6 Questions with PJ Calapa

Where are you from?

I grew up on the border of Mexico and South Texas. A city called Brownsville, Texas. So, I have a deep connection to Mexico, but I moved to New York for cooking school. I then started working in Manhattan and never looked back. I’ve been in New York now for 20 years… Well, now I live in the suburbs in New Jersey.

What brought you to the culinary world?

My dad’s side of the family is Italian and my mom’s side of the family is Mexican. Food was the center of everything. It was always positive. Think about it, when you have dinners or meals at Grandma’s house, it always makes happy memories. That led me to really enjoy food. I never thought it could be my profession until I was already halfway through college and hating school. I realized cooking could be my job. Then I went to culinary school and moved to New York.

What inspires you to create?

I like to make people happy. And I know that I can do that with food and drinks and experiences. It never gets old to hear how much people enjoy it. How wonderful a meal could be, or how memorable an experience or even a drink could be, that’s what drives me.

What does travel mean to you?

It’s probably my most favorite thing to do. I tell everyone that I work very hard so that I am free to travel around the world. It’s my favorite thing to do. I like to see other countries and I like to understand them. When I go to these new places, I want to be fully immersed and act like a local and not the tourist. Yeah, it’s very important.

Tell us about your connection to Italy?

I’ve been cooking Italian food professionally for 13 years. My restaurant, Scampi, is southern Italian. There’s a real Sicilian story – I love the connection to the coast and connection to the sea. It’s very important part of my cuisine. Ingredients like sea urchin and swordfish… That is my jam. 

What’s one passion or talent you have other than cooking?

Oh, I can’t juggle! But I really enjoy fishing and I’m pretty good at it.