2015 New York Rising Star Chef Richard Kuo of Pearl & Ash

2015 New York Rising Star Chef Richard Kuo of Pearl & Ash
February 2015

It always helps when a chef is born somewhere with an expressive food culture (as opposed to, say, a food culture built on Hamburger Helper and spray cheese). Richard Kuo was born in Taiwan and raised in Australia, exposing a young palate to a variety of cultures and cuisines.

Those encounters sparked an interest, but Kuo wasn’t immediately drawn to cooking. He first studied food engineering and architecture at the University of South Wales in Sydney. But by 18, he decided to pursue his passion for food entirely hands-on, trading academia for the slightly rougher training grounds of a professional kitchen.

And he started strong, working in some of the best restaurants in Australia. After competing for Australia in the biannual Bocuse d’Or in Lyon, France, Kuo moved to New York City, a decision that would introduce him to a different kind of culinary variety: a stage at wd~50 led to a position with Wylie Dufresne, which introduced Kuo to the marvels and whimsies of molecular gastronomy. Perspective broadened, Kuo worked at Corton and Seäsonal before breaking out on his own as chef and co-owner (with Fredrik Berselius) of pop-up Frej in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Now at the helm of globally inspired Pearl & Ash, Kuo pays homage to the variety in cuisine he’s known his whole life.

Interview with New York Rising Star Chef Richard Kuo of Pearl & Ash

Paige Ross: How did you first get into the industry?
Richard Kuo:
I kind of fell into it, actually. In high school I didn’t know what to do, so I just started calling restaurants for jobs from the newspaper. I started working at an enormous 700-seat restaurant in Sydney where the chef, Roy Soundranayagam, said people either love or hate this line of work. I worked there for about a year, breaking down thousands of lobsters, cleaning tons of fish, and all sorts of other seafood. I worked with great people, and learned a lot from him. My chef said I needed to get out and experience the world. He was a big enough person and saw something in me to let me go and spread my wings.

PR: Who would you say your most influential mentors are?
Definitely Chef Roy and Wylie Dufresne. When I was 18, Roy told me that I’d be a great chef one day, but that in the meantime I needed to go out into the world and get experience. Wylie really taught me how to think outside the box and that working is not about just what you do, but thinking about why you’re doing what you’re doing.

PR: Where else have you worked in Australia?
I worked at Quay when Peter Gilmore just took over, then decided to go back to school to study food engineering, which I did for a year until I switched over to studying architecture.

PR: What made you move to New York?
Well, I initially moved to Vermont in 2005. I was offered a position at a private ski resort, after I took a leave of absence from school. During that time, I was visiting New York and decided to set up a trail at WD-50. I planned on staying a week, but ended up staying two, then three weeks, until I was offered a position, which I obviously took and stayed for a year.

PR: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
I work and collaborate with chefs a lot. I did a barbeque dinner with Chris Jaeckle of All’onda this past Monday. We did a James Beard dinner with Amanda Cohen of Dirt Candy and Jonathan Wu of Fung Tu as well. I love it because we get to hang out and just cook. I also do a bit of charity work with Edible School Yard and chip in when I can. I recently offered to cater a dinner for 11-25 people to an auction and it ended up selling for $27,000.

PR: What have been some of the biggest challenges in your career?
I’m constantly working on how to be a better leader. It’s about finding the right balance, recognizing everyone’s strengths and weaknesses, and working with them accordingly—being able to adapt. When I first started in the industry, the work environment was still very old school. Chefs would just drill the work ethic into you and you either dealt with it or got out. Times are changing and we’re now adopting a leadership style that understands and accepts the fact that different people learn and work differently. Making more conscious and thought out decisions for our employees.

PR: Where do you see yourself in five years?
I don’t have any other immediate plans at the moment, but I always keep my ears open and look for opportunities. I think I’ll definitely stay in New York for the near future. I’ve spent most of my adult life here. I can’t see myself living anywhere else right now.