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For Peels' Shuna Lydon, Baking Consistently Is Only a Small Part of the Job

Shuna Lydon
Shuna Lydon

When we spoke with Shuna Lydon last week, the Peels pastry chef was in the midst of planning her Thanksgiving menus. Premature as that might sound to those outside her profession, Lydon told us that dedicated bakeries -- as opposed to restaurants that happen to sell baked goods -- typically start planning at the beginning of July. "Bakeries," she explained, "are like the fashion industry, where they're talking about spring or summer of 2012 now."

As a pastry chef with two decades of experience, Lydon is more than capable of envisioning the future while attending to her more immediate task of producing the sort of classic but wholly original American desserts and pastries that have earned her a steady following at Peels. Raised in Manhattan, Lydon counts Gramercy Tavern, the French Laundry, and Bouchon -- where Thomas Keller made her head pastry chef -- on her résumé. Prior to taking her current job at Peels, Lydon worked in London at both Anna Hansen's Modern Pantry and the Bread Factory, one of the largest bakeries in the United Kingdom. In the first part of our interview, Lydon talks about how she created her menu at Peels, the similarity between kitchens and gangs, and why her desserts are "so not weird."

So how do you find time to do all of this advance holiday planning when you're so busy with your day-to-day work at Peels?

We're an interesting breed of the modern human because our jobs are not in front of a computer, they're in the kitchen. We have a very eensy-weensy office at Peels because the mothership is Freemans, and that's where all of the main offices are. So I'm doing a lot of stuff when I get home -- [the restaurant's] PR company jokes that the earliest they get e-mail from me is 2 a.m. I'm not going to say my industry is the only one like this, but we never stop working. It's all part and parcel of the overall picture. Last night I was with Excel for a long time.

It sounds like your schedule doesn't leave a lot of time for sleep.

It doesn't always leave time for sleep, that's true. But it's sort of like when you get used to working in the industry, you just figure out how to carve out that time. If you have one day off a week, that's the day to sleep and catch up. If you don't have any days off, you remind friends and family, "Hey, you're not going to see me for a while." But after a year of us being open, all of the chefs here, we work very, very hard on giving each other weekends or two days off in a row. Especially at a certain physical age in this industry, you can't afford to be so exhausted because the injuries that can incur are terrifying. Like if you see someone fall asleep on their feet, if you're responsible you're going to say, "Go home," or, "Lie down for a little while."

It's not an industry that readily indulges basic bodily needs.

I was talking with one of our sous chefs recently, and he made a beautiful point that this business wants 1,000 percent of you and won't take less. It's so full-on. But he said the amazing thing about that is the reward is great if you give that much, but if you give less or say you can't give more or something else is going on and you're bringing it with you to work, the reward decreases exponentially.

Someone asked me recently, "What do you consider success?" I said when my team is learning, and when I'm in touch with people who have worked with me and they're like, "This is what I'm doing; this is what I took away from my experience with you." I guess it's sort of like being a parent -- it's a similar feeling. We're sort of as good as our hustle. A lot of people can cook; there are home cooks that can outdo the best restaurant chef. It's not about cooking; it's about the whole sort of picture you're creating. It's very similar to you guys: The newspaper isn't published because of one department. There's the science section, sports, traffic ...

Although kitchens demand you work much more closely with your co-workers than our cubicles do here.

It's one of the more intimate environments to work in because you're completely naked. Like, there's no veneers. If you walk into a kitchen and are like, "I'm not going to show what my personality is really about," you are proved so horrifically wrong so quickly that you don't have time to recover. When I was learning to manage for the first time and Thomas [Keller] had made me pastry chef of Bouchon, I was like, This is a big responsibility, I take it seriously, I want to honor chefs and show my gratitude. I would go to Eric [Ziebold, a chef at the French Laundry], who became sort of my mentor on some level because I needed guidance, and he said, "Shuna, you have to manage so that you can go to sleep with yourself at night." You have to have your own integrity.

And at the same time, you have to learn how to navigate the personalities of everyone you're working with, or in charge of.

When I worked in London, suddenly I was the only American, and in one job, I was the only woman in charge. It was a lot of onlys. I worked in one kitchen in London where there were at least 12 countries and four continents, many, many religions, and dozens and dozens of languages. You realize when you work in your home country and language how much you take for granted. I learned some very difficult lessons navigating in that because I was working there as a chef; I wasn't an assistant. How do you be the boss of people that are from a really different point of view than you? Maybe in their culture, women don't leave the house. Kitchens are fantastic practice for life and vice versa. New York City is a great example: You get on the subway and you have no fucking clue what's going to happen. You're riding the subway with thousands of strangers a day, and a stranger is driving the train.

Restaurants are whole cultures of people. The kitchen is many things: It's a gang, it's a family, it's a rough neighborhood. You have to really be very, very good. If you're a bull in a china shop, you'll get a certain amount done, but you'll get so much more done if you're like, "This is how this kitchen is functioning already." At Peels, we built a culture in the kitchen and worked very hard at making the atmosphere -- when people come in, we want them to feel a certain way. Someone has to make that happen; it doesn't just happen on its own. It's really important that when you start to know who you are you work in a kitchen where people have a similar outlook. Otherwise it can be really, really difficult. I think that navigating is beyond just learning how to bake consistently. It's the navigating of the people and the languages and ideas about what's right and wrong, courteous and discourteous.

 

On the topic of baking consistently, how did you create your menu at Peels?

Will Tigertt and Taavo Somer and Preston Madsen and myself were having meetings for a long, long time. Taavo is very much the creative mind of the restaurant and he would talk a lot about what he envisioned. Hearing what he envisioned and seeing his sketches and so forth, that's when what it would be about started to form for me. Preston is from Georgia and is like the back-to-the-land guy carving his own wood. So at the beginning we continued to source things that no one else sources because he has connections in Georgia that no one else has. I love Southern food: I'm one of those weird Yankees that people in the South adopt -- "Oh, you know how to make biscuits." It was my first love even before I started cooking professionally, so I sort of saw what it was going to be very, very early on: Americana with a nod to the South.

Because I'm me, I always say I like to keep people on their toes, so I wanted flavor combinations that make sense but you might not think of. So in the Peels muffin, we use lemon marmalade and buckwheat flour, and the main fat is extra-virgin olive oil. Those makes sense together. There's nothing about those that are like, "Woo, crazy rubber tirefoam with smoked cigar ice cream!" In America, we're quite lucky in being the imperialists; we're like, "I can do whatever I want." Globalism has made everything pretty accessible to Westerners because we're wealthy. So we have access and say everything's American because, on some level, everything is American.

And that's reflected in your menu, where you've got both all-American brownies and then Anzac biscuits, which are popular in New Zealand and Australia.

When I worked in London, my first job was working at a bakery factory. Ninety-eight percent of what you buy [in England] is produced by a machine; there's almost no artisanal. [When I worked at the bakery] I reintroduced the English muffin -- I was like, "What do you mean there's no English muffins in England? That's crazy." So we made it our point to do these English classics sourced from old recipes. And then coming back and working in American restaurants, I realized that all these recipes are British -- like the biscuit is a scone with more butter, because in America we had more butter. Or pie: When I was in England, you can't make sweet pie, only savory, but if you look at pie as a structure, it's like, Yeah, we made it sweet in America because we had access to a lot more kinds of sugar. So even though I'm making American classics I've thrown in some Briticisms because I also know they're American.

And then because of my own background there were recipes I had developed over the years that I know are amazing and work well in this environment, like the three-in-one cream pie. The first time I did it was at Citizen Cake [in San Francisco] in 2000, and it was an individual tart and incredibly complicated. And then the graham crackers, I had developed those and they work really well in an American environment even though they're British, too. So those really classic things, and then I bring in myself, too: There's some kind of quirky flavor combinations or things you might not expect. What's funny is working in a restaurant that's considered an American restaurant in New York City, where people are like, "This is weird." I'm like, Do you ever eat out in New York? Because my food is so not weird.

For more dining news, head to Fork in the Road, or follow us @ForkintheRoadVV.

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