Pearl & Ash's Richard Kuo: "If You're a Vegan and You Go to a Regular Restaurant, What's the Point?"
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.