Chef Peter Serpico and Stephen Starr Open Restaurant in Philadelphia

Chef Peter Serpico at Serpico on South Street in Philadelphia
Chef Peter Serpico in the kitchen at Serpico, Phila PA

Two weeks ago in Philadelphia, entrepreneur Stephen Starr and Executive Chef Peter Serpico held the first of their "Friends and Family" dinners before the opening of their hotly anticipated South Street restaurant, Serpico. The meal we attended was a boisterous occasion (loud, as every Starr preview is, from the acoustics of the room, the free flowing libations, and of course, the volume level familiar to Philadelphians in general) for a chef known for his flavorful mash-ups of all-world fare. On opening night, the usually quiet Peter Serpico opened up about his past – personal and professional – as well as what the future in Philly looks like.

What did you learn over the course of the two preview nights? About the menu? About us? And what do you think we learned about you?
I can’t imagine about what you guys learned about me. I think we learned a lot about how this restaurant is going to function on a daily basis. Obviously, we need to learn more. I don’t know if it was explained to everyone there what kind of food that we were going to have or what the atmosphere was going to be like. I’m not really good at explaining myself. Some people seemed a little confused. No big deal. Ultimately people will come in, eat and make their own assessments. We want to make the food pretty approachable and the vibe friendly. We want to stay humble and be here whether you’re traveling to get to us or are part of the neighborhood.

Regarding the neighborhood, what did you know about the area before you got there? It is, traditionally and historically, a wonderful block that people have found and maintained prejudices about – perhaps due to kids, cars and loudness.
I can only speak for myself here, but I enjoy the energy. Everybody who built and designed the restaurant did a great job trying to capture what we wanted and feed into that energy. We also wanted it to be and feel like an escape from South Street, if you wanted that. I live in the neighborhood. I enjoy it. I’ve been here for about a year

How did you and Stephen Starr connect about the project? What did you want your restaurant to be?
I was ready to leave New York City and a mutual friend of ours who knew that told both Stephen and I that we should sit down and talk, so we did. It really was just one of those things that happened organically, the Philly thing. I wasn’t confident enough to just move to a city that I didn’t know and open a restaurant. I needed somebody confident and educated to do it with.

Other than the fact that this is Starr’s town, why and how did Philly become the focus of your relocation?
I’m 31 years old now. I need to think about my future and the future of my family. If you were going to leave New York, this seemed a good place to head to, right? I really was just ready for a change. That said, once I was here, I liked it. Plus the person I’m engaged to is from New York and my family is in Maryland, so this is right in-between, perfect for both of us in that regard. We get to each of them a whole lot more.

What did you learn about food and the business of food from collaborating with David Chang? What do you think he leaned from you?
I learned a lot being at Momofuku. I figured out how to be a little more patient, that it was up to us to be successful and that we had no one to blame but ourselves if we weren’t. I feel as if we were trying to get better at all times there, which is key. I learned about humility, the value of hard work and always doing the right thing. Whether the right thing is the hardest way of doing something was irrelevant. Working with him was very humbling and eye opening. As to what he learned from me? Probably nothing (laughs).

Personal question: how did a young Korean gentleman get an Italian last name?
I was adopted when I was two years old from Korea by a mother and father whose last name became mine. Absolutely, my parents are very wonderful and I owe them a lot.

You mentioned the initial conversations with Starr and it being collaborative, BUT, what was the most specific, most prominent element that YOU wanted the space to have and be – to show off, to pursue?
I really just wanted to cook good food. I know that sounds simple.

Well, for a restaurant, nothing is better than that goal.
I wanted to build and have a team that can serve that goal. I want to make people that are coming into the restaurant happy. That’s my focus. Beyond that, there’s nothing else.

Outside of the umbrella of good food, your flavors touch upon so many different worlds, tastes, sensations with no singular perspective to be gleaned. Other than good food, did you have a taste sensation different than the one you portrayed at Momofuku that you wanted to try here, on your own?
I feel like (he sighs heavily here) that - I just want it to taste good. We still need to find our identity. Tonight is our first night here and I can’t really tell you how that will look or taste or change within a week, a month or a year.

Steamed egg custard with Siberian sturgeon caviar at Serpico
Steamed Egg Custard at Serpico
Two dishes in particular seem like polar opposites of what you’re trying to do – the egg custard with potato and caviar was opulent, while the lamb ribs dish was earthy. Let’s start with the custard. It’s a rich, silken dish, yet it’s simple and light. What was the inspiration for that?
I’m really big on textures and yes, I did want to have one true luxury dish on the menu. That dish is one of luxury, a textural dish, one where temperature and flavor come second.

The lamb ribs dish – that one is hearty, dense, more down to earth.
That dish – I’ve been working with Elysian Fields (pure bred lamb from Western Pennsylvania). They’re doing the right thing there, really showing respect for the animal. We’re using the lamb ribs, as it is his custom cut and an off cut so that we can make it affordable and we can make it hearty. That’s a dish for someone hungry, someone who really wants to eat.

Where do you stand with local purveyors?
I’m still new here and am trying to get the lay of the land. We support them as much as possible and will surely do more.

So back to the other night, the friends and family night. Were we too boisterous for you? Were Philadelphians what you expected?
I appreciated hearing everybody‘s opinion. Some people had stronger opinions about certain dishes than others. It’s a personal thing, it doesn’t bother me. We’re here to get better, so if somebody said that they hated one thing, I’m totally fine with it and am trying to consider what they want. Then, the next person had a different opinion and you consider. You can’t please everyone, even if what you’re trying to do is please everyone.

Did people say to your face that there were things that they didn’t get or that weren’t to their liking?
Yes, absolutely, but that is why we did that night and had those comment cards. They hated some things and loved others. You really have to take it all with a grain of salt (laughs).

Literally. Do you mind telling me what people did and didn’t get? I didn’t eat everything but I had a good sampling of what you were serving.
The response really was all over the place, honestly. It wasn’t like everyone universally hated one dish and universally loved another item. We listen to it, but that doesn’t mean we heard it enough to change something. I’m sure it is the same in your business; that some people hate what you write on occasion.

Peter, I can’t begin to tell you.

The kitchen at Serpico, the new restaurant from Chef Peter Serpico and restaurateur Stephen Starr
For more info:
Serpico, 604 South Street, Philadelphia PA, 215.925.3001

Photos ©Glamorosi 2013

Posted on Tuesday, July 2, 2013