Interview with Chef PJ Calapa of Ai Fiori

april 2013

Dan Catinella: What inspired you to cook professionally?

PJ Calapa: I grew up in South Texas. My mother’s side of the family was originally from Spain, and Sunday dinner was important. Senior year I said I wanted to cook, and my parents said no. Once my parents gave the OK, I tried it six months later. I was hired on the spot at the most luxurious restaurant in Texas. After I proved myself, my parents said OK to New York in 2002.

DC: What is your philosophy on food and dining?

PJC: I enjoying a reinterpretation of the classics. Classic flavors. Giving full credit to people who have done them before, taking them to the next level, and making them more elegant.

DC: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your career?

PJC: Realizing when it was time to move on. I always worked at a real place, and experienced the learning process along the way. Sometimes I stayed at one place longer than I should have rather than taking that leap for next step—that’s the hardest thing.

DC: What are the biggest challenges facing your restaurant?

PJC: I’m 20 percent ahead of where I was last year. The toughest thing is the location, in a hotel. I worked past those things. I have developed clientele I am so happy with. My clients are happy with what they are getting. Also, we’re growing as a company and trying to develop the right people for the right growth is tricky. We want to keep everyone great forever. Promoting people too quickly can be negative. I got promoted too quickly myself. It’s a long story. I’ve been chef for a year and a few months. But I felt ready—not to be arrogant— but I always felt it was my job, without saying those words.

DC: How have you been involved in the local culinary community?

PJC:We closed for 10 days after Sandy, and had no power for nine, and no heat for 12. My wife’s seven months pregnant and is due in January. I’m a dad to 20 chefs in the kitchen. We paid hourly wages for line chefs during Sandy and gave them all a bit of cash. Keith Taylor started a fund for people who were out of work, and all they had to do was fill out a form and give a bank account and they got a stipend. He had Modest Needs and wanted to help. He’s a client here at restaurant. I hope we have rebounded as an industry, company, and restaurant.

DC: What’s your proudest accomplishment to date?

PJC: The way my team follows. The fact they still love coming to work every day.

DC: Where do you see yourself in five years?

PJC: Still in New York in charge of a restaurant or maybe a couple. I have a lot of ideas in my head, more than one concept. I started at Bouley, Eleven Madison Park, and Nobu, Nobu being the most different. Learning along the way has allowed me to fully develop concepts. I would like to stay on the Italian side. When I worked at French restaurants, I thought Italian was the easier the way out. French is where the technique is, but Italian is where the flavor is.

I developed this Italian flavor, French technique here but want to go to more rustic and back to what I learned at Nobu and marry the two. The buzz and the feeling you get at Nobu, but more in the direction of Italian for food. The way you would sit down at a table in Sicily on Sunday afternoon, where you would sit, talk, food would come, and that’s the way it would be.