2013 New York Rising Star Chef PJ Calapa of Ai Fiori

2013 New York Rising Star Chef PJ Calapa of Ai Fiori
April 2013

Having grown up in the Mexican border town of Brownsville, Texas, PJ Calapa was exposed to a range of cuisines and flavors at an early age. As a child, he began working in his grandmother’s kitchen and later moved to his grandfather’s wholesale fish business. Calapa continued to nurture his culinary passion during his undergraduate studies at Texas A&M University, where he worked on the hot line at Christopher’s World Grille.

After graduation, Calapa moved to New York and enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, where his passion and tireless efforts catapulted him to the top of his class. Since then, he has striven for excellence, sharpening his culinary skills and incorporating early food memories with his own gastronomic intuition.

As a CIA graduate, Calapa worked at Bouley in Tribeca, Eleven Madison Park, and Nobu 57, where he started as a line cook and quickly rose through the ranks to become executive sous chef. It was at Nobu 57 that Calapa learned about the delicate art of Japanese cuisine, which still informs and adds new zest to his vision of fine dining. In 2010, Calapa joined Chef Michael White’s Altamarea Group and to help launch Ai Fiori. His diverse background and ability to reinvent elegant cuisine has earned Ai Fiori three stars from The New York Times and one Michelin star.

I Support: City Harvest


Why: As someone in the hospitality industry—who is fortunate enough to work with food, serve great food, and eat good food—I feel it is my duty to give back by serving the less privileged in the best way I know how: with food.

About: NYC’s City Harvest connects the food industry and countless organizations, corporations, and private citizens to help feed their hungry neighbors.

Interview with Chef PJ Calapa of Ai Fiori

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.

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