The industry is full of up-and-coming chefs looking to take the short path to success nowadays; hoping to leap from reality TV show competitions to immediately owning and running their own restaurant. But Paras Shah has gone the traditional, slow & steady route, earning his degree at the Institute of Culinary Education, followed by an externship at Per Se, a stint at Momofuku Noodle Bar and a cooking scholarship in Europe, where he was able to work in restaurants like Hotel Santo Mauro in Madrid, the two Michelin-starred Echaurren, and the world-renowned El Bulli.
“There is no correct path to becoming a chef. One can still knock on the back door of a restaurant and hope to get hired on as a prep person, but it’s good to know that you have the opportunity nowadays to be formally trained and establish great industry connections as well,” Shah said. “It helps bypass a few steps, but the best teacher is experience by far; no matter how you get it, experience rules all.” And now, he’s funneling all of that considerable experience into his executive chef post at the buzzy Kat & Theo, serving inventive, Mediterranean-inspired fare like Carpaccio with caper berries and boqueron “tonnato,” Halibut with bouillabaisse and celery root ravioli, and Quail with kabocha squash, red cardamom and oats.
We also spoke to Shah about what he enjoys eating in the city on a rare day off, what advice he’s received from his stable of incredibly impressive mentors, and why his ultimate career goal is opening a 35-seat spot in Queens.
Did you always want to be a chef, growing up?
Absolutely; in fact, my earliest memory is of food. When I was three years old, my father brought some donuts home and he gave me a powdered one; he knew they’re my favorite. I began to eat the donut and the powder fell off. I spied a container of Johnson’s baby powder on the dresser, so I sprinkled the powder on the donut and realized it was wrong and spit it out immediately. That instance sparked my curiosity for food; a curiosity that has lasted throughout my life. When other kids were out playing, I stayed inside and watched Julia Child, Jeff Smith, Paul Prudhomme and Pierre Freney. And as an adult, if I couldn’t cook, I couldn’t breathe.
How did your time abroad influence your cuisine at Kat & Theo?
I’ve always enjoyed simple, well thought out food. And my time abroad just reinforced what I loved about simple, high quality and hyper-local food. What we do here at Kat & Theo is let the product speak for itself without too much pomp and circumstance. Everything we put on the plate is to enhance, not detract, from the product. Take our charred octopus dish for example. The beans add two textural contrasts, and their earthiness acts as a great base for the octopus’ brininess and deep sea flavor. The orange adds a much needed citrus lift, and the oregano acts as a great herbal foil to everything.
What’s some of the best advice you’ve received from mentors at spots like Per Se, Momofuku Noodle Bar, and El Bulli?
Per Se was my introduction to execution and the pursuit of excellence; I learned the beauty of standards, discipline and hard (very hard) work. At Momofuku, I learned how to hustle and always work quickly and efficiently. Every day there was super busy, so if you weren’t set up, you wouldn’t make it — and you would inevitably go down in very public flames. The biggest lesson that I learned at Momofuku was to taste. To learn how to use my palette and my senses to understand food. El Bulli is where I truly understood that every single ingredient has value and nobility. The humble potato has the same culinary merit as the vaulted foie gras. Also, I learned to really take pride in the process and to understand each ingredient.
Your original goal was to open a small restaurant in Queens… did you exceed your own expectations by running a big, buzzy joint in the Flatiron District instead? And can you still imagine bringing your talents to Queens someday?
For the record, my ultimate goal at the end of the day is to open my little 35-seater in Queens. I am proud of what my team has accomplished so far at Kat & Theo, and I am blessed that we have had so much buzz. We still have a long way to go and my team wouldn’t be happy if we didn’t keep pushing our own envelope, so I’m excited to see how our passion will unfold in the coming months. So yes, I can still imagine my restaurant in Queens, but I have a few more places I’d like to open before that. Might as well keep pushing!
If you were to eat at Kat & Theo as a guest, what would you order and why?
Asking this is like asking which of my children is my favorite. As with most places at which I eat, I select dishes according to my mood and the moment. One day I could opt for the Charred Octopus on our menu and revel in the crunchy tender octopus and how it plays with the other elements on the plate, but the octopus is always at the forefront. Or another time I would be feeling saucy and order our Guinea Hen, because I’m a sucker for deep sauces and crispy fowl skin. As for the desserts, I could just close my eyes and choose; Serena’s desserts are just plain awesome. It’s all based on my mood and the moment… why not live in the present, no?
Dedicated pastry programs have become a rarity at new restaurants. What made you decide to hire on Serena Chow, effectively making Kat & Theo a dessert destination as well?
The funny thing is that at first, I was gung ho to take on a pastry program by myself. As menu development went along, it was evident that focusing time on desserts was going to be a tough task. Luckily enough, Serena was available and she was a godsend. Her technique, thoughtfulness of flavors and plating are absolutely amazing. There are a lot of places opening up with no real pastry program… more often than not, because the chef or owner doesn’t feel confident in that area. So it becomes more of a hindrance to the restaurant. But for me, if you don’t pour as much into your final word during the conversation with the customer as you do in the first couple of stanzas, you have an incomplete thought. That’s not fair to the customer and more importantly, yourself.
What are some culinary trends that you can really get behind, and which do you wish would just die already?
Trends come and go; I’ll always gravitate to yummy stuff whether or not it’s considered trendy. If a bunch of your friends like something, you don’t have to like it as well. Don’t be afraid to be your own person.
What do you consider to be some of the most overrated and underrated ingredients?
For me, all ingredients are important. I have foie at my restaurant, but I also use oily Spanish mackerel. The question is; what can you do to heighten that ingredient’s flavor? All ingredients have the same culinary merit.
On a rare day off, what do you do (and eat) in the city?
On a day off, if it were in the early fall, I would actually head away from the city and play golf. But usually you’ll find me in my native Queens eating some Filipino food at either Tito Rad’s or Ihawan. Or I may be out in Howard Beach crushing some good old-school Seafood Fra Diavolo or Linguini with red clam sauce at Lenny’s Clam Bar. Or I might be knocking out some super duper Chinese regional at Biang! in Flushing or at the Golden Shopping Mall. Or destroying some slices at Pizzeria Classica in Glendale. Look, people need to head out to my borough, there’s so much amazing food and you can spend many days just eating. Now with that being said, on Saturdays after service, I’m at Blue Ribbon Sushi to grub on the beautiful Hokkaido Uni and to see my favorite server Jack.
What’s your ultimate career goal? Is there a brass ring you’re still reaching for as a chef?
Honestly, all I want to do is to do the best job that I can do and serve yummy food. But I’m not going to feel fulfilled by being stagnant; I want to keep pushing to go higher and higher, and any accolades that come from that will be awesome. A lot of cooks want Michelin stars, an amazing New York Times review, or a James Beard award, and those accomplishments will come as long as my team and I keep going for it. Funny thing is, the brass ring that I see is based on the talent level of my team. Because of that, that brass ring is really damn huge.