Zak Pelaccio Comes Back to Brooklyn

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To understand the spirit of the Fatty Crew—the restaurant group led by chef Zak Pelaccio—you don’t need to set foot inside Fatty ’Cue, the Southeast Asian barbecue, pasture-to-pit place they opened last spring in the shadow of the Williamsburg bridge. You only have to lay eyes on the logo, a splashy psychedelic deal that channels the emblems of ’70s TV shows like Starsky & Hutch, complete with Pelaccio and his business partner, Rick Camac, in back-to-back profile Charlie’s Angels–style. “I fucking love it,” laughs the 37-year-old Pelaccio. Of his five “Fatty” restaurants—including two Fatty Crabs in Manhattan and the one they opened last month in St. Johns to bring sambal aioli-kissed Fatty sliders and pickled-watermelon-and-crispy-pork salads to the Virgin Islands—Fatty ’Cue is Pelaccio’s first spot to apply his signature Malaysian flavors to barbecue. It’s also the place most likely to be the Fatty Crew homestead and hangout, something akin to the Pits, the bar that Starsky and Hutch would visit when they were stuck on a case. Funnily enough, for those that might have seen Pelaccio’s ample form, fuzzy beard and shaggy mane, that bar was owned by a dude named Huggy Bear.

Pelaccio is indeed a master of funk—though in his case the word refers not to the heavy synth of a ’70s soul soundtrack but rather to the funky tang of fermenting fish flesh. His bass beat is the salty-spicy-sweet-sour flavors that are all but unknown on finer city menus, a blend of intense chiles, citrus and spice paste and, yes, partially putrid seafood that Pelaccio fell for during a year cooking in Malaysia.

If other chefs have some obsession sparked by a stage in a Parisian kitchen or making gnocchi with an Umbrian nonna, Pelaccio’s passion is traced to a city seldom cited by aspiring chefs: Kuala Lumpur. He fell hard for the place on a post-college trip, and after stints as a buyer for Drew Nieporent’s Myriad Restaurant Group and writing scripts for the Food Network, he went back in 1998 to spend a year cooking and eating, scoring a job as the only white guy working in the kitchen of a traditional high-end restaurant called Seri Malayu. Now more than a decade later—he’s taken multiple trips back since for research and additional inspiration— Pelaccio is practically a Malaysian missionary, bringing the gospel of shrimp paste and palm sugar to Western shores in the form of sultry smoked crab noodle soup or those sliders of ground beef and house-made lardo tricked out with shallots, galangal root, coriander seed and a chile-paste mayo. Those won hearts at Fatty Crab, and now the ’Cue menu (coriander-spiked bacon streaked with creamy curry custard; red curry-rubbed duck paired with pickled daikon) is creating converts, too.

’Cue may be the first Fatty in the borough, but it isn’t imperialism on the part of a Manhattan culinary empire. Students of food history know this South Williamsburg hood is the very first place the chef hung his shingle, back in 2003 when he opened Chickenbone Café on the still very scrubby stretch of South Fourth Street—when the nearby glassy condo towers were just abandoned trash-strewn lots. The location wasn’t the only way Pelaccio was ahead of the times. The food was hyper globetrotter but locally sourced, a gutsy pursuit of meaty deliciousness well before Tony Bourdain’s No Reservations hit the air, dude food before Guy Fieri. Eight years later, those early menus were a crystal ball into today’s top-10 trends: pork confit with sauce gribiche in a ciabatta roll, Long Island salads and foraged ramp soups, Thai curry stew and “peas and bacon”—pork belly over local pea shoots and fava beans—even bánh mìs, Asian noodles and little pork buns, reimagined with Greenmarket ingredients, before Momofuku made its name on such similar mouthfuls. Pelaccio developed relationships with local farms who are now on the city’s best menus, like Violet Hill and Samascott Orchards, buying Trinidadian chiles and kielbasa from Brooklyn’s immigrant markets, a new combination that prompted New York magazine to gush about a then-new Kings County food aesthetic: “Brooklyn, it seems, has a terroir,” it proclaimed way back in an early review of the restaurant, “and its biggest culinary boosters are making the most of it.”

Pelaccio’s commitments to good ingredients run even deeper. He helped found the New York chapter of Slow Food USA with the organization’s national president Patrick Martins. When Martins went on to found Heritage Foods USA, which sources superior foods from small farms across the country (including much of the pork, lamb and goat Fatty turns into cue), Patrick counted Pelaccio—who by then had opened 5 Ninth in Manhattan— among his very first customers. “Zak has always been a visionary and continues to keep small farms in business,” says Martins, who recalls that Pelaccio was the first to really buy secondary “lesser” cuts like belly and ribs, which in 2005 few were buying in bulk.

At the same time—and this was half a decade ago, remember—Pelaccio had already bought his own parcel of land upstate to custom-grow a few Fatty-destined crops, including Indonesian long peppers and obscure herbs not found at Union Square. When a massive kitchen up there is finished, says Pelaccio, who once taught his son’s Brooklyn preschool class how to simmer maple sap into syrup, he hopes to turn it into Fatty training and brainstorming ground for the Crew: “A barefoot center of the universe,” he says dreamily, “where I could stand around in shorts and bare feet and pick herbs from my garden.”

But while the field is now wonderfully crowded with chefs who take their sourcing as seriously, Pelaccio is unique in what he does with all those pea shoots and pork belly. Unlike at just about every locavore temple in town, to dine Fatty is to sit at tables more Formica than farmhouse, and to dine not on bucolic Americana but on the mojo of Malaysia.

Indeed ’Cue exists to marry Southeast Asian ingredients with the innate lustiness of smoked meats. And while this clubhouse may not be called the Pits, it does contain them: technically a stainless steel stack of rotating smokers, they’re out in an old garage accessible by a side door. With any luck you might be able to eat out there one day in the fenced-in driveway, watching pitmaster Robbie Richter feed the flames with cords of upstate oak aged for maximum burn. The former cue guru at Hill Country, Richter’s now responsible for tending Fatty’s magic meats: the fastidiously procured heritage-breed hogs often slow-cooked for “whole pig” Sundays (from Raven & Boar in Columbia County, Virginia’s EcoFriendly Foods Farm, and the fantastic farmers who supply Heritage); the pastured lambs brined in white wine and those dried fermented shrimps; the racks of ribs rubbed with a mash of Indonesian long peppers; the smoked wild-caught catfish destined for the Fatty version of the Thai dish nam prik; or sides of bacon whose coriander-chile cure makes Fatty Cue’s bacon, egg and cheese on a roll the kind of breakfast it’s hard to imagine would exist anywhere outside of Williamsburg.

Richter, a competitive barbecuer from Rego Park, Queens (where he started out grilling in his parents’ cul-de-sac), met Pelaccio nearly a decade ago through the carnivorous Brooklyn food writer Josh Ozersky, whose annual birthday party is the public fleshfest aptly named Meatopia. When Zak was tapped to cook a whole heritage breed pig for a wedding upstate on a farm in Ghent, Richter recalls, “I said, ‘do yourself a favor, do me a favor, let’s cook it together.’” They did, reimagining classic Southern slow-and-low cooked barbecue with a farm-to-table twist—and a flavorbombing of Southeast Asian seasonings. The combination became the foundation not just of Fatty ’Cue, but of a wholly new kind of restaurant.

In a tiny kitchen behind the bar on the first floor, ’Cue’s cooks give those slow-cooked meats the Fatty treatment. They plate Chinatown plasticware with triangles of white toast and a tea cup of the unctuous spread of multi-meat drippings they call “master fat;” place steamed bao, housemade hot pepper jam and pickled red onions alongside Brandt Ranch briskets; pair soft, soft shreds of pastured lamb shoulder with local goat yogurt blended with their own dried spice mix, a pile of the leafy Vietnamese mint and puffy little rounds of fresh-baked pita, which even Damascus Bakery on Atlantic would be proud to serve. (Bowls of celery wedges and charred broccoli salad are the place’s sole vegetable sides, and the latter, it must be noted, includes lardo.) All the while, cooks reach over the pot of simmering bones from mixed breeds of beasts donated from the Meat Hook and Marlow & Daughters, subtly flavored with coriander seed and the floral notes of the Southeast Asian root called “galangal,” ginger’s extreme cousin. Served strained as “bone broth,” it’s exactly as simple and delicious as it sounds.

Like Pelaccio himself, Fatty ’Cue is a flavor perfectionist disguised in a slacker suit, a place where pursuit of great flavor has nothing to do with fancy, a place that uses enlightened ingredients without a modicum of moralizing; a place that serves Cherry Coke in a cocktail, but only after giving the syrup a ride in the smoker. It’s a 1:00 p.m. bacon and egg sandwich place and a 1:00 a.m. snack spot. “To eat at Fatty Crew’s new restaurant,” raved the Times when it opened last year, “is to experience the very essence of nowness.”

It’s sleepy by day—a few folks eating a bowl of noodles in bone broth or the ’Cue-grilled cheese made with pickled chiles and house-smoked mozz and Gruyère—crowded and loud at night, when your barkeep will make one of Fatty beverage director Adam Schuman’s many smokelayered cocktails. There’s that smoked Cherry Coke Manhattan, and the Chupacabra, a pink fluff of a drink that starts sweet and ends with a burn, and made with tequila, chile-infused ginger liqueur, watermelon juice and lime. The slower times are arguably the best, when the brushed metal and old wood near the narrow cabin-like bar make the place feel like a ship docked on the nearby East River, maybe an old Chinese junk that used to take the Pacific route up the strait of Malacca—the coastline just east of the Malaysian city where Pelaccio learned the flavor language for which he’s now famous.

Here in the States, Pelaccio is surely the biggest booster of the region’s culinary techniques. (Literally: He helped the Malaysian External Trade Development Corporation promote the country’s cooking in 2010.) But he would be the first to dismiss his menus as anything approaching authentic. “The dirty little secret of it is that it’s not Malaysian at all,” he says of his cooking at Fatty Crab or Fatty ’Cue. “The way we cook laksa would be barely identifiable to a Malaysian person, or the nam prik or rendang at Fatty ’Cue.” Instead, he says, what he took away from the country was a way to make food taste, well, electrifying: “an incredible enticing of your taste buds,” he says, still smitten more than a decade later, “so stimulating and enthralling.” To take an ordinary slider and add a smear of chile paste and a splash of citrus; to pair every Grandma’s brisket with sour-sweetheat chile jam and the bracing tang of fish sauce; to shower charred pork belly with lime juice and pickled watermelon. What Pelaccio does isn’t reproduction but reappropriation, which, when you think about it, requires far more creativity than straight imitation.

It took time to translate: Pelaccio headed for the French Culinary Institute when he came back to Manhattan, then jobs in white tablecloth shops like Daniel and Napa Valley’s the French Laundry. They left him disenchanted, not surprising for a guy who claims he’s “not capable of cookie cutter: I’m too sort of scatterbrained and turned on by what I’m doing.” Pelaccio gets bored of the everyday details of restaurant running—“the turn-on is to keep cooking,” he says, but that’s part of the Fatty charm. (In addition to the underlying feel of the food, Pelaccio is also likely responsible for the team’s sense of humor. “That’s the kind of stuff I don’t pay attention to,” he jokes when asked how many members are part of the Crew. “It’s not that interesting. I pay attention to what we’re serving, to everything we offer, where we’re buying it and how it’s being served. I pay attention to my own thoughts. I pay attention to my navel.”)

Pelaccio, it should be noted, hasn’t just chased flavor around the globe. He’s also one of the city’s uber chowhounds, his cooking style just as informed by years of seeking out obscure eating experiences right here in the boroughs. Not for nothing does Robert Sietsema, the Counter Culture columnist for the Village Voice, issue a rare disclaimer when talking about Fatty restaurants, calling Pelaccio a “friend and frequent dining companion.” Pelaccio wrote several of the much-loved Asian chapters in the 2003 Slow Food’s Guide to New York City.

Some of his melting-pot projects have met with tepid response: There was that giant place called Chop Suey in Times Square, and another attempt at NYC-global fusion called Borough Food & Drink. And selling $18 “snacks” of chile-smeared ribs from a T-shirted team hasn’t always been easy either. Fatty ’Cue was, after all, included in the Village Voice’s Top 10 “overrated” restaurants last year, slammed for “cynically small” portions and “cynically high” prices. That prompted Pelaccio to pen a lengthy response that his $38 per person average dinner tab was actually pretty good when you consider the care of his sourcing was on par with the city’s best restaurants and that he was creating a meal made up almost entirely of extremely pricey proteins. “The idea that barbecue is some déclassé blue collar food made from roadkill,” he says of customer unwillingness to pay premium price for premium product if you happen to call it “cue,” “boggles my mind.”

Still, Pelaccio is equally astounded at how much more open his customers have become since he first started cooking in Brooklyn. “In 2002 and 2003 it was hard to sell whole fish on the bone.”

Now at Fatty ’Cue, once you eat your whole smoked mackerel you’re advised to have the kitchen deep-fry the bones. And while he pooh-poohs the idea he’s responsible for any such shift, or the recent full-on obsession with meats, he is without question one of the boundary breakers who’s helped us get here, one of a handful of cooks who dispensed with stuffiness and stole the world’s best culinary tricks while breaking all of its culinary rules—long before it was what the public wanted.

Still, even Pelaccio himself can tire of all things fatty. Whenever he’s recognized in a restaurant, the kitchen often sends out the place’s porkiest plates. “It would be great,” he says with a sigh, “if somebody just brought me a fucking salad.”

Rachel Wharton is Edible Brooklyn’s deputy editor. When the Fatty Crew opens Fatty Salad, she will be the first in line. 

As of November 2013, Fatty ‘Cue Brooklyn is closed.

Made in Heaven: The magic of Fatty ‘Cue is the marriage of Zak Pelaccio’s forceful Malaysian flavors and pitmaster Robbie Richter’s skills with smoked meats.

Like Pelaccio himself, Fatty ’Cue is a flavor perfectionist disguised in a slacker suit, a place where pursuit of great flavor has nothing to do with fancy, a place that uses enlightened ingredients without a modicum of moralizing; a place that serves Cherry Coke in a cocktail, but only after giving the syrup a ride in the smoker. It’s a 1:00 p.m. bacon and egg sandwich place and a 1:00 a.m. snack spot.

Photo credit:  Michael Harlan Turkell.

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