A conversation with ... Peter Serpico, shy star of exciting new kitchen in town

The kitchen is open at Serpico. Chef Peter Serpico (center) said, "It holds cooks more accountable. It forces them to work a little bit cleaner."
The kitchen is open at Serpico. Chef Peter Serpico (center) said, "It holds cooks more accountable. It forces them to work a little bit cleaner." (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer.)
Posted: November 15, 2013

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.


Apple Cake with Burnt Apple Sauce

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.

   - From Peter Serpico

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.


Cope's Corn Ravioli

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)

1 egg

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

To finish:

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.

   - From Peter Serpico

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.

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