“All things delicious go with all things delicious.” It’s a mantra Distilled chef Shane Lyons repeats several times over the course of our conversation. By way of proof, he offers a recent experience: “There was a woman sitting at the chef’s table every night, and I told her all things delicious go with all things delicious. She was like, ‘Oh yeah? Fish sauce and chocolate.’ I was like, ‘Pfff. Easy.’ So I make this smoked graham cake with warm chocolate custard, and I put two dots of fish sauce on the graham. And she makes this face like her mind is blown, and she has to say, ‘OK, that was really good.’ It was like a three-point fadeaway.”
This is part one of this chat. Read part two of my interview with Distilled chef Shane Lyons.
It’s a philosophy Lyons formed over a storied culinary experience, which began when he was a child. His mother graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, and she’d helmed the burners at the Greenbrier in West Virginia and the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs. “She was one of the first woman chefs,” Lyons explains. She met Lyons’s father, also a chef, and the pair opened their own restaurant, the Painted Lady, also in Colorado Springs.
But while he grew up cooking, an early start in Hollywood sent him down an entirely different track: He became a professional actor when he was seven or eight. “I went to Sundance when I was 12, and then I moved to L.A. and started a career,” he says. “I was on a show called All That for three years; I was the fat kid.”
When he was 16, his tenure with Nickelodeon ended, and he moved back to Colorado with his folks. He soon landed a job as a dishwasher in a restaurant owned by someone who’d been a dishwasher for his parents. He moved up through the stations, and when he was 17, he decided to head to his mother’s alma mater, enrolling at CIA. “When I graduated at 18, I was the youngest-ever graduate,” he says. “They had a 15-year-old in there, but I hear he washed out.”
After that, Lyons bounced from kitchen to kitchen, working as a private chef for an actor in L.A. for a little while before heading out to New York City, where he did brief stints at Craft Bar and Café Boulud. “That was an amazing, amazing kitchen,” he says of the latter. He soon saw that Momofuku Noodle Bar was hiring, and he jumped on board, working under Kevin Pemoulie, whom he says made a major impact on his career. “That’s where I feel like I learned to be a cook, even though I’d been one for many years,” he says.
After Momofuku, Lyons headed back to Colorado Springs, where he returned to Nosh, this time as head of the kitchen. “It was a small-plates concept with a less-than-ideal identity,” he explains. “I put an ethos behind it, and I’m really proud of it–they’re still using a few recipes that we developed there. For the market, it was really progressive. Colorado Springs is conservative.”
It wasn’t long, though, before New York came knocking again, when Nick Iovacchini, his partner in Distilled, asked him to help him open a restaurant, a two-year process that was fraught with obstacles. “We have learned that one does not simply open up a restaurant,” he says.
After the guys finally landed a Tribeca space through Drew Nieporent, formerly of Centrico, they had to survive Sandy, which completely destroyed their basement. Still, they marched on with their plans. “Nick’s a great optimist of a businessman, and he plays the longest game of chess I’ve ever seen,” Lyons says. “We’re fortunate to have a great team and have made it through.”
Distilled debuted last month, opening the doors on what the owners hope becomes a community touchstone. “We wanted to do something that is integral to the neighborhood and create a business with great longevity,” Lyons says. “We’re striving to strike a balance between being very user-friendly but exceeding expectations in execution.”
In part one of our interview, Lyons weighs in on the basic potato masher, reveals which New York restaurant sells “the best frickin’ sandwich,” and talks about his admiration for the bodega guys who sling sandwiches.
Up next, Lyons talks about the knife he dropped on the streets of New York.
Describe your culinary style.
Constantly developing. I don’t like being novel for novel’s sake, nor am I satisfied with a baseline product. There has to be some level of technique and refinement, but it doesn’t have to be “innovative;” I just try to put something out with a lot of integrity. The wings are a good example of that, and so are the duck waffles. Those things have been done a thousand times, so if you’re going to do them, how are you going to put newness into them?
Describe how you run your kitchen.
I run it very respectfully. Every cook has been in kitchens where you’re not treated a certain way. My mom used to tell me stories about being scalded with hot water or having pots thrown at her head. Our generation wants a happy kitchen. So I’m stern when I need to be, but I’m lighthearted to get us where we need to go. It helps that my cooks are willing to go that extra step. I have cooks from Nougatine, Morimoto, Noodle Bar, Ssam Bar, and Fatty Crab, and my pastry girl is from Bouchon. We’re really lucky that we’ve been able to cultivate this young talent pool.
I also think the kitchen has changed. There’s so much knowledge available that, as a leader, you can’t rule people through just knowledge anymore. If you want to know a technique, you can go to YouTube and look it up, and you can get eyes into the best kitchens in the world. It’s a one-and-a-half-minute glimpse of every restaurant that you’d ever want to see. That’s changed the dynamic a lot. That’s never been there before.
How do you develop your recipes and menu?
It all has to come back to concept. I’m not going to do sushi tacos because it’s not the concept, but beyond that, I try to keep my mind open when I think about flavor. I really believe that all things delicious go with all things delicious. There are a few rules to that: It has to be executed properly; ingredients have to be used in sensible proportions, so if I’m using fish sauce, I can’t use a cup of it; and my ingredients have to be of equal quality, so not, like, a Twinkie mixed with broccoli rabe from the market.
Who or what inspires you?
I am really inspired by my partner Nick. He’s the hardest worker I’ve ever met and the best at delegating. I’m inspired by my teammates. There’s this central level of work ethic here that I’ve never seen, so I’m inspired by coming to work.
What chefs or food people do you most admire?
I admire Gavin Kaysen [of Café Boulud] a lot. I still have a mentor-ish relationship with him. He’s been available throughout the years, and he’s a very young chef, but the way he runs his kitchen is superb. He’s accomplished so much in his career, and he’s so focused. I don’t know a chef who’s done what he’s done at that age level. Kevin Pemoulie: I learned a lot from him, I’m excited to see him do well, and I’m proud to have worked with him. Drew Nieporent: His approach to hospitality is phenomenal. He is guest-forward 100 percent.
Who do you look to for feedback on new dishes?
Everyone. Anyone. Prep cook, dishwasher, server, guest. I want to know what you think–your face doesn’t lie. There are times when I’m like, I think it’s going to work, I think it’s going to work, but it needs to click five ways to the left. Ask Nick; sometimes I feed him eight versions of ribs.
What brand of knife do you use and why?
Misono Gyutou UX10. It was a gift. Before that, I used a Kikuichi that I bought, and it dropped out of my knife kit somewhere on the streets of New York.
On the next page, Lyons describes the tool ideal for getting the perfect chunk-to-smooth ratio in the blue cheese dressing.
What’s the most underrated kitchen tool?
I have been obsessed recently with this Susie Homemaker potato masher, because it’s perfect for getting the chunk-to-smooth ratio exactly right in the blue cheese dressing. I also love spoons. Every chef loves spoons. Spoons of all kinds. I’m a spoon freak. I’ve seen fistfights break out over taking someone’s spoon. I burn the tips of my spoons on the flames for hours to mark them so no one takes them.
OK, what’s your favorite spoon?
The Gray Kunz spoons. They’re beautiful. I could just have two spoons and nothing else: one with perforations and the sauce spoon.
Favorite item in your pantry or walk-in?
Onions in the walk-in. I’m really obsessed with nutritional yeast in dry storage. It’s higher in protein and has a great flavor. It adds body and depth, and nothing else has the same character. We use it on the popcorn, and the popcorn is really important, because it’s the first bite someone is going to have when they eat here. That popcorn is supposed to be like a roller coaster, and nutritional yeast provides the baseline. In terms of building flavor, it’s easy to build off of that.
What’s the most underrated ingredient?
Basil on the waffles. It’s green, it’s garnish, and I love witnessing people when they eat it. Right now, I’m collecting all this animal fat, every scrap of it. We’ll cook our burgers in it. That’s sort of my theory on fat: You paid for it when you bought the animal, so you should use it. It’s trim, but you get this delicious thing out of it.
Is there a food you won’t eat?
Artificial, processed foods. I was heavy as a kid because I drank a lot of soda and ate a lot of junk. I could crush a box of Cheez-Its. I liked the reduced-fat kind, because they had more flavor. My developing palate was so good that I could have two boxes of Cheez-Its, and I could taste the difference when they came from two factories. I used to chase with Diet Dr Pepper. I’ve moved on since then.
Is there a special request you really dislike or won’t accommodate?
We try to accommodate as much as possible, and we will accommodate up to the point until it hinders another guest’s experience. Slowing up the kitchen or changing the experience so much that tables around a person will suffer is where we draw the line. We don’t complain if you want steak well done. You’re our guests. We’re grateful to have you. You’re crucial.
Is there an ingredient you won’t work with?
I’m not a snob. I’ll work with anything as long as it’s of quality. I like learning about new things. There’s nothing I won’t use. Except I guess soy butter or margarine, because I don’t believe in that stuff.
Next, Lyons talks about the “best frickin’ sandwich” in NYC.
What do you hate seeing on menus?
I don’ t like when I know that someone has priced something in a way that is absurd and not appropriate for what you’re getting. There’s a fine line, and you always include labor and the value of creativity when you’re pricing a dish, but I really don’t like when people are being blatantly ripped off. I don’t like paying a lot for a tiny dot of food.
When customers want to thank you for a superb meal, what do you wish they’d send to the kitchen?
The nicest thing that anyone has done was ask that the whole kitchen crew come out and take a shot, from the dishwashers to the head chef. That was a nice way to say thank you.
What’s next for New York restaurants?
I have no idea, and that’s what’s really exciting. We’re at this point where we can reinterpret what’s old. There’s a French bistro trend going on, and people are going back to iconic Italian-American, like the guys at Carbone. We’re paying homage to the past. That’s exciting, because we had this movement that was about the future of food, when everything was about innovation. Now we’re paying homage to what began that process to continue to provide people comfort and sustenance.
What’s your local bar or restaurant?
Puffy’s has the best frickin’ sandwich. You pay $10 and you get great bread, fantastic deli meat–soppressata, salami. I always pay money and feel like I really got something. Go there right now and get the Gladiatore.
What’s the most underrated restaurant in New York City?
This Argentine place called Yerba Buena. It was super-nice. I went in with Nick, and everything was delicious and properly cooked, and the service is on point. It’s this little neighborhood spot. I imagine there are a lot of places that don’t get the benefit of being trendy but execute at that level every day.
Who’s the most underrated culinary figure in New York City?
I like the bodega guys that sling it. They have this huge line and a tiny flat-top griddle, and they’re banging out food a mile a minute. Your food might not have salt on it, and don’t even ask for pepper, because that’s not happening. I like to watch them wrap sandwiches, because that tight torquing of the sandwich roll is really difficult. I’d like to see chefs try to do that. It’s hard.
At what New York restaurant do you celebrate a special night out?
Kenka. It’s fun. You walk in and you’re like in a space time-warp. It’s loud, and the music is from ’60s and ’70s Japan. There are a lot of colors. The food is mediocre to good depending on what you hit, and you really don’t know what you’re gonna get. Order the okonomiyaki, the pancake with mayonnaise and bonito flake. When it’s done properly, it’s so good.