Showman chefs are a dime a dozen - ever eager for the photo opp, TV shot, or victory lap around the dining room.
Peter Serpico is different. The 31-year-old ex-Momofuku Ko chef is serious, intense, and shy. Of course, he’s landed in his new city with considerable fanfare, as his eponymous South Street venture with Stephen Starr has become one of the most exciting new reservations in town. But his mood hasn’t lightened one bit: “I’m a very, very negative person.”
That hasn’t kept his food from soaring onto every foodie’s list thanks to an inventive approach to everything from deep-fried duck legs to a reimagined use for traditional Cope’s Corn. Here’s what our new kitchen prince of darkness had to say about Philly, young cooks, meat glue, and burning things:
Question: You clearly dislike the spotlight. So, how are you dealing with all the attention of opening a high-profile restaurant to such great reviews?
Answer: Not very well. I’m very uncomfortable. I like more of a team setting. I’m not really a table-toucher. If someone wants to talk to me, I’ll try to be as friendly as I can. But at the end of the day my job is for the food to be as good as it can be.
I know we have an open kitchen and everyone’s on display. But the reason we did that was not just so we could talk to people. I like the open kitchen because it holds cooks more accountable. It forces them to work a little bit cleaner.
Q: What are you looking for in young cooks?
A: I’m not necessarily looking for the best guys - but guys that want to work hard. Cooking ability probably comes third or fourth on the list. Number one is attitude and work ethic. I usually ask them about their knife skills. But I’m looking for humility more than anything.
Q: You mean if they say, “My knife skills are impeccable … .”
A: I’m always suspicious … I look at them and see how they present themselves. If they have holes in their pants and haven’t showered, it’s hard to look at them and say they have impeccable knife skills. I encounter it all the time.
Q: Are young cooks today any different than when you started?
A: There are some good ones out there. But a lot of people see the industry as a way to become famous or become a millionaire, and I think they forget about all the hard work that goes into it, and all the learning that never stops. I consider myself a craftsman. And this is about doing something you’re proud of. There are a lot of professions out there that don’t come with fame and fortune … but people still want to do something that speaks to them. Sometimes some people do get lucky. But most people don’t and it’s just hard work.
Q: What is exciting you in the kitchen now?
A: I’ve got some really nice kabocha squash, and we’re trying to figure out something for the tasting menu, which we’re now making completely different from à la carte. We’re also taking matsutake (mushroom) stems and … folding a puree into ravioli fillings, maybe with pine needle oil and something smoked.
Q: How do these dishes come together?
A: It’s in your head, you make it, you put it on a plate, you taste it, and then - you rip it apart. Why is it not good? What are the reasons we don’t like it? Execution? Shelf-life on the plate? Not that interesting? We break it down … so it’s never going to be, “Why is this good?” I don’t want to focus on that because once you stop and say “this is good” you remove the possibility of it becoming better. There’s a problem if we’re just putting up dishes and everyone’s high-fiving over it.
Q: Are you ever happy with anything?
A: The chilled dashi soup. I’ve been working on that dish for three years now. I’m happy with that dish. We just took it off the menu.
Q: Of course! Because it was good?
A: No, because it’s cold outside. Now we’re serving beef consommé clarified with soy and Amaro and served with … caramelized onion and bone marrow-stuffed dumplings wrapped in daikon. I’ve been working on that one about two years. We’re pretty happy with it.
Q: Consommé is seriously old-school. But many have focused on your use of more molecular gastronomy techniques with meat glue and xanthan gum.
A: Right now, we’re trying to take steps back and focus on some more natural techniques. I want it to appear simpler… . But if we’re going to use hydrocolloids [a.k.a. “gums”] in this restaurant I want to do them right. We try to do dishes 100 percent naturally. But if we don’t use meat glue with the deep-fried duck legs, some of them explode and we can’t use them. It’s a long process and ducks only have two legs. I use it to make sure we have a higher success rate… . It can begin to appear pretentious, though, if you talking about techniques a lot more than just enjoying it. I’m not interested in servers giving a three-minute spiel about how the duck leg is made while [the diner is wondering], “are you going to go away so I can eat this while it’s hot?”
Q: Another uncommon technique you’re fond of is burning ingredients, which then get balanced into sauces with either sweet or sour.
A: Bitterness is one of the flavor profiles people talk about negatively. But I like bitterness when it’s controlled, because it can bring something really different to a dish.
Q: You also use considerably more spice than most high-end restaurants.
A: I like heat a lot. There’s something about it that makes me feel alive. It just makes me want to come back to a dish.
I just ate at the new Han Dynasty, and it’s probably my favorite restaurant in the city. I’ve been to the old one in Old City, and the new one is massive. But the food was just as high-quality, which is hard to do, to expand and stay just as great. I like the wonton soup, the sliced beef tendon in chile oil, the marinated cucumbers are always a winner.
Q: It’s good to hear you get out sometimes. What else do you do beyond the kitchen that makes you most happy?
A: I want to be the best chef I can be. I have been doing this my entire adult life, and I have no backup plan… . I don’t have the option to fail because we have about 20 people in this restaurant that are counting on me.
Outside of cooking, I love spending time with my dog, a Rottweiler-black lab mix named Bailey. I’ll find balance in my life eventually.
Makes 6 servings
For the cakes:
2 Honeycrisp apples, peeled, small diced
1 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 tablespoon baking powder
1 tablespoon milk
1/2 cup butter, melted
1 cup sugar, granulated
2 tablespoons apple cider
2 eggs, whole
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 tablespoon ground cinnamon
6 tablespoons butter, for browning cake at finish
For the sauce:
4 apples cut in half, cored, but with skin left on
1 clove star anise
2 pieces clove
1/4 stick cinnamon
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons apple cider
1. For the cakes: Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Mix all ingredients in a stand mixer with the paddle attachment. Do not overmix. Place in a greased 9-by-9-inch baking pan and bake for 35 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.
2. Once cake is cool, cut into smaller pieces (should make 6 to 8 small cakes.) Put remaining butter for finish in a warm pan, melt it gently until it starts to brown and smell nutty. Add your apple cakes to toast them, and to cool the pan down to stop the browning process of your butter. The process should warm them through.
3. For the sauce: Place spices underneath apple halves, skin side up on broiler pan. Place underneath broiler and cook until apple skins are completely burnt. Purée apples in a blender or food processor. While blender is still running, add sugar, salt, and apple cider. Place warmed cake on plate and top with sauce.
Per serving: 522 calories; 6 grams protein; 89 grams carbohydrates; 56 grams sugar; 17 grams fat; 95 milligrams cholesterol; 232 milligrams sodium; 6 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 18 large ravioli or 6 servings
For the ravioli:
1 pint Cope’s Corn
1 pint water
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1/8 pound (1/4 cup) butter
1 pound fresh pasta sheets (from the Italian Market)
2 tablespoons water
For the glaze:
1 pasilla chile
1 ancho chile
1 guajillo chile
8-oz. jar pickled onions, drained, soaked in fresh water overnight
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon salt
Sliced dried Spanish chorizo
Location: 102 Goffe Terrace,
New Haven, CT, 6511
Queso blanco, for garnish
Cilantro, for garnish
1. The night before: De-seed all the chiles, toast them on both sides in a dry pan until aromatic, and place in a small bowl with just enough water to cover. Soak overnight. Set drained pickled onions to soak, as well.
2. For the ravioli: Put water and corn in a pot and boil, lower heat, and simmer until corn is hydrated and soft, about 10 minutes. Purée, and season while blending to taste with sugar, salt, and butter. Cool completely.
3. Mix yolk and water together for egg wash. Brush excess semolina off pasta and cut into 3-by-3-inch squares. Place one tablespoon of filling on center of the square. Brush edges with egg and water mixture and seal. Set aside.
4. To finish the sauce: Drain onions well and slice in half. In a small pan, heat olive oil and pan-roast cut-side down until they are lightly browned.
5. Purée chiles with just enough of the soaking liquid until to make a thick paste. Warm the paste in a sauce pot then, off the heat so sauce does not break, make the glaze by incorporating cold butter, onions, chorizo, with a little water, if necessary, for a texture that will coat the pasta.
6. Boil ravioli until cooked, place in sauce, and put on a plate. Top with queso fresco cheese and fresh cilantro.
Per Serving: 488 calories; 16 grams protein; 58 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams sugar; 22 grams fat; 125 milligrams cholesterol; 1,883 milligrams sodium; 2 grams dietary fiber.
SUNRISE, Fla. - Standing in the hallway just outside the Flyers’ locker room, coach Craig Berube was shaking his head in disgust.
Hours earlier, at his team’s morning skate, he warned the confident Flyers to not overlook Florida. Berube knew relaxing in Florida’s warm breezes can direct a game one of two ways for the Flyers.
The two outcomes, like the winter-time temperatures in Fort Lauderdale and Philadelphia, are polar opposites.
Sometimes, the difference in latitude provides a change in attitude, and the no-pressure environment in South Florida is a healthy respite from a long and grueling season. In that case, the Flyers usually hammer the oft-struggling Panthers, like a 7-1 pounding in their last visit to BB&T Center on Jan. 26.
Or, a trip to the beach presents an opportunity to get sidetracked in the sand and surf, acting as a diversion to unhinge all of the good work the Flyers had done.
Last night, that was the case for the Flyers, as they kicked off a stretch of 16 of 21 games away from Philadelphia in disappointing style.
After sleepwalking through the first two periods, the Flyers fell to the Panthers, 3-1, when their third-period rally fell short in front of 14,299.
"Who are we to overlook anybody?" Berube asked. "We talked about it before the game, this morning, about being ready. I’m not sure we were."
The result was the Flyers’ first regulation loss in eight games, breaking a 6-0-1 run that began on Nov. 9 against Edmonton. It was also their first regulation loss on the road since Oct. 12 in Detroit, a span of 44 days.
The Flyers had won five straight in Sunrise, too. All signs pointed to a win against a team that had lost nine straight at one point this season.
"We got distracted. We thought we were the better team," Scott Hartnell said. "When you underestimate your opponent in this league, you’re going to get screwed."
Defenseman Mark Streit said the Flyers tried to get “too complicated” in the neutral zone. Whatever it was, Hartnell knew the Flyers got away from what earned them a point in seven straight games. It was an untimely, if not somewhat predictable, lapse in focus: the dismal Florida road swing that sucks in most of the NHL’s other 28 teams.
"The first two periods was how we played the first 15 games: awful," Hartnell said. "Our defense was taking their time getting to the puck. Our forwards were slow getting back for the defense through the neutral zone. We were turning the puck over. We tried to make behind-the-back passes, all of the stuff that we weren’t doing the last half-dozen games.
"That third period, we played our game that made us undefeated the last six or seven games. We took it to them."
The Flyers turned it on for the third period, throwing 20 darts at savvy veteran Tim Thomas, but it took 7 minutes for Wayne Simmonds to crack him. Even with a power-play goal in their seventh consecutive game, it was too late. Their 20 shots in the third was their highest total of any period this season, eclipsing the 19 they posted in the second period against Buffalo last Thursday.
"Chief warned us before not to take them lightly," Steve Mason said. "And when you have a team like that over there that has a lot of young players, they can come back to bite you."
Perhaps, that is what enraged Berube more than anything - that even after the Flyers’ abysmal first two periods, at least salvaging a point was entirely possible. It’s not as if the Panthers were playing like world beaters, clinging to just their fourth two-goal lead in 25 games this season.
"You should want to come in here and take it to this team," Berube said. "We’re a ‘north’ team - and we played that way in the third period. We weren’t ‘north’ enough. We were just slow. That’s why we lost."
The Panthers dedicated the press box at BB&T Center yesterday in memory of former Flyers and Florida coach Roger Neilson. The Hockey Hall of Famer, who passed away in 2003 at age 69, was the Panthers’ inaugural coach. He was 96-57-33 in parts of three seasons with the Flyers (1997-2000) … Erik Gudbranson’s third-period insurance goal for Florida was his first in 101 games … The Flyers’ 2-1 win in Pittsburgh on Nov. 13 was the NHL’s most-watched November game since 2001 … Vinny Lecavalier will return to Tampa Bay for the first time today since his $32 million buyout by the Lightning last summer.
On Twitter: @DNFlyers