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Kuo, Cappiello & McRill on the First Year of Pearl & Ash

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Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.
[Patrick Cappiello, Branden McRill, and Richard Kuo by Krieger]
A little over a year ago, partners Richard Kuo, Branden McRill and Patrick Cappiello opened Pearl & Ash, a small plates and wine-focused restaurant on the Bowery. Richard was fresh off of Frej, his wildly successful pop-up with Fredrik Berselius, while Branden came from managing a string of successful restaurants in Chicago and New York. Patrick, meanwhile, had been the sommelier at Gilt, and had just turned down the same position at its successor, Villard Michel Richard. The opening was rocky enough that they decided to do it over again, but Pearl & Ash has since become an industry darling and continues to play to a packed house. Here Richard, Branden, and Patrick discuss that first false start, ambitions large and small, and the time two blind sommeliers walked into the bar.

How did Pearl & Ash come about?
Richard Kuo: I had just left my last project, Frej, and I wasn't too sure what I had planned. I just wanted to see what was out there. I ended up here having a conversation with the owners of this business. At the time they had a restaurant called Bowery Kitchen and the business wasn't doing as well as they had hoped and they were looking for someone from the outside to try and turn the restaurant around. I proposed to them with the idea of doing this style of concept, though at the time it was only me and no Branden or Patrick. But obviously it was a monumental task so progressively I recruited Branden and then brought Patrick into the fold.

Why did you want to do this style of restaurant?
Richard: We all felt that there was a need for somewhere where industry people could go to, late night, where the food and beverage content is at a quality level comparable to many other fine-dining restaurants, but very financially approachable. Somewhere where we ourselves would feel comfortable eating out.

Why did you end leaving Frej?
Richard: Well as our partnership grew, [Fredrik Berselius and I] developed our individual styles and ideas The ideas grew to the point where we just needed our own space to develop them.

Branden, how did you get involved?
Branden McRill: I read that Richard was here and came down to check it out and started a dialogue with both Richard and the owners. We all collectively decided that it was best that somebody besides Richard—who was completely doing everything at the time—come in and manage what was happening on the other side of the kitchen wall. He was, it seems like, spending 50 percent of his time in the front of the house and 50 percent of it in the kitchen. So I came in to facilitate and let loose of some of that steam.

And Patrick, you came from Gilt. What was that transition like for you?
Patrick Cappiello: Well initially I was only on as a consultant. Gilt had just closed, the timing was good, these guys were looking to start something new and I think they saw the potential to change. We didn't have a liquor license—we still don't have one—and when you're dealing with a situation like that, especially in this neighborhood, you have to be creative. It was a great opportunity to bring in some more wine. I've only worked with really large programs like Veritas, Tribeca Grill, and Gilt, all of them were over 2,000 selections. I'm probably not the person to write a 20 bottle wine list for you. So after a little bit of pushing them, I got them to invest a little more time and energy into a larger program. But it was only a consulting thing and then Branden was very insistent from the beginning that he was gonna convince me to stay here, which I fought for a long time.

Why did you fight it?
Patrick: I was already slated to be the wine director of The New York Palace Hotel, so I had a really financially comfortable position and a lot of opportunity to spend a lot of money there. I had a 401k and insurance benefits, I was living like a grown-up, which in the restaurant business isn't always the easiest thing to acquire. But being in this environment is more suited to the kind of person that I am. I live very close to here, and I definitely agreed that there was a lack not only of food destinations like this, but of wine destinations for sure. I get to dress casually. I don't like wearing a suit. So I really embraced the idea of walking five blocks to work and then the idea of being an owner. When you work in the restaurant industry that's often a dream: to own a restaurant.

What was the opening like?
Branden: We started and we were together for six weeks before we closed down for two months to do a small renovation and reopen. When I got here it was Pearl & Ash 1.0, and we closed down and opened as Pearl & Ash 2.0, but nobody even knew that Pearl & Ash 1.0 ever existed. It was unfortunate and great at the same time. Unfortunate because the food was actually bangin' and even more affordable than it is now. Then we dressed it up a little bit, brought in Patrick, fleshed out the beer program, fleshed out the wine program, did a little bit of aesthetic design and called it 2.0. Thankfully people considered 2.0 the opening because otherwise we wouldn't have been able to get people coming in.

Why did you decide to do 2.0? What was wrong with 1.0?
Branden: I don't think there was anything wrong with it, I just think it wasn't a completely fleshed out idea. There weren't some creature comforts that are requisite for having a comfortable restaurant. Some of the touches that make it a provocative and interesting space to look at didn't exist. The kitchen was completely ripped out and we put everything back in stainless steel, and we built in an entire kitchen downstairs to do some more prep and to do pastry. Those sorts of things were not done and needed to be done.

So were there any surprises with the 2.0 opening or was everything smooth?
Patrick: I think what was most surprising with 2.0 is that there was a ground swell of support from the industry. That was the thing that really started getting people excited. The critical response wasn't what we had hoped. It was initially really stressful thing, especially for me. I had never gone through an opening, I had never been through a critical period and these guys have had that before. There were a few nights that they had to have people come pick me up because I was not in a good place. Just the first couple of reviews were reviews by people who I don't think understood what were doing here, or who took it as an opportunity to challenge that we were doing something different. After the New York Times review, we felt like someone finally got it.
Richard: For me at that point, my biggest fear was failure. I just didn't wanna fuck this up.

What were those first reviews?
Patrick: Just by people who I don't think understood that we're doing something unique. For me, the wine side was based on an inspirational trip to Paris the year before. It was all these really great wine-centric places that were focused on great food. I was just doing what I feel like the wine scene was doing there. These guys have kinda given the middle finger to the Michelin approach. So, for them to be that way, and for us to be the same way, it's a very counter-cultural approach.

So you guys have been partners working together for a year now. Have there been any major disagreements along the way?
Patrick: No I think we function really well together. Better than most people, especially when it comes to having three people work together. I mean everyone has disagreements when you work in business together, but I think what keeps us all really close is that we all work really hard. We're all here a lot of hours, and over the course of a lot of days, as we have been from the beginning.

Branden: Our dialogue becomes conversation. People have different opinions, but it's from those different opinions that creative ideas evolve. So as opposed to having disagreements, everyone has a different idea and then you can take one portion of one idea and one portion of another idea and make that the best possible idea that you can come up with between the three of you.

Has anything happened over the course of the year that you didn't expect?
Patrick: I don't think so. I think it's gone better than any of us could have imagined. We're really busy. Like really, really busy. We're busier now then we've ever been.

Branden: We're actually 50 percent busier in the month of February than we were in the month of December.

Patrick: I mean we've always been busy, but now it's like insanely busy. I mean I can't even get tables for my friends in here. Which was always never even a question. It's a great problem to have.

Why do you think that is? Why are you still getting busier one year later?
Patrick: I think we're continuing to deliver what we said we were going to deliver. We haven't raised the prices. We're not getting rich doing it, but in the end I can look at myself in the mirror knowing I'm doing the right thing. Some people who open restaurants would take that opportunity after all the press came through to raise the prices and then fuck over all their guests, and take the money and run, but maybe they wouldn't be as busy right now, or maybe they wouldn't last as long. We're planning on lasting for a lot more years.

Branden: I also feel like people have come through when there's a positive review from something like the New York Times, but then I see those people for a second time and a third time and a fourth time and even a fifth time. I think people have come to check it out, they've decided that it's something that they like, and they're continuing to come back.

Patrick: And we have a lot of neighborhood people. Looking at this winter and the fact that it's been so shitty, so many other places aren't as busy as we are, but every night there was a storm, we were packed. Because people live in the neighborhood, and what better place is there to have a great plate of food and an awesome glass of wine.

Branden: Right. We lost a few covers because of the storm, and then we picked up 40 walk-ins.

Patrick, it seems like you probably saber more bottles than any other restaurant in the city. Have there been any particularly memorable saberings? Or any mishaps?
Branden: I think the blind sabering was a big one.

Patrick: Oh that was pretty cool, yeah. I had two sommeliers who are legally blind, and they got connected to us through a friend of ours and they wanted to learn how to saber. So they came in, one with her seeing eye dog, and I took 'em up on the bar one after the other and helped them saber a bottle of wine.

Branden: In the middle of service.

Patrick: I mean that's often the case. We've been very fortunate not to have any mishaps. Maybe once or twice the cork bounces off a bottle and gets a little close to somebody, but no one has gotten maimed or killed in the process. We have a whole safety net of procedures that happen before. When you're sitting here it just looks like I put down my can of Modelo and jump on the bar and saber a bottle of wine, but there's a lot of safety factors that go into it.

Branden: There's saber zones.

Are you thinking about doing anything else right now?
Patrick: It seems like a daily thing that we all come up with a new idea, and I think we wanna do that, but we're also smart enough to realize that it's only a year old. When you're successful and you're riding this high you wanna keep it going, but we're all smart enough to keep our feet on the ground, even if we have our head in the clouds. Especially after a bunch of beers, all the ideas flow. In the next few years something else will come up. There's been talks about doing something on a more elevated style of cuisine, and then there's been talks of doing more like a grab and go kinda thing. It would be cool to have something where the neighborhood folks can grab some great late-night drunk food. But I don't wanna give away any ideas.

Richard: A lot of it revolves around what we want to eat.

Patrick: It's so true. Like late at night when we're drunk, after we're having our post-shift beer, we're like, "Wow, I wish I could eat this right now," and there's not that to be had, and this is like, Manhattan, and there should be everything to have.

Branden: If something does happen, it's going to be close to here. So that we can walk between the two in a very short period of time, so that we can make sure that everything is being carefully looked after at both spots, and that nothing gets lost in the translation.

Patrick: That's always been the idea, plus we like this neighborhood and we were kinda here first. Now it seems like there's a lot of other people who are excited to be in this neighborhood too, so I don't think we wanna give up our turf. Everyone's welcome to come, just don't fuck with us. You can quote me on that.

Richard, how much has the menu changed, and is there anything you want to be doing that you're not yet?
Richard: The menu's always changing. Patrick and I work on the Renegade Wine Dinner basically every other week, and whenever there are dishes on that menu that we feel meet the standard of where we see the restaurant, the just roll onto the menu. But the menu is always evolving. There's always probably half a dozen dishes that we're evaluating.

Patrick: The Renegade dinners are like six months in, too. That's almost like a restaurant within the restaurant. It's a tasting menu, it's presented in a more structured way, and it's presented with a lot of wine. And I think it really does a great job of encompassing the two things that Richard and I do best.

Richard: It gives us the opportunity, because we're doing such small covers, to build very refined dishes, that we otherwise wouldn't be able to as a la carte. And it gives us the opportunity to see how hard we can push ourselves and see what we can achieve with what we have.

Is there anything that you can't or won't change on the menu?
Richard: Nope. Actually I'm a great believer that a good chef is someone who can always feel very comfortable letting go of any dishes on the menu. That being said, I think there are several dishes on our menu that, if we took them off, people might miss them a lot.

What would be missed?
Richard: I think the potatoes would be missed.
Patrick: Yeah, I would miss those. The meatballs and the potatoes aren't going anywhere because I eat those at least three times a week.
Richard: And I think maybe the octopus as well.
Patrick: Definitely the octopus.

Do you have anything you want to do at Pearl & Ash that you haven't done yet?
Branden: I think the best thing that could possibly happen is that we continue to keep people excited to keep coming back. And that comes from Richard continuing to come up with new dishes, Patrick continuing to keep the wine list vibrant and exciting, and making sure that everybody here who's working here is extremely passionate about what they're doing, because that passion is what drives people to the restaurant.

Richard: And I think hopefully we'll be busy enough to the point where we have to install a second bathroom.

Patrick: [Laughs] Yes, that's actually exactly what we need to change in the next year, is get a second bathroom.

· All Coverage of Pearl & Ash [~ENY~]