‘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, a philosophy he formed over a storied culinary experience that began during his childhood—he was raised by chefs—and that carried him through the Culinary Institute of America, a stint at Momofuku, running the kitchen at a progressive restaurant in Colorado Springs, and, finally, opening the restaurant he now calls home in Tribeca.
Distilled debuted in June, 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 our interview, Lyons weighs in on his favorite kitchen tools and reveals how he learned that there are a lot of right ways to do things.
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?
Who do you look to for feedback on new dishes? Everyone. Anyone. Prep cook, dishwasher, server, guest—I want to know what you think. 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.
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. 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.
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 your local? Puffy’s has the best frickin’ sandwich. You pay $10 and you get great bread, fantastic deli meat—sopressata, salami. I always pay money and feel like I really got something. Go there right now and get the Gladiatore.
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 flattop 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.
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.”
What’s next for you? 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.