as Korean-Italian fusion, but we’re not fusing much — the restaurant is just a reflection of who we are. I’d never worked for an Asian chef or restaurant. When I was looking for the next thing, I had many offers for many projects but I wanted to challenge myself and do something different. If I did another Italian restaurant — which I want to do in the future — I wasn’t going to evolve. Simon was interested in me because I have no Asian influence. So he said, “Why don’t we go to Korea?” It was amazing — we did this whole culinary tour. We saw the Asian traditions — we went to these places that specialize in one thing and we saw these people who have been doing this for hundreds of years. I don’t know everything about Korean cuisine, but I like to use those techniques. I like to use Asian flavors and Korean flavors, and I like to introduce them and use them responsibly.
Where is Korean food in America going?
It’s definitely getting more notice, and it’s starting to stray from Korean barbecue and fried chicken. Hooni [Kim of Danji and Hanjan] is getting a lot of notice, and those kinds of restaurants will continue to evolve. Will Korean food dominate? I don’t know. Will it become the next Italian or French? I doubt it. But it will definitely take off. People will get more used to the idea of going to a Korean restaurant.
What are your views on culinary school now that you’ve been out for awhile?
I think culinary school is great. Like any industry thing, you get what you put into it. Half my graduating class can’t boil water, and I’m one of three still cooking. If you can afford it and you can do it, it’s a great thing — they will show you how to chop an onion. If you spend time in the library and take advantage of the teachers, you’re going to come out a superstar.
How has the New York restaurant industry evolved over your years in it?
It’s evolved a lot. I really saw the decline after the financial crisis. I was at Dylan Prime. That was an expense account place, and we went from doing 400 covers a night to 120 covers a night, and lunches were dead. That made everyone go, “Whoa.” Then there was this period when everyone said fine dining was dead, so there was a resurgence of burgers and casual concepts, and we all adapted. But now I think everyone’s sick of the burger, so it’s leveling out to the smart fine dining curve. Restaurants are giving that high level of quality and care and respect for ingredients, but we truly want people to have fun. All the strict rules have broken in the right ways.
Did you notice a big difference when you moved from uptown to downtown?
Yeah, in business. If I’d opened Tenpenny in this location, it’d still be open today. Maybe it was our fault for not doing a concept more appropriate to there. But I like downtown. Especially the West Village. The neighborhood is great, and so are the people who travel to come here. We have lot of repeat customers.
What about differences in running a hotel restaurant and doing this?
A hotel restaurant is a different beast — you’re doing breakfast, lunch, dinner, and room service. This restaurant stands out because it is a stand alone thing — the only reason to be here is to be here. I don’t have to worry about the 200 rooms above me, I just have to worry about people walking through the door.
You’ve been called a vegetable shaman before. Talk to me about your work with plants.
This is another part of me growing up as a chef — paying attention to the vegetables. You can get a chicken and cook it, and if it was a good chicken, it will be awesome. But exploring vegetables is harder. Sam Sifton did me right with that — I would like you to come in and have a vegetable dish and be like, wow, I didn’t know it could be like that. The more we support the farmers, the more we can get and the more we can do. It’s good to go back to those roots.
You earned that designation in the era of pork — are we coming out of that era?
Everyone’s now doing the vegetable thing. My customers love it. I sell more market vegetables than anything. It’s great to use what’s around, and hopefully I can help coin the era of the vegetable. It’s good and delicious. Pork is always going to be pork — there’s a lot you can do with plant matter.
What are your goals?
To keep doing what I’m doing. Down the road, we’ll do a couple of other projects, but we want them to be very well thought out and very cared for: no big box restaurants.
Best place in the city for coffee or tea:
If you’re intense and passionate about it, Blue Bottle. But all those places in the East Village — like Mud — those places are cool.
Best place in the city for a drink or a beer:
I love dive bars, and we go to Barrow’s for a PBR. There are tons of cool cocktail bars out there, but if I want to have a cool cocktail, I’ll go to the bar at Marea.
Best special occasion restaurant:
All the greats — any one of those. But one restaurant that I really like is Sfoglia. It’s beautiful and it serves great food.
Quintessential New York restaurant:
We were in Tulum for a short winter break, and on the way back from the airport, we called up Keens — I wanted some New York food and tannic red wine.
Someone you’d really like to cook for:
Anyone I look up to. Grant Achatz, Eric Ripert, Daniel Boulud, Jean-Georges, Daniel Patterson, Chris Kostow out at the Meadowood. Any chef that’s doing his or her thing — it’s really nice to see them when they come in.
Someone you’d really like to have cook for you:
All of those same guys. I’d like to go to all of their restaurants. I’d like to go out to Mugaritz — you can’t even sell that in New York. It’s so interesting to see these people pushing the boundaries. They’re taking the time to pay attention to the science of what’s going on. That amount of passion is really admirable.
Someone you’d be nervous about cooking for:
Any one of those guys. Celebrities, political people — they’re all just normal people, and that’s fine. But the people who know how much care goes into this and all the techniques, they’re not going to let anything slip by.
Dish you could eat forever:
A really well-made hand-cut pasta with garlic, olive oil, and parmesan. Or anything low-end: an amazing chicken wing. The more simplistic things done really well.
Something you love about the New York industry:
It keeps you on your toes. I love that and I hate that. The energy — it’s always go, go, go. But also, you can never slow it down. I think it’s important for every New Yorker to leave the city at least once a month.
Someone in the industry who doesn’t get enough credit:
All the sous chefs and chef de cuisines out there. These are the guys who are pouring their hearts out for not their food — they’re a big part of the support of how these kitchens operate. Behind every great chef are a couple of great sous chefs. And the cooks, too. A lot of really inspired people put this food out.
Place that doesn’t get enough credit:
Sfoglia. That place is awesome — it’s packed, so people know about it, but they don’t get enough media credit.
One thing you wish you could tell diners who eat here:
Go for the tasting menu. Let us do it. Especially if you’ve been here and tried the dishes we’re offering. We’re always going to be doing something different.
Pressing industry issue:
Go out to eat. This is our livelihood. People are always looking for the deals — support the small guys. They need it.