After only knowing each other for a couple of months, Simon Kim and Chris Cipollone boarded a plane together. For two weeks the pair drove around South Korea, eating seven meals a day, gathering ideas for Piora, their critically acclaimed restaurant in the West Village. But Piora is not a Korean restaurant. It is a combination of Kim and Cipollone's backgrounds and kitchen experiences, served in a simple but elegant space with very proper service.
Now, a year in, the pair looks back on their trip and what followed. They share the story behind the restaurant's hit bucatini dish, discuss changes coming to the menu, and how they have relaxed their approach to service, at least a bit.
Simon, I read somewhere that you first got into restaurants because your mother owned one. Tell me about that.
Simon: I was born and raised in Korea, and when I was like 14 we came to New York.
When we came over to New York, this couple approached my parents saying, "If you invest, I'm going to open up a restaurant and we'll make a lot of money." So my parents, being gastronomes, were like "You know what? We love food. We like the idea of owning a restaurant." So they invested and the couple ran with the money. So here we are, my mother is stuck with the lease and the half-built restaurant, and tenacious women she is said: "Let's do this." As a high school student, I started washing dishes at the restaurant, bus boy-ing, serving, and eventually bartending.
Chris, what about you? Was your family interested in food?
Chris: I grew up with parents in the wine business...They were friends with all of these chefs and restaurant owners. Every time I went into a kitchen at their friends' restaurants I was enamored by what was going on. Early on in my life I said "I want to cook, I want to be a chef."
How did you guys first meet?
Simon: I was working with Jean-Georges at one point, and that's when I knew I wanted to open my own restaurant. Then I spent about a year working for Thomas Keller in Midtown, and there I got an opportunity to walk into this shitty-looking restaurant, Tenpenny...
It was such an ugly restaurant. My friend took me there and he was raving about the food, and I was pretty skeptical. If it looks like a duck, chances are it might be a duck, but the food blew me away.
Chris: I was the chef at Tenpenny at the Gotham Hotel a few years ago and [Simon] used to come and eat my food.
He selected me to do this project and we had five or six serious, serious long talks about visions and restaurants. Then he goes, "Would you like to go to Korea?" I'm like, "alright." It was amazing because I had never had any Asian influence in my cooking. So to meet Simon and for him to bring me to Korea to see his culture, the food of that region, it was really amazing.
Simon, before you settled on Chris, Did you have an idea of what you wanted this restaurant to be?
Simon: What I had envisioned was a chef who has zero Asian influence. It could have been French chef, it could have been Greek chef, it could have been Italian chef... I wanted to pick him and take him to Korea to expose him to really unfiltered, un-Westernized flavors and ways of cooking and ingredients. The idea was not to recreate that food, but to show a great chef great ingredients and leave the chef to do the rest.
So, tell me about the trip to Korea. What were the best meals?
Simon: It was the coldest winter in Korea in 60 years.
Chris: We were getting to know each other. I had just met him. I left with this guy to go to Korea in January a couple months after we met.
Simon: His girlfriend was concerned.
Chris: [laughs] The trip was designed so that we didn't just stay in Seoul. We went all along the coast, zig-zagging in and out and eating, going to places where most Koreans don't even go. It just blew me away. I didn't know that this was Korean cuisine. Here we have Korean barbecue and fried chicken and stuff like that; this was a whole different thing.
While I was trying to absorb all of this information, I'm getting to know Simon. We're sleeping on hotel floors and spending all day together in a car. We just hopped in the car, drive to one spot, ate, drove another two hours to a small town, ate, drove to another shanty town and had old Korean women translating through him to teach me what Korean food was.
Simon: Older Korean ladies completely love Chris.
For a little over two weeks, we were eating seven meals a day....We would go to bed at like 2 a.m. So at seven in the morning I would wake up and wake Chris up and the sun hasn't even risen yet. And Chris is like, "Can't I just sleep one more hour?" And I'm like, "No, Chris, we're not here to sleep, we're here to eat."
We planned a lot on Facebook. I would post: "I'm at this town, where do I need to go?" And 20 of my friends who are from that region in Korea would tell me where I need to go.
One morning, we went to this really small, old, cheap bean sprout soup place, where a lot of taxi drivers go before they start their shift. There's no menu, everyone gets one bowl, and that's it, and one of the owners, who was an old lady, not very friendly, walks up with a packet of roasted seaweed. She throws three packets on our table, you just crumble it up, put it in the soup, and eat it. That's when the lightbulb went off and that's how our seaweed butter on monkey bread was born.
Chris: There were a lot of influences like that, that influenced the work we're doing here. It's how the concept got born.
How would you explain the menu at Piora to someone who hasn't dined here? Korean? Italian? American?
Chris: Well, the menu is a modern American menu. Nothing here is traditionally Italian or Korean. It is more about finding the best ingredients we can get and then doing something delicious and interesting with them through our experience and influence.
Much of your menu has stayed the same since the opening. Which dishes best tell the story of your restaurant?
Chris: It's kind of funny that we're talking about this because a lot of the menu is actually going to be changing. When we were first making the menu, I wanted to make a statement of who we were, kind of the story of how we came together, and people took to all the dishes really well. There certainly are a few dishes like the bucatini that I can't take off the menu. The market vegetable dish, which I brought from Tenpenny with me here, I can't take off the menu either.
We have a formula that works, and now after a year we're reflecting upon what we're doing. It is time to change things up and to offer new things within the context of what we've been doing.
Anything that you're really excited about that's definitely going on the menu?
Chris: I have a pork belly dish that I'm working on that's a take on a Korean bo ssam with oysters. We're actually using oyster leaves in it. I like to use a lot of vegetables in my cooking, and anything I can do that is seasonal and interesting with vegetables is kind of the focus I've been working on. We're rolling out new pastas and basically doing all new proteins; really changing a good amount of the menu. It's the end of the year, we saw what our ups and downs are, and it's time to do Piora 2.0 as far as the menu is concerned.
When people talk about Piora, they almost always mention the bucatini dish. Tell me about it.
Chris: Honestly, I didn't think that would take off as much as it did. I always like working with dungeness crab, it's my favorite, and I was working on a black garlic pasta dough, and that smoky molasses-like flavor from black garlic pairs well with crab. We have the charred maitake mushrooms to add another smoky, earthy element, and then the heat from the peppers and the chilies we put in there. As it came together it was like "This is definitely a Korean/Italian melting pot type of dish." I guess that's why it symbolizes a little bit of what we do here. But, you know, I was really just trying to make a really good crab pasta and it just took off.
The food was well received in the reviews, but a number of the articles noted the formal nature of service. Is that something you two brought from Midtown? What's your aim with service?
Chris: We just wanted to take care of everybody really well. Some of the formal stuff that we were doing, I'd say we scaled it back. We scaled it back just to create more of a comfortable environment.
Simon: The West Village is a safe haven of such great casual restaurants. I thought we could bring a little more of a formal dining experience to the neighborhood.
The biggest thing was we wanted to create a restaurant that we would come to dine in. And I like to dine at certain casual restaurants probably about four nights a week, but one night a week I like to go where I can have a well crafted martini by bartenders in a white jacket and tie and a sommelier who can come in a suit and walk me through the wine list. Formal dining does not need to come from a very expensive, multi-Michelin star restaurant. I feel like it is not about stuffiness, it's about being proper.