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Q & A with Piora’s Chris Cipollone & Simon Kim

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There’s no shortage of restaurants serving fusion fare nowadays.  Chinese-Mexican.  Jewish-Japanese.  French-Scandinavian.  But Korean-Italian?  That’s a new one, even for New York.  “Our approach is simple… to cook and serve who we are,” said Simon Kim, owner of the exciting new West Village eatery, Piora.  “Chef Cipollone and I have two different heritages, Italian and Korean, so it was a natural process to marry our two cuisines.”

In fact, Kim specifically sought out the former Tenpenny chef, whose star was on the rise after a glowing review from Sam Sifton in the New York Times, only to disappear for a few years.  “The funny thing is that the restaurant never shuttered; I had to leave due to contractual disagreements,” revealed Cipollone.  But now he’s back and one to watch at this buzzy yet pleasantly serene new eatery, which features a glass wall looking out onto a spray of illuminated trees, and a mural that depicts a flower in bloom (Piora means “to blossom” in Korean).

Some of Cipollone’s dishes are holdovers from his time at Tenpenny (like the gorgeous array of Market Vegetables, sprinkled with Thousand Island “powder”) but most are entirely new creations, inspired by the two-week, 7-meal-a-day trip he and Kim took to Korea.  Take the Octopus, for instance, first braised Italian-style in Chicken Stock before being grilled and sauced with pungent Gochujang, and the Black Garlic Bucatini, tossed with Dungeness Crab, Maitake Mushrooms and Chili. “I love how Korean it tastes when in reality, there really aren’t any Korean ingredients used,” says Kim.  “It showcases what we are here to do.”

We also spoke with the Piora partners about the strangest items in their home fridges, what you’ll find them eating on a day off, and which restaurant trends they really embrace (besides fusion, of course) and which they wish would just die already (let’s just say Cipollone isn’t a fan of foraging)!

Chris, were you always into food and cooking growing up.  What do you think you would have become if you hadn’t become a chef?
I was always into food, with parents in the wine business.  Being an only child, they brought me to restaurants at an early age and I loved it.  If I was not a chef, I have always had a passion for driving, so I would have pursued professional racing or working with high-end cars in some format!

What job would you say really kick-started your career?
I was the executive chef of Dylan Prime from 2006-2010, which was my first chef gig in NYC.  That really opened doors for me.

You were formerly the chef at Tenpenny.  Did you think Sam Sifton’s review would turn the restaurant around?
Sam Sifton’s review certainly helped; it increased business dramatically. We never banked on it though.  

What was your experience with Korean cuisine before Piora?
I always loved going to K-Town late at night, but didn’t know much about the actual cuisine.

Many chefs confess to not being overly knowledgeable when it comes to making dessert.  How comfortable are you overseeing the sweet side of the menu?
I actually started in pastry in the early years of my cooking, so I feel comfortable.  I always like to challenge myself in cooking and also enjoy exploring new avenues of creativity.

Simon, did you grow up in Korea and how did you find yourself in New York?
I was born and raised in Korea and came to New York when I was in middle school.  My father was very much an introvert and we rarely shared conversation or emotions.  He, however, was an avid lover of food.  The dinner table was where we bonded together.  When he deboned a whole fish and served us a helping, that is how I felt his love for his family.  To me, happiness always came with food.  So naturally, food was always special to me.

How did you get into the restaurant business?
My parents invested in a small restaurant in Tribeca when I was a teenager.  The operating partners disappeared with the money when the construction was halfway finished.  My parents were left with the lease and the guarantee.  My mother, being the tenacious lady that she was (and wife of a die-hard food junkie), said f**k it, and opened the restaurant herself.  Naturally, I found myself working as a busboy, then server, then a bartender through the next few years.  I had a lot of fun.  But I wanted to learn how to really run a restaurant.  So I went to UNLV in Las Vegas and studied hospitality management.  After three and half years of school, work and extreme partying, I came back to NYC.  Since then I have had the pleasure of managing restaurants for B.R Guest Restaurants, Jean-Georges Management, and Thomas Keller Restaurant Group.

What was the impetus behind you leaving The Mark to open your own place?
I believed that if I were to provide a nurturing and supportive environment for restaurant professionals who genuinely love what they do, then success would naturally follow.  Our name Piora means to “blossom” in Korean, and I wanted to give an opportunity to my chef, myself, and everyone else on my team to blossom into our own flower.

While many eateries are currently experimenting with Asian flavors and cuisines, there are only a few higher end Korean-inspired restaurants in the city.  What do you hope to reveal to NYC about Korean cuisine that isn’t necessarily expressed through places in K-Town?

CC: Well that’s the thing, we are not claiming to be a Korean restaurant.  I am an Italian-American chef that got the opportunity to travel throughout South Korea, and learn about and taste things that were entirely new to me.  I can only tell the story of what I learned though my cuisine, and try to represent Korean food in my own way.

SK: I wanted to take an all-American chef without any Asian influence and expose him to real Korean flavors.  That is why we took a two-week trip to Korea before we opened Piora.

What did you sample during that trip that made it onto the menu?

CC: The trip was crazy, eating seven meals a day and being on the road in between.  You always grow from traveling like that, I think. When I tasted a real Jujube for the first time, I knew it would pair well with Long Island Duck, and when I ate Gochujang-marinated Octopus at a rustic restaurant along the coast, I had to recreate a refined version here.

SK: We went to a restaurant in Mokpo, Korea called Dokchun Shik Dang.  They only serve dishes incorporating Octopus.  I ordered a Whole Live Octopus, but Chris opted out on tasting that one.  The next dish that was served was Grilled Baby Octopus with Gochujang Sauce.  Chris now cooks it in a traditional Italian style, by braising it in a combination of shellfish and chicken stock.  Then he grills it with barbecue sauce made from the braising liquid and gochujang.  It’s definitely the dish that has the most Korean influence.

What are a few of your favorite dishes on the menu right now, and why?

CC: Well the Bucatini dish seems to be the winner.  I was playing with black garlic pasta dough back at Tenpenny, so I figured it would fit right at home here.  I really love the Egg and Chicken Wing dish, which has French inspiration, and really challenges one of my line cooks!  The Suckling Pig is one I love too, because it really brings out the best of the ingredient.

SK: The Bucatini.  It is served on a Korean Kwanjuyo plate… a pottery maker in Korea that also makes dishes for Thomas Keller at Per Se and Cory Lee at Benu.

Other than your own, what are your favorite restaurants in New York?

CC: I like Sfoglia for its rustic Italian cooking, Socarrat for Paella, PJ Clarke’s for Burgers.  Depends on what I am looking for!

SK: My favorite restaurant is Blue Hill at Stone Barns.  I really love and respect what they do over there.  Mr. Barber is such a talented and chef and a visionary.  Phillipe Gouze, the General Manager, is my mentor and a friend.  Every time I eat there, I am so darn inspired.  The drive to the Stone Barns itself is the best amuse bouche!

What’s the strangest item in your home refrigerator right now?

CC: I have a Pinecone Syrup from Italy that has been sitting there for a while.  Not too much you can do with that at home.

SK: Unidentifiable brown paste from Korea . Maybe it’s Deonjang, maybe it’s a traditional herbal medicine, and maybe it’s cow dung.

What will we find you doing (and eating!) on a day off?

CC: I actually eat pretty simple, vegetable-based food.  I generally relax and recharge for the coming week.  Not to say I don’t like to have my fun though!

SK: Mostly Korean food.  I can’t live without it.  As American as I may be, I must have some Jjigae with a bowl of rice and kimchi at LEAST once a week.  And during this time of year, I love barbecuing.  I love making “Simon’s famous hamburgers” topped with Swiss cheese and thinly sliced jalapeno, which I copied from ABC Kitchen’s burger!  But going out to a restaurant nowadays is really not my thing.  I already work 90-100 hours a week in a restaurant.

What current food trends do you really embrace, and which do you wish would die already?

CC: I do like the casual fine dining movement as a whole.  Kitschy burgers, hybrid pastries, and overly foraged food that are technically weeds are getting a bit old.

SK: I love how classically trained chefs are embracing modern techniques.  I believe in paying your dues and showing respect to traditional techniques and etiquette, but still adding creativity, or the “flavor of our youth.”  We are seeing lots of restaurants like this emerge, and would like to think that we are one of them.  I am not a fan of any trend that emerges without thought, time, and work being put into it first.

The food community seems to have quickly embraced Piora.  Any plans for another restaurant in the near future?

CC: One at a time.  I am deeply humbled and amazed and thankful for the success so far.  We are in no way truly a “success” yet.  Each day presents new challenges and we are working hard to perfect everything.  Maybe in the future…

SK: We are so grateful for the support!  Currently we are very busy and content in giving our 101% to Piora.  But I am 31 years old and will be in this business for a minimum of another 30 years.  So the answer would be YES.

You’re on your deathbed; sex or dinner?  And no, you can’t say both!

CC: Well… I guess I would have to say sex.  I have had enough dinner.

SK: I assume if you are on a deathbed, you are pretty damn sick and tired.  I like being “active” and I hate mediocre sex.  Sex on a deathbed kind of seems like it will be hard to be “active” and kind of guarantees mediocre sex.  So I will have to settle for a great dinner.  Who knows, after the great dinner, I may come out of the deathbed ready to ROCK!

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