Tejal Rao: Why did you start cooking? What inspired you to become a chef?
Zakary Pelaccio: I just sort of fell into it; my mother cooked and I found I had a natural affinity for it. But no one inspired me to become a chef. I love cooking, but I quit professional cooking because I found it so grueling, and I started working for a software company. I was living in TriBeCa, just fifteen blocks away from Ground Zero, and it was completely devastated after September 11th. I left and moved to Williamsburg, jobless. This guy wanted to open a restaurant and I agreed to help out, not intending to do the cooking. But it snowballed, I did end up cooking.
TR: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
ZP: I believe first in the quality of ingredients, local purchasing and in cooking seasonally. I also think it’s really important for food to make sense and have a sense of place. It’s clear when a dish went through an uninformed creative process, when it hasn’t really been inspired by original, nostalgic, congruent thought. I don’t believe in fusion when it’s obviously out of place, which is really common here in the U.S. I think food needs some sort of base and it’s just as important to know where your ideas come from, as it is to know where your beef comes from. Because some states of Malaysia are former British colonies, it’s normal to find these British remnants in the form of fish and chips or beans on toast at Malaysian cafes. Historically, culturally, this sort of fusion makes sense and there’s a place for it on my menu.
TR: Are there any secret ingredients that you especially like?
ZP: It’s no secret, but I like to use chin chalook, a salted, fermented Malaysian shrimp. It comes in a jar, and it’s pretty intense. I like to use it for brining meat—it works the same way as regular brine, but it’s got more depth.
TR: What flavor combinations do you favor?
ZP: I try to balance acidity, sweetness, fattiness, chili, and texture in all my food.
TR: What is your most indispensable tool?
ZP: A knife, any knife as long as it’s sharp. And a prep cook.
TR: Is there a culinary technique that you have either created, or use in an unusual way?
ZP: I’m not sure anyone’s really creating new techniques anymore. It’s just a matter of using what’s available. Lately I’ve been getting back to the most basic and rudimentary of techniques and learning more about them. I like slow poaching in fat, and also injecting meat and smoking it with wood.
TR: What is your favorite question to ask during an interview for a potential new line cook?
ZP: I like to ask them what they’re reading. I think it allows me to really see how insightful they are, how interested they are in their passions. What they’re reading and how they talk about it are a great key.
TR: What tips would you offer young cooks just getting started?
ZP: Don’t worry about the money until much later, or you’re going about the whole thing backwards. First, really learn, get some experience, work hard, and get the tools that are going to help you be a successful chef later on. Then, when you’ve got a handle on it, you might be in a good position to think about money.
TR: What are your favorite cookbooks?
ZP: I like Royal Thai Family Favourites, which I picked up in Northern Thailand in 1995, and I like Thai Seafood, which I also got there. Zarina’s Home Cooking is great too, with Indonesian, and Indian influences.
TR: What cities do you like for culinary travel?
ZP: All of Malaysia is great, but Kuala Lumpur is my favorite city.
TR: Where do you see yourself in 5 years? 10 years?
ZP: I hope to be working on new, interesting projects, maybe beyond New York. I’d like to open a restaurant in Asia. I’ll be refining my sensibilities, and focusing in on my passions.