by Jacqueline Rupp
If you’re in need of inspiration, local restaurateur Po Le can serve you up a heaping helping. His story is filled to the brim with tales of overcoming adversity, whether it was starting in the restaurant industry as a Vietnamese immigrant with no formal training to opening his first restaurant at the age of 53. Le is about as close to the quintessential American Dream ideal as one could get.
We caught up with Le last week in his quaint new Springhouse restaurant, Po Le Cucina. Opened just four months ago, the small, eponymous BYOB has attracted buzz and with its limited seating, a bit of anticipation to snag a coveted place during the dinner rush. Amidst a simple, Italian bistro decor with the bustling open kitchen in the background, Le talked about how he has always had a love for cooking. “I’m very humble. A typical day for me starts at 7 a.m., and then I don’t usually go to bed until 1:30 a.m. Because you know, I want to keep up with everything. I never complain; work is work; you do what you love.”
Combining his experience in French fine dining with his Asian background and his flair for Italian cuisine, his opening of Po Le Cucina is the fulfillment of a dream for this father of two whose career in the industry began mostly by accident. “When I came to this country 33 years ago, I landed in New York City, and cooking wasn’t my first choice. I had no education or background in it. I ended up working in a French restaurant, La Grenouille, as a pot washer.”
So how does a pot washer in a completely new culture go on to achieve culinary acclaim and his own restaurant? Le says it’s all about hard work and determination…and being open-minded. At the age of 20, Le fled Vietnam by boat to Hong Kong, and soon arrived in New York City. “In my life back home in Vietnam, men never did the cooking. It was the woman’s work. I remember trying to help in the kitchen. My mother would chase me out and tell me, ‘It’s not your place.’”
At La Grenouille, one of New York’s most expensive restaurants, Phuoc Le became “Po” and began his rise through the ranks. “The owner came up to me and asked me if I would like to work in the pastry department of the restaurant. I didn’t have any training, so I said, ‘On one condition. If I do something wrong, don’t fire me; just tell me what to do, and I’ll learn.'”
And learn he did. From this promotion, Le worked for Francois Payard at Le Berdardin, another of New York’s most high-end restaurants, and then Susanna Foo in center city Philadelphia. Most recently he was the executive chef for 13 years at Ristorante San Marco in Springhouse. Along the way he has accumulated a reputation for precision in his dishes, perfectly executed pastries and a creatively fresh approach to Italian cuisine.
At Po Le Cucina, he focuses on locally sourced produce and meats and designs the menu around whatever local purveyors are currently offering. This flexibility shows Le’s confidence in the kitchen and the ability to pull off adventurous dishes. A fan of the Food Network show “Chopped,” Le often challenges himself to determine what he could create given the limited ingredients the show offers.
So why Italian food for this French-trained Asian chef? “Unless you’re Asian like me, you eat Chinese food maybe once a week,” he explained. “If you say pasta, you can eat it three or four times a week. When you open a business, you want to appeal to everyone. You want to be busy, because then everything is always fresh; a busier restaurant is a better restaurant.”
Le’s affinity for seafood is apparent in some of his pasta interpretations like the seafood ravioli with shrimp, scallops and lobster in a vodka sauce or the seafood risotto. The catch of the day gets special treatment by the chef. When we stopped by, it was a generous portion of salmon atop delicately roasted potatoes, green beans and a sautéed vegetable medley. Many of the classic Italian favorites can also be found at Po Le, like the super-creamy eggplant rollatini stuffed with ricotta, bechamel and tomato sauce; gnocchi and chicken piccata. Appetizers are $5 to $14 and entrees from $14 to $30.
With his pastry background, Le says that he learned from the start how much looks matter when creating dishes. “I was trained in how to arrange on a plate, how to complement things on a plate. So you have to think about color and flavors. I never attended a culinary school, but the technique, the thing I do is that I watched the chefs. You see them make mistakes, or they tell you when you’ve made a mistake. You figure things out on the spot.”
Le tells the story of working on the hot second floor kitchen during his time in New York City and realizing that when his dough was crumbling from the heat, he needed to figure out a new strategy, so he began arriving very early in the morning to prep all his pastries at the ideal temperature. That type of problemsolving has been one of Le’s keys to success. “Find the right way to do something, but be open to new ideas, and if they’re better, you do them. If not, you stick with your way of doing things. It’s always about trying.”
The springtime at Po Le will see outdoor seating plus a new lighter menu. “I’m so happy,” said Le. “I am doing what I love. I get to meet the people who come in, and they tell me what they like, and they come back and bring friends. When people walk out happy, I am happy.”
Po Le Cucina is at 805 N. Bethlehem Pike, Springhouse. More information at 267-663-7204 or www.polecucina.com.