Yesterday, we published the first part of our interview with Shuna Lydon, the Peels pastry chef whom we have to thank for raising our quality of living with things like monkey bread and St. Louis Sticky Gooey Cake. Today, we talk to her about the differences between New York and Northern California kitchens, bakeries she loves, and why being told she doesn’t use enough sugar is a compliment.
You spent a total of 17 years in Northern California, working at places like the French Laundry, Bouchon, and Elizabeth Falkner’s Citizen Cake. How would you describe the differences between the kitchens there and here in New York?
I grew up in New York, so this is my home. It’s very familiar to me and especially this neighborhood [the East Village]. I definitely was very formed by Northern California kitchens and chefs and philosophies and so forth, and on some level that’s very much me anyway because I’ve always been sort of obsessed with fruit and produce, which is perfect in Northern California, because that’s what it’s all about. Because I grew up in New York and because I worked in New York in the ’90s, coming back here was fine because I did know what to expect, and I did know the major difference. If you’re going to break down the difference between New York City and Northern California kitchens, people will basically put a line down this arbitrary place and say California is ingredients-driven and New York is technique-driven. But it’s way oversimplified, and it’s not a versus: We’re all American.
You can be much more seasonal in California, obviously, and you can have a much better living day to day because the weather isn’t so horrible. People are definitely healthier — even the hardest-working chef is at least seeing the sun because in Northern California, because of the earthquakes, there are very few basement kitchens. Also, the services here are longer: Currently, our dinner service is 5 p.m. to midnight. You’re lucky in California if your restaurant is open till 11 p.m.
If you read anything about me, it’s pretty clear that I’m less about tuiles and more about the flavor of something. That, to me, is a hokey California thing — the pureness of the peach, like what’s the actual flavor of the peach. Whereas in New York, it’s very much about how can I make this plate 17 inches tall and crunchy and shiny and pretty. But that’s New York. It’s incredibly dynamic and insanely competitive in ways I don’t think any other American city is. The drive, the hustle, the manipulation — it makes sense that the food is very manipulated here, because everything is manipulated here. You have to be always showing off.
How did New York change between when you first started your career and when you moved here to work at Peels?
I think the best part is that now the farmers’ market is something to write home about — there are dozens and dozens all over New York City. The people are really getting involved in artisanal food movement. They always have been, but it’s really hugely taken off, which is very much inspired by the West Coast. The whole Brooklyn DIY movement, it’s going, quote, backwards to go forward. Edward Behr wrote this article about me and it was this amazing honor because his book [The Art of Eating] was one of the very first books I ever got. [In the article] he talks about my plating style not being fancy and I’m not a molecular person. For me, this is a very strange irony — I’ve become radical in being so old-fashioned in an era of such modern food technology.
I went to London and I fell in love with baking again, that kind of love where you can’t see anything bad. As a pastry chef in a restaurant, we tend to differentiate ourselves with bakers because we consider bakers to be bread and cake bakers. The average person is like, “You’re a pastry chef, you make everything,” but I really fell in love with baking and I was like, I don’t want to just bake 40 grams of something anymore or put 62 components on a plate. I want to bring California on some level to New York.
In the ’90s, I worked for Claudia Fleming at Gramercy Tavern. She wasn’t doing much different, she was just doing different for New York. I would say now any pastry chefs getting long-term major acclaim, the people who are considered mainstream pastry chefs of New York City, almost all of us worked for Claudia. Almost all of us are doing something very similar to what Claudia was doing in 1993 but not getting press for because there was no Internet, no Twitter. Her book is out of print and hundreds of dollars on the Internet, but when it came out it barely outsold its first run. But now all the pastry bloggers are like, “Oh, this book is amazing.” Everything’s being done everywhere all the time. It’s just about who’s noticing.
What other bakeries do you like in the city?
There’s a lot of places I really love. I love Maury Rubin’s City Bakery and Birdbath. There’s a little place in Williamsburg called Bakeri and I think she’s doing a fantastic, stunning job. The baker that was brought in last year to be the baker for Blue Bottle — Caitlin Freeman is the main pastry chef, but they brought in Sarah Cox from California, and she’s doing this stunning job. So even though she’s not an official bakery, she’s turning out some great baked goods.
Manhattan is pretty difficult because there’s like 42 Magnolias now. I’ll just say for the record that Magnolia opened when I lived here in the ’90s, and I used to go way before the TV show [Sex and the City] and I really appreciated them for what they were doing. They were the first people to bring back layer cakes and really using eggs and butter. But I wouldn’t say I’ve set foot in there recently, probably not in the last 10 years. Amy’s Bread has in the last few years brought in layer cakes, and she’s doing a great job. There’s a classic which is one of my favorites, the yellow cake with the chocolate frosting. And at Bosie’s Tea Parlor, the pastry chef worked for Pierre Hermé and is basically creating a lot of Hermé classics but he’s also re-created the classics and made completely new baked goods with very old-school classic techniques. So his technique is spot-on. There’s a Darjeeling macaroon there that’s amazing. But I find Manhattan really difficult. It’s a lot of clichés, a lot of classic stuff not done very well.
You’re known for doing really regional pastries at Peels, like your St. Louis Sticky Gooey Cake and Anzac biscuits.
We’re living in New York City, where everyone knows someone from somewhere else. We’re looking for home when we’re looking at baked goods. We’re looking for very original feelings in our lives. Like I very recently perfected the chocolate-chip cookie here. I had been giving it to a lot of people. Everyone has in mind what it should taste like. It’s hard to explain; it’s an unobtainable flavor. It’s a smell. When the cookies come out of the oven, the first thing I do is smell the bottoms — if it doesn’t smell right, it’s not going to be right. It’s like a chocolate-chip cookie: You can’t fuck it up, but you can. So I want to create familiarity, but I’m not a huge believer in things being super-sweet.
When we first opened, one of the counter people said, “Oh, someone came in and asked questions about you, like is the pastry chef from California. I said yes, and the woman responded by saying in California, they don’t really understand sugar.” So one day one of the waiters comes and gets me and says he has this diner asking questions about me. So I go and introduce myself to the woman. She’s like, “I like your stuff,” but she says at some point, “Your desserts don’t have enough sugar in them.” I said, “Thank you very much.” I took it as a compliment.