Born in Taiwan, raised in Australia and now cooking on the Bowery, chef Richard Kuo brings his worldly view to a tiny slice of Lower Manhattan where he’s making his mark — one small plate at a time — at Pearl and Ash. Not even a year old, the overwhelming response to the downtown spot has been ultimately positive, none of which is lost on Richard. “I never thought we’d be so well-received,” he said, adding that the praise has allowed him and his team to stay creative as they plug away. We caught up with Richard and discussed the illusion of simplistic cooking and the guilty pleasure that is Popeye’s fried chicken.
You're cooking on the Bowery by way of a Taiwanese birth, an Australian upbringing and culinary education. Why New York? What made you want to come here?
I was classically trained through a government trade school (which is the standard in Australia). Originally, I was taking a little time off at a ski resort in Vermont when I decided I wanted to move to Montreal. In the process of heading up there, I stopped into New York to stage at WD-50. ... I stayed for a few weeks, during which I was offered a job, so I just ended up staying.
What about your varied background can be seen in your cooking?
Earlier in my career I mainly focused on fine dining establishments. As I grew professionally, I realized the importance of having a rounded skill set, so I took advantage of the multitude of cuisines in Australia and started exploring each and every one of them. One of the most visible aspects of this is the use of different spices and blends. A lot of the time I would layer them into components then build a dish and proteins around those components.
Your dishes stand out in that they're seemingly simple, yet rather complex. Would you say that's your signature take?
One of the most striking similarities between dishes is the apparent simplicity. Due to the fact that this is an all-electric kitchen and the space is very small, I had to be very creative with the way I design the dishes. The majority of the work is done during prep time, which makes pickup and plating very fast. Certain things may take a day or two to cook — like the octopus, where most of the flavors are embedded into the protein during this time. When it makes it onto the plate, there is just the puree and garnish. The dish carries three components; it’s very simple and clean.
Your dessert menu is limited but memorable. Was this deliberate?
In the beginning it had to be small because of staffing and facility restraints as we were doing everything ourselves. Now that we are rebuilding our basement area and we have a pastry chef on board, that is going to change.
We spoke about Pearl & Ash being a team effort. What’s a typical collaboration like with your partners?
A lot of the times they will come to me with an idea, then it will be up to me to create this product, such as the Fernet Branca ice cream sandwich, which was [general manager Branden McRill]'s idea. I’m currently working with Patrick [Cappiello, the wine director] on a series of wine dinners where I'm designing each dish around specific types of wines. Patrick gives me guidelines and parameters on what kind of protein, garnishes, flavor, texture, etc. he would like, and I go from there.
What's your favorite place to eat when you're off-duty?
I love going to Tacqueria on the Lower East Side. Food there is simple, tasty and consistent. Believe it or not, I love fried chicken and I go to Popeye's whenever I get a chance. It may not necessarily be the world's best fried chicken, but it's delicious and consistent. I like consistency.
Pearl & Ash, 220 Bowery, 212-837-2370, www.pearlandash.com