By JL Becker
"I don't know of any other career that would suit me better than being a chef. It's what I do."
Iit's no secret that Zak Pelaccio has a flare for Southeast Asian flavors. First with the critically acclaimed Chickenbone Café, then at 5 Ninth. Now with Fatty Crab—his latest Malaysian-inspired restaurant—shortribs braised in kaffir lime leaves and coconut is just one of the dishes that showcase his ability to seamlessly blend Eastern and Western flavors. He gives us the straight skinny on his latest venture.
RH: What food was important in your home when you were growing up?
Zak Pelaccio: Italian. Especially the traditional roman pasta dishes, like spaghetti carbonara, cacio e pepe, amatriciana.
RH: You grew up on Italian cuisine, but your menus are known for having a Far Eastern influence.
Pelaccio: I've done a lot of traveling through Italy, France and Asia and each place has influenced my cooking in one way or another. I spent eight months in Malaysia and two months in Thailand. The food in these countries was awesome and very different from what I was used to. My interest was piqued. It was then that I focused on the technique of Asian cuisine. Of all my travels, my travels in Asia have had the biggest effect on my cooking.
RH: Do you still find time to travel?
Pelaccio: Absolutely. Travelling allows me the opportunity to talk to all sorts of people. They trigger ideas and in a strange way inspire me. A few months ago I went to Mexico. I spent time with Diana Kennedy, who is like the Julia Child of Mexican cuisine. We stayed with her in her home and learned a bunch of different Mexican dishes. She told us stories about how she would travel around Mexico and ask what a root or fungus was used for and where she might see it prepared. Before long, she was chronicling the varied regional and traditional culinary arts of an entire country.
RH: Did you ever experiment with a dish and surprise yourself?
Pelaccio: More often than not, I'd say I'm pretty aware of what I'm doing and how it will come out in the end. The other day, I did a flash sauté of a julienne conch, shrimp scallops, chicken and pork belly. I threw in scallions, ginger, garlic and sesame oil. All the proteins have different cooking times, and it was challenging to balance the timing. But the end result, with the textural differences, was great.
RH: What is your favorite dish to make?
Pelaccio: It changes all the time. If forced to choose, I'd say Assam laksa. It's a Malaysian noodle dish made from a thick, rich fish broth, shredded cucumber, Assam (a strong, pungent tea from northern India) and onion. It's got an intense flavor that makes it a really nice comfort soup best eaten—in my opinion—on a rainy day.
RH: What do you consider to be your strongest suit in the kitchen?
Pelaccio: My powerfully loud voice, of course. Aside from that, I would say my ability to blend seemingly incompatible ingredients together to create something that makes sense. For example, dried fish, lime juice and fried crispy pork belly wouldn't typically work well together, but if you take those ingredients mixed with sugar and chargrilled ginger, it's good. It's really good.
RH: Is there an ingredient or a food, a tool or piece of equipment that you find indispensable?
Pelaccio: Give me a sharp knife and I can do anything. Well, a sharp knife, a pan and a flame, but a sharp knife first.
RH: If you had to choose one food to eat every day for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Pelaccio: I'd probably choose Indonesian rijsttafel. There are so many components to it and if I'd have to eat one thing every day for the rest of my life, I'd at least like some variety to keep it interesting. Rijsttafel consists of dry steamed rice and an indefinite number of side dishes and sauces, which are either seasoned or not. The unique flavors are brought out fully with each different side dish.
RH: If you were not a chef, what would you be?
Pelaccio: Unemployed? Independently wealthy? Maybe a ski instructor? Or a professional ski bum? Seriously, I don't know of any other career that would suit me better than being a chef. I love the time-pressured environment of a kitchen matched with the creative aspects of cooking. It's what I do.
RH: What is your biggest pet peeve in a kitchen or restaurant?
Pelaccio: Young cooks who demand fancy titles. They're the kids who negotiate their pay and vacation time before their first day. When I started in this business, I worked for free. Learning how to cook in a commercial kitchen was considered my 'pay.' Young cooks don't want to put in the time. I encounter it all the time. And it's frustrating.
RH: How do you blow off steam when you're not cooking?
Pelaccio: I play with my son, Hudson. He's two and a half. We go to the playground. We wrestle. We throw all the cushions off the couch and jump on them. We eat ice cream—Chubby Hubby is his favorite. We watch movies and read books. We love to chase squirrels with the dogs. Of course, we do all of these things with Mommy. We also get dim sum. Hudson loves the dumplings.
RH: Who doesn't love dumplings and chasing squirrels?