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In part one of my interview with Distilled chef (and former All That cast member) Shane Lyons, the chef weighed in on his culinary style, his obsession with the Susie Homemaker potato masher, and his appreciation of NYC’s bodega guys. Here in part two, he talks about offering to buy shots for diners who would suck the eyeballs out of fish heads, recounts a personal victory that nearly got him fired, and discusses how he learned that there were several right ways to do any one kitchen task.
What would you like to see more of in the New York culinary scene?
Warmth. Especially from the greeter at the door. Maybe I’m from Colorado here, but we could all be nicer. I’m not trying to be preachy; I just like when you go into a restaurant and the hostess smiles and says, “Hi, how are you? How was your day?” Even when I go get coffee, that’s what I want. Food and drink have very little to do with why we go out. We want warmth.
What do you wish would go away?
The mentality of we’re-not-gonna-do-that. I get that sometimes you can’t have someone changing around your menu, but I feel like we’re given an opportunity to please people, and their pleasure might be different from ours. It’s really important to embrace the guest even when you don’t like it, and I know that’s hard to do. You have a lot of pride in the technique and ingredient. But they allow us to have a business.
What’s your guiltiest pleasure?
The honest answer? Star Trek: Deep Space 9. I’m a total nerd.
What’s your favorite meal to cook at home?
Roast chicken. All roasted birds, actually. Then I have a meal for four days.
What’s the most memorable meal you’ve ever eaten?
Le Bernardin. It was a phenomenal, phenomenal meal.
What do you wish you could put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell?
I put fish heads on the menu in Colorado, and I mean fried fish heads and spines. They were cornmeal-and-buttermilk-breaded and fried, and they came with homemade pickles and dipping sauces. I used to buy shots for people who sucked the eyeballs out. We had some people who thought it was the greatest thing ever, but needless to say, there was some pushback. One woman told me she wasn’t on Survivor, and some people were like, “I’m never coming back.” But I tried to use everything instead of throwing it away.
What music is best to cook to?
Depends on the time of day and the tone you’re going to set. Prep should be rhythmic, like drums. Because then it’s like, work-work-work-work. We like this Vietnamese hip-hop. You get in that mode and just chop chop chop. When you’re about to rally before service, Neil Diamond. As that old joke from What About Bob? goes, there are two types of people in this world: people who like Neil Diamond and people who don’t. I like “America.” The violins come in, and you get so pumped.
On the next page, Lyons tells his line cooks to pull rabbits out of their asses.
What one tip would you offer an amateur cook looking to improve his or her cooking?
No fear, just try. Be willing to mess up and learn from it. Remove the pressure of the mistake, and it will be fine. If you don’t burn it or serve undercooked chicken to your guests, it will be palatable, and then you can figure out how to do it better next time.
What do you wish you could tell your line-cook self?
Be open to learning lots of right ways. When I started culinary school, I went to my fish class and the chef said, “This is how you hone your blade. You put it down on the table and work at a 45-degree angle.” It was like, “Oui, chef!” And I thought, Cool, this is how chefs do it. Then I went to meat class. I got in and started to hone my blade the same way I’d just learned. The chef was like, “What the fuck are you doing? Give me that thing. This is how you do it.” He showed me a different way, and I was like, “Oui, chef!” Then at my next class, the guy told me a different way. Every chef was yelling at me about the exact same thing! And then it dawned on me that there are several right ways. Like, I go back and forth on tongs. I change my philosophy as I simmer down a bit and become open. There are some hard and fast rules about how you hold yourself, how you communicate, and cleanliness, and those things don’t change in kitchens of quality. But with a lot of other things, I keep going back and forth on how I like doing it or how I don’t like doing it. My cooks put up with a lot.
What’s your favorite dish on your menu right now?
I like the greens: mustard greens, kale, and spinach cooked down in butter with stock and then served with rosemary salt, a poached egg, sourdough croutons, and that popcorn seasoning. That’s what I eat after work.
What are your favorite local purveyors?
The purveyor system is so different in Colorado. Out here, so much amazing food is available, and I’m really starting to develop those relationships. I go to the market four times a week very early in the morning. I like Ronnybrook for dairy.
What’s the most challenging thing about working in the New York restaurant scene?
Everything. You know the plate-spinners who have plates on sticks at the circus? That’s what we do. One time my cooks said to me, “Chef, you want us to pull rabbits out of our asses.” I was like, “Yes, I do, because that’s the game.”
Describe your craziest night in the kitchen.
I was at an unnamed restaurant, and we had a banquet going on in the private room plus regular dinner in the main dining room. I asked the banquet chef, “Do I have anything on the party tonight?” He said, “No, set your station as normal.” I was entremets, so I got my station set and then relaxed. So service gets going, and the chef calls, “Banquet order in. Twenty shortrib.” The shortrib comes with potato purée, and entremets does the potato purée. And I don’t have 20 potato purée. The moment I knew what was happening, it was like, “Oh my God. I have no potato purée, and at its fastest, it takes 20 to 30 minutes to make.” So I turn to the food runner and say under my breath, “OK. Go get 10 potatoes, cream, and butter from the walk-in and bring them to me.” So I started peeling and chopping the potatoes while still cooking all the other tickets. The cooks next to me were slinking away, and I was like, “Come on man, chop this up!” It was a busy night, and I knew if I panicked for a second, I was going to crash and get fired. So I’m cooking, and I keep testing the potatoes, and they’re almost there, and then finally they’re perfectly cooked. So I rice them and pass them through a tammy, and right as I finish, the chef’s like, “Pick up short rib.” So I put it on the plate and say “Let’s go!” Everyone around is like, “Good job, man, good job.” I’m like, “You’re an asshole.” Except for that food runner–I totally hooked him up after that. It was like, “Hey, man, I got us some sandwiches.” Every day.
What’s your proudest culinary moment?
Probably those potatoes. That was the biggest win ever, and it was such a personal win because I couldn’t tell anyone about it.
Up next, Lyons talks about being willing to eat cat.
What’s your desert-island food?
I don’t really have favorites. Besides the onion, but I don’t want that on a desert island.
What’s the most pressing food issue today?
The fact that we’re running out globally. Things just got real. We’re terribly disconnected from the value of food, and we waste close to as much as we consume. There are billions of people starving. We need to have better connectivity to the value of food. Chicken breast is 99 cents a pound, and apples are $3 a pound. We need to be more holistic in our mindset about food and the importance of it.
What’s always in your refrigerator at home?
Nothing. I don’t even want to look in the fridge at home. I think I have some salsa that my aunt made a year and a half ago. It wasn’t very good; I would have eaten it otherwise.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten?
I’ll tell you about the strangest thing I was willing to eat. CIA has all these clubs, and there was this really serious-looking poster that said one of them was, for the first time ever, serving domestic cat. It listed the speakers and chefs, and it said there would be a tasting. I thought, hmm, that’s very interesting and progressive. So later that week I’m in class, and the professor asks what we’re doing that weekend. I ask, “Is anyone going to the domestic cat-tasting?” Everyone was like, dude, it was a joke. I was like, “Oh, yeah, I know.”
Favorite food-related item to give as a gift?
Booze. Give the people what they want: a bottle of wine or whiskey.
You can have anyone in the world cook for you. Who is it, and what are they making?
My grandmother Noni making anything. She’s a phenomenal cook and has been her whole life. She loves to peel the onions. I had her in my kitchen at Nosh, and I’d set her up on a stool with a sack of onions. I’d be yelling at a cook in the back and then turn and be like, “Noni, how are you doing? Do you need anything? How are the onions?”
What’s next for you?
Can I do this for a little bit and then we’ll talk? I’m going to work hard every day and hope this thing works well. Right now, it’s like Groundhog Day. I wake up every day, and I know what’s going to happen, but I don’t.
Hungry for more? A new chef interview appears here every Tuesday and Wednesday.