Betony's Bryce Shuman: "I Don't Want Anything on the Menu I'm Not Thrilled About"
When Betony executive chef Bryce Shuman was a kid, his mother, an academic studying cultural anthropology, took him to live with the Inuit people in the Arctic for 13 months, where he ate thinly sliced frozen caribou and chunks of seal meat after a hunt. "It opened my world up," he explains. "Food's a big part of learning about people's cultures." He also accompanied his mother to Costa Rica, where he saw a guy on a bus smash an orange in his hands and stick a straw in it, and Crete, where he learned to make traditional tzatziki. "All of these food experiences kind of got under my skin," he says.
At home in North Carolina, both of Shuman's parents--who split up when he was young--liked to cook, leaving an indelible impression on their son. "My dad was famous for these awesome lunches, one of which was this tuna melt that I've kind of re-created here," he explains. "The first time I had a wild mushroom was one that he found on a log in our backyard in Chapel Hill." In his mother's kitchen, he was responsible for making the salad for dinner every night, and he clocked innumerable hours helping her bake.
But even with an early childhood food education that sounds like the plot of an Anthony Bourdain travel show, Shuman didn't set out to become a chef. "In high school, I was determined to be an actor," he says. "There was nothing else I was going to be." He was so convinced of his career path, he went to an arts school in North Carolina for his senior year of high school, and then auditioned for college programs at Tisch and Cal Arts. But his plans changed when he didn't get in. "Someone suggested I take a year off to grow as a human being. So I decided to do that and re-audition the next year."
He needed a job, so he started washing dishes at a North Carolina restaurant. "I loved washing dishes," he recalls. "When you're washing dishes, it's all you have to worry about." But he also fell in love with the camaraderie and team mentality fostered in the kitchen, as well as the dangerous nature of the work. "It was all the things your mother told you never to play with: fire, knives, and staying up late." He moved up through the restaurant, meeting the woman who would become his wife in the process, until he was eventually promoted to chef de cuisine. And at that point, he decided it was time to get out of North Carolina.
He dabbled with the idea of going back into acting before settling on culinary school, and so he moved to San Francisco and enrolled at the California Culinary Academy. Not long after he started, he landed a job at Wolfgang Puck's Postrio, where he'd put in early morning hours before heading to class. And through that process, he learned what it really meant to be a professional chef. "A lot of cooks say, 'I didn't go to culinary school, I went to the school of hard knocks,'" he says. "But it really jumpstarted me. This is a real and noble profession, and to be good, you need to have skills and discipline. You need to be determined and very competitive. That all dawned on me at the same time. I realized that if I wanted to be good, I needed to work really, really hard."
By the time he graduated, he was running the grill at Postrio, a massive contraption that had a giant rolling grate and needed to be fed coal every day at 4:45 p.m. "We cooked all the meats on that thing," he says. "The flavor was awesome."
Just when he started feeling comfortable, though, he moved to garde manger, which, he remembers, could make you feel like you were about to drown. "It taught me that as a cook, when you get to your station, you have to be shot out of a cannon," he says. "The first 30 minutes of the day are the most important."
After working all the other stations at Postrio, he moved over to Rubicon, where he learned to use recipes that were measured to the gram and worked with dishes that he describes as "beautiful, light, fresh, delicious, exciting." When he was ready to leave there, Shuman and his then-girlfriend (now wife) stopped through Delaware for a summer--where the chef barbacked at an Irish bar to save money--and then headed to Europe, where they trekked over much of the continent before he spent a winter working in a restaurant in Brussels, trying to decipher kitchen instructions given only in French, a language of which he spoke very little.
Back stateside, Shuman decided it was time to move up to New York, and after trailing a number of top-echelon kitchens, he landed a job at Eleven Madison Park after he cooked chef Daniel Humm olive oil-poached cod with a kohlrabi and parsley salad. "He pushed me harder than any other chef has ever pushed me," says Shuman of his time there, where he eventually rose to the role of executive sous chef. He also learned leadership: "He taught me how to be responsible for a crew of cooks. Someone making a mistake under you is still your fault. You had to be all over it. It's your job to know."
Shuman stayed at EMP for six years, but in February 2013, opportunity came knocking again, and the chef decided to join another EMP alum, Eamon Rockey, to open midtown's Betony, where he took is first executive chef role. That restaurant opened in May, marking a defining moment in Shuman's career. "For me, this is the dream," he says. "This is it, my opportunity. It's so important to me. I've been working since washing dishes in North Carolina just for this moment."
Describe your culinary style. Modern American fine dining cuisine. My inspiration comes from the ingredients based on relationships with local suppliers and growers and artisans. I build relationships with those people, and I want to celebrate them.
Describe how you run your kitchen. I want to create an environment that is professional, an environment of excellence and education. I really want to teach the cooks how to handle produce, meats, and fish; how to treat ingredients properly; and how to taste. I teach them that we have immediate deadlines as the day goes on (like when we clean, when we have family meal, and when we set up for service) so that they understand the importance of deadlines on the line. I try to foster an environment that cooks feel passionate about working in because they're striving for something greater than what they could do on their own. I love to cook, and I hope that they do, too. That's who I want to surround myself with.
How do you develop your recipes and menu? Collaboratively with the sous chefs and team. Sometimes recipes come straight from my head, and I say, "This is what I want exactly." Sometimes I want to try some things and play with flavors on a plate. Then it's about going for the vision by cooking and measuring for developing recipes. Then I re-cook and re-measure. I put a dish together six or seven times and eat it, eat it, and eat it. And then I have someone else eat it. I don't want anything on the menu I'm not thrilled about.
Who or what inspires you? Ingredients. Chefs who are really great with a knife. Beautiful plates of food. Really awesome dance music.
What chefs or food people do you most admire? Chef Humm. Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski [of Rubicon and State Bird Provisions]. Brett Cooper of Outerlands. Hari [Cameron of A(muse), with whom Shuman briefly worked]. Chris Kostow [of the Restaurant at Meadowwood] is amazing. Jason Franey [of Canlis]. They're also friends that I've made. It's harder for me to be inspired by someone light years away in another country with an awesome cookbook than people that I've met and cooked with. That I've seen these people doing excellent work really ramps me up. It's great to see a beautiful cookbook, but to see people that you've worked for strive and grow and do excellent stuff is inspiring.
Who do you look to for feedback on new dishes? Eamon Rockey. My sous chef team. The wine director.
What brand of knife do you use and why? I love my Masamoto steel western-style knives. I've had a chef's knife, slicer, and utility knife since I was in Delaware, and they just seem to get sharper. They've developed a patina, and when you sharpen them, the edges are gleaming mirrors. They're so smooth, and they perform so well.
Are you partial to any of your spoons? As a cook, you're very attached to your spoons. I like Gray Kunz's spoons--the large and smaller. I also appreciate the plastic tasting spoons. They have to be everywhere. If I see a cook stick their finger in something, it freaks me out. Use the tasting spoons.
What's the most underrated kitchen tool? I think the cake tester is pretty amazing. You do so much with it: adjust things on a plate, check the internal temp of meats or the doneness of vegetables or whether the poached skin on the chicken is tender or not.
Favorite item in your pantry or walk-in? I'm really into Aleppo pepper right now. It's this smoky, dried chili from the Middle East. It's just awesome. It's like Espelette but with more kick.
What's the most underrated ingredient? Acid: lime juice or a simple white wine vinegar. I love brightness in food. All my sauces have a balance of acidity; they can't just be a reduction of a chicken jus. It has to be heightened with acid to give it that brightness. When I'm tasting food, I'm always thinking about music. I'll ask, "How does this chord work?" You need bass notes, mid notes, and trebles. Acidity is the high treble. It makes the chord sing.
Is there a food you won't eat? Frozen microwaveable squash in the block form. I love squash, but I can't understand these overcooked vegetables that you find in freezer aisles that you heat up in the microwave and eat without salt.
Is there a special request you really dislike or won't accommodate? No. If a guest wants a sauce on the side, no problem. Split a dish and I can split it, no problem. No gluten, amazing. I really want people to feel welcome. You can't walk in the door and demand baked mac and cheese, because I just don't have it. But if I can accommodate you, I'll do my best to go out of my way. I learned that at EMP. A guy came in and wanted a tasting menu of nothing but potatoes and onions and beef in lunch service, and we did it. This is about making people happy.
Is there an ingredient you won't work with? Frozen microwaveable squash in block form.
When customers want to thank you for a superb meal, what do you wish they sent to the kitchen? I just love a thank you when I come by a table. That's what I'm working for. That moment. Someone saying, "I had a great time. It was delicious." In that moment, it makes me feel amazing and happy that I've been able to do that. I don't need cases of beer, though the cooks love that. Now, other chefs even bring fried chicken or Italian meats from Chicago. But I just want a genuine thank you. That's awesome.
What's next for New York restaurants? I really love great Chinese food and great spicy Thai food, so to see restaurants like Mission and Uncle Boons and Pok Pok open and be so delicious and spicy, I'm just amazed by it. But what's next? I have no idea.
What's your local bar or restaurant? Home with my wife. Or the NoMad. The bar is awesome, the food's delicious, and it's fun--it never feels stuffy or pretentious; it's always cool.
What's the most underrated restaurant in New York City? Eamon took me to this spicy Thai restaurant called Zabb Elee. Also this Chinese restaurant on Second Avenue in the Upper East Side called Wa Jeal. It was the weirdest neighborhood for an amazing Sichuan restaurant, and it is so frickin' good. The tongue and tripe served cold with the spicy sauce? Forget about it.
Who's the most underrated culinary figure in New York City? Angela Pinkerton, the pastry chef at EMP, and Abram Bissell, the chef at the NoMad. It's still chef Humm's vision, but Abram is an amazing chef, and Angela is brilliant. They inspire me all the time. They're so talented, and they deserve credit.
At what New York restaurant do you celebrate a special night out? I really like going to Franny's in Brooklyn. I used to live over in Prospect Heights. It's so fun, friendly, and warm, and everything's so tasty and delicious. Torrisi, too. And I would like to try all the new spots that have opened recently, like Carbone and Costata.
What would you like to see more of in the New York culinary scene? I'm still learning so much about the New York culinary scene, and I feel like I'm seeing something new every day. I'm very concerned about relationships--I really like it when community-minded chefs come together to support farmers or hunger causes or the farmers' market or the CSA. It's not a new concept, but I love to see it when it happens.
What do you wish would go away? Dishonest cooking. I can't single anyone out, and every chef has a bad night sometimes. But I really hate it when I go out somewhere very expensive and pay a lot of money and feel like I wasn't served fresh ingredients, or there wasn't care shown in the prep, or people weren't paying attention or caring for me as a diner. I hate feeling like I got robbed.
Check this space tomorrow for part two of my interview with Shuman.
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