Tom Cuomo loves to play with his food.
It’s a passion that the owner and chef of newly opened Papa Shogun has been exercising since he was a student at the Institute of Culinary Education. It’s a philosophy he carried with him to wd~50, a haven for molecular gastronomy in Manhattan that closed in 2014. And it’s one that started long before, in the kitchen of the New Jersey native’s Italian-American mother, cooking pasta with her near daily, plus a meat-and-tomato special sauce—or gravy—that was reserved exclusively for Sundays.
Dinners were always served with the whole family, Cuomo recalls.
“The dinner table is where everybody comes together. It’s amazing how central food can become, as opposed to just viewing it as basic sustenance,” he says.
Even when he was very young, when most children would get stuck home with a babysitter, Cuomo regularly dined out with his parents, experiences he says broadened his exposure to good food and a wide range of cooking styles.
It wasn’t until after college, though, that Cuomo got seriously involved in the restaurant industry. While studying archaeology at New York University—“I wanted to be Indiana Jones,” he recalls—he cooked on and off at various restaurants, taking kitchen gigs during the summer. Following a short stint as a teacher in New Jersey, Cuomo realized his true passion for food at Vetri Cucina, an upscale restaurant in Philadelphia, where he learned about mixing different flavor profiles together to create the perfect bite.
“Prior to that, food was central to my life, but there were moments during this meal where it was like, ‘Wow, this is incredible,’” Cuomo says. “It hit me that, yeah, you can do this kind of stuff with food.” So he moved to New York City to study at the Institute of Culinary Education.
During the yearlong culinary program, molecular gastronomy sparked Cuomo’s interest. He aspired to work with the innovative chef Wylie Dufresne and was soon hired as a prep cook at wd~50, where he learned new techniques and had opportunities to experiment. Dufresne encouraged Cuomo and the other chefs to play with their food as if they were kids, to branch out with different flavors and ingredients.
“We really pushed the envelope with techniques and added special elements to make the dishes better when they came out,” Cuomo says of his time working under Dufresne. “He really pushed us to think more about food.”
As Cuomo worked his way up through various back-of-the-house positions at wd~50, he created his own dishes using Japanese cooking techniques and different Asian ingredients. He naturally began to see throughlines between Japanese and Italian cooking and cuisine and his concept for a Japanese-Italian fusion restaurant began to take shape.
Last November, that concept—Papa Shogun in Raleigh’s Seaboard Station—became a reality.
“I was always amazed there weren’t more people doing it, because it just seemed so logical to me,” Cuomo says of Japanese-Italian fusion cooking. “The flavors, the techniques, just seem to go together so seamlessly. When you strip away the differences of ingredients, the cuisines are very similar.”
Now, Cuomo has free range to do whatever he wants with his food. Italian and Japanese cuisine come together in dishes such as Kombu Gnocchi, Chicken Parm Ramen and Giardinara Giapponese, which change seasonally based on availability of fresh ingredients.
Cuomo hopes his diners will be inspired to experiment with their own fusion cooking at home, and that they will enjoy creating and trying dishes together, with their families, as his did.
“I want people to eat these dishes and realize that seemingly disparate things can be put together on a plate,” Cuomo says. “Hopefully, by the fact that we’re doing something cool and interesting, we can get conversations started and make food central to people’s lives again.”