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Kat & Theo – LOST GEM

Kat & Theo – LOST GEM

5 West 21st Street
New York, NY 10010
Established: 2015

When I met with Paras Shah of Kat and Theo, he seemed to be in a state of elated shock. “At this point, I can step back and spend time doing executive chef stuff,” he happily declared. “It’s something I’m not used to. I’m used to mixing it up with the boys.” Despite having worked in countless well-known kitchens, this is the first time Paras has been the executive chef, and he is not yet accustomed to the fact that he has trained his staff well and can now trust his team to run things the way he likes.

On the day that we visited, Paras sat down and shared his stories about his personal journey, the restaurant, and the people that work with him. “I’m just a kid who used to ride the frickin’ A train,” Paras said with a grin. He was born in New York as a first generation American. His father came to the United States from India with only $100 in his pocket. After attending school to become an electrician, he found a job in a jewelry store, hoping to get his green card. He worked for a man named Max Nass whom Paras remembers “looked like Albert Einstein.” Paras’ father met his mother, who had emigrated from the Philippines, and started raising a family in Astoria.

The earliest childhood memories that Paras has are about food. He remembers being three years old and having his father buy him a powdered doughnut on the way home from temple. As background, Paras relayed, “Now, I’m already a little fat kid at this point.” He continued on to say that when he returned home and realized that the powdered sugar was falling off the doughnut, tiny Paras reached for the baby powder, hoping to replace the sweetness, but was sorely disappointed. Another fond story that he told involved peanut butter. “I’ve always been a sucker for peanut butter and jelly.” When he was six or seven years old, he put a bunch of peanuts in a bag and started to “smack the crap out of it” with a rolling pin. When it did not get creamy the way he liked it, he added a stick of butter and continued whacking the bag until, inevitably, it exploded. Needless to say, he was disappointed again. These childhood events hinted at a career of experimenting with food, but with far more success as he got older.

Paras’ journey to becoming a chef was not a straight path. He first went to business school, which he admits was the wrong decision, but he kept cooking. As he explains, “The way I express my love for an individual is by cooking for them.” He knows that this is true of many, however, most people remain “content cooking for the people they love” and do not become professional chefs. He considers himself fortunate to have been able to study to become a chef, admitting that he may have had a bit of an ego early on: “I was one of those punks in culinary school who thinks they can do anything.” He was humbled very quickly once he reached the professional world. He begged to work at Per Se after culinary school, since he considers Jonathan Benno to be a genius (“His philosophy and technique are so sick,” he says). On his second day working there, he exploded the bag full of chicken stock all over the kitchen floor. After months of feeling very small next to the accomplished chefs at Per Se, Paras was approached by Benno, who said, “You did great. We could sure use you here.” Paras told me, “I had on one of those big boy grins you get as a child when you get the lollipop you wanted.”

After spending time at Per Se, he went on to work at other highly regarded restaurants, including Momofuku and, most recently, El Bulli in Spain, thought to have been one of the best restaurants in the world. He has learned countless lessons during his career, but one of the best has been to “try to truly understand the ingredients I am using.” He then elaborated by saying that, “A great chef can raise the nobility of ingredients. A humble potato has the same culinary merit as a filet mignon.”

We were then introduced to the owners, Renee and Andreas Typaldos. Paras believes that there should be a movie written about their romantic backstory and that he “couldn’t work for better folks.” Andy is originally from Greece, and the restaurant is named after his parents, Katerina and Theodosios. Andy came to New York on a scholarship from Columbia and met Renee, who is from the Bronx. He took her out on a first date “with holes in his shoes and with no winter jacket,” according to Renee. She added, “The romantic, poetic way people get together – that’s what this restaurant is.” She has been very happy with the way Kat and Theo has been received. “Without knowing the full story, people still get what we are trying to do here,” she said.

The staff then brought out a selection of dishes, which Andy urged us, with a hospitable smile, to try. We tasted the fluke crudo with dill, pink peppercorn, and a blood orange citronette. We also sampled a new dish – duck with pear puree, which tasted like pure autumn and was arranged on the plate like a forest floor, with “fallen leaves” surrounding it. Paras grinned cheekily and said that it had been inspired by the TV show Duck Dynasty. Serena then placed one of her signature desserts on the table, a deconstructed carrot cake with sorbet. Our taste buds were truly treated to the masterpieces that come out of the minds of such experienced, creative chefs.

Although chefs used to be relegated to shady types who enjoyed the “craziness and flames” of a kitchen, Paras shared, he appreciates that today being a cook has become a respected profession. He says that there is still a certain level of insanity needed to work in a restaurant, however, for one must sacrifice any social life, and stand in the heat for eight hours or more. It is difficult, as he says, to “Ride this crazy frickin’ roller coaster that is a chef’s life,” but luckily he has an amazing team that is willing to ride it with him. We met Spencer, his sous-chef, whom Paras worked with at Momofuku seven years ago and who is now his roommate. “Our synergy is sick,” he said. “It’s BFF-style. There is nobody I trust more in life and in my kitchen than this knucklehead.” He introduced me to the rest of the gang, including Benito Mastrocinque and Feil Junn Alipar, both of whom he is “absolutely honored to have working on the team.” When referring to his pastry chef, Serena Chow, who came from Eleven Madison Park, he commented, “Her thought process is so magical.”

Paras explained that in the kitchen, they have a combined forty years of experience and twenty Michelin stars. “We’re not going to be able to be stopped,” Paras said, “Not because of our Michelin stars and history, but because we want this to succeed. It’s like destiny that we were all thrown together at this moment.”