Pearl and Ash's Chef Richard Kuo on Eliminating Variables and Learning from McDonald's
"There are always 20 different fires going on, so you want to douse the biggest one and move onto the next."
It's an exciting thing, being introduced to a type of passion you hadn't quite realized in a chef before. With Chef Richard Kuo of Pearl and Ash, passion is funneled through intense planning and precision. For a chef who's worked at wd~50, Corton and Seasonal, it's no surprise that method and rules reign, and it were those experiences that enabled him to open the much-loved but short lived Brooklyn supper club Frej, which he ran with Fredrik Berselius, and practically no one else.
Now he has some freedom with the kind of food he gets to make, but he has some new limitations with his kitchen and the communal leadership he shares with general manager Branden McRill and sommelier Patrick Cappiello, who you can catch sabering one of the thousands of bottles in their cellar on any given night of the week. Kuo's heightened attention to detail would be a bit much if not accompanied by a warm, self-aware laugh and subtle sense of humor, so we explored the value of his focus, how he utilizes it in this environment, and where it all came from.
You have a very vibrant small plates menu. Where do you begin when designing a dish? I think of who in the kitchen is going to be the last to touch it. Because you can design the best dish in the world, but if you can't teach your staff to produce it consistently it's completely useless. So I know the skills of every person working in the kitchen and work around the abilities of those people, to maximize what they bring to the table.
I don't think I've ever heard a chef point that out. We have a pretty young team, so some of their technical skills are just not there. It's not that that's bad, but there's no point in trying to push a skill with a high degree of technicality when they cannot execute it, because then the customer is going to get a subpar product, and I'm not interested in serving something that's not correct or accurate. You have to have the kind of awareness that comes with experience to anticipate things—as your environment changes, as the ingredient changes, as the circumstance changes—you have to adapt. So I design dishes with fewer variables that involve judgment so that they can focus on the technical skills at hand. And as those skills become instinctual I'll add on things that require adjustments here and there.
I also design the spaces and dishes around the equipment I have—we have an entirely electric kitchen, which means the kitchen can be very modular, and appliances can be moved around, so dishes are designed that way. It's a little bit like playing Rubik's cube or Tetris; when you move something, everything else changes.
How does that come through to what I'm going to eat on a plate? Consistency. If you eat this thing tomorrow and you come back and eat this thing the next day and the next day, the goal is that there should be no discernible difference—in consistency, taste, texture, sweetness, saltiness, acidity, bitterness—across the board.
Where did you pick this precision up? Was it inherent or learned from another chef? I'm personally very mechanically driven‐I love mathematics and physics and that kind of stuff, because they're systematic, predictable, and there's a pattern. And also, unfortunately, a lot of it came from when I worked at McDonald's in my teens. I worked there for years, and they have a very systematic way of doing things—if you fill up the ketchup you fill it up to a certain line. Everything has a procedure and you follow the rules. It's not a great product, but it's consistent. It's consistently bad, but it's consistent. And that is the one thing that you want to take away from that process; how do you produce a few million sandwiches a day and make the margin of error so small? What they do is exactly the process I'm trying to do here; there is a strict set of rules we follow to eliminate variables.
And where does the passion of what you like to eat come in? We have quite global and universal influences. On my days off I tend not to eat at high-end restaurants, because I tend not to like stuffy service. I eat a taco, a burrito; food that's simple, unpretentious, delicious, and cheap as shit. It's great, and it's what everybody wants. And that's what drives our direction as well; you want to think about where you are and who's in the neighborhood, encouraging the kind of food that gets people to come back to eat multiple times a week. It should be very user friendly. But the stigma is that if something's cheap, it's probably been beaten up a little bit. So at least what I try to do is utilize the technique I've learned across the board on a low-end scale—it's just a little bit of knowledge to turn all of that stuff around.
You've talked a lot about variables and consistency. Has there been anything that's caught you off guard that you haven't planned? I have to say, at this point, no.
Anything gotten you even out of your comfort zone? No. I'm not a risk taker. These guys know me pretty well; I rigorously test dishes before they go on the menu.
But you took a risk in opening up a supper club as you did. But that was also controlled because Fredrik and I were the only two people doing it. I know exactly where my skills lie and how far to extend myself, so in that respect I have complete control of the situation. It's never out of my control. If this dish doesn't work, I have a backup. If all of these dishes suck and the guests didn't have a great time, you know what? Fuck it, we're not going to charge them. So there was never a situation where we couldn't work something out.
But now in a more communal environment with different styles management skills I do not have total control. I go crazy with some of these guys every single day about, "Hey, don't put your book on my desk in the office." "Don't move my stapler." "Don't do this, don't do that." I'm very, very OCD about a lot of things. I like things done with a certain procedure exactly to minimize mishaps. I'm risk assessing all the time. All the time. Even now, with things that I could potentially be saying, how that would come back to me later on. It's a little bit maddening sometimes. There's always a fire somewhere, okay! There are always 20 different fires going on, so you want to douse the biggest one and move onto the next. It's like juggling plates—you just want to circle around to make sure the next one doesn't fall.