When Betony executive chef Bryce Shuman was a kid, his mother, an academic studying cultural anthropology, took him to live with the Inuit people in the Arctic for 13 months, where he ate thinly sliced frozen caribou and chunks of seal meat after a hunt. “It opened my world up,” he explains. “Food’s a big part of learning about people’s cultures.” He also accompanied his mother to Costa Rica, where he saw a guy on a bus smash an orange in his hands and stick a straw in it, and Crete, where he learned to make traditional tzatziki. “All of these food experiences kind of got under my skin,” he says.
But food didn’t become his means of making a living until later. When he didn’t get into the arts school of his dreams (he wanted to be an actor), he fell in love with the rhythm of the kitchen while washing dishes in North Carolina, eventually enrolling in culinary school and working his way through Wolfgang Puck’s Postrio and Rubicon in San Francisco before heading abroad to do time in kitchens in Europe. When he returned to the States, he trained in some top NYC kitchens, and he landed a job at Eleven Madison Park after he cooked chef Daniel Humm olive-oil-poached cod with a kohlrabi and parsley salad. “He pushed me harder than any other chef has ever pushed me,” Shuman says of his time there, where he eventually rose to executive sous chef.
Earlier this year, opportunity came knocking, and Shuman decided to join another EMP alum, Eamon Rockey, to open midtown’s Betony as the executive chef in May. “For me, this is the dream,” Shuman says. “This is it, my opportunity. It’s so important to me. I’ve been working since washing dishes in North Carolina just for this moment.”
In our interview, he weighs in on the versatility of the cake-tester, why acid is like the treble note of a chord, and his guilty love of Shake Shack.
Describe your culinary style. Modern American fine-dining cuisine. My inspiration comes from the ingredients, based on relationships with local suppliers and growers and artisans. I build relationships with those people, and I want to celebrate them.
What’s the most underrated kitchen tool? I think the cake tester is pretty amazing. You do so much with it: adjust things on a plate, check the internal temp of meats or the doneness of vegetables or whether the poached skin on the chicken is tender or not.
What’s the most underrated ingredient? Acid: lime juice or a simple white wine vinegar. I love brightness in food. All my sauces have a balance of acidity; they can’t just be a reduction of a chicken jus. It has to be heightened with acid to give it that brightness. When I’m tasting food, I’m always thinking about music. I’ll ask, “How does this chord work?” You need bass notes, mid notes, and trebles. Acidity is the high treble. It makes the chord sing.
What’s the most underrated restaurant in New York City? Eamon took me to this spicy Thai restaurant called Zabb Elee. Also this Chinese restaurant on Second Avenue on the Upper East Side called Wa Jeal. It was the weirdest neighborhood for an amazing Sichuan restaurant, and it is so frickin’ good. The tongue and tripe served cold with the spicy sauce? Forget about it.
What’s your guiltiest pleasure? I have so many of them. Häagen-Dazs coffee ice cream. Shake Shack burgers. I love to eat too much Thai or Sichuan Chinese—like so much that my stomach hurts. I like making carnitas tacos at my house and eating like 20.
What do you wish you could tell your line-cook self? Remain focused, remain interested, and keep pushing no matter how hard it gets, no matter how much you want to say, “That’s it, I’m done, I quit.” Keep your head down and get back on the horse. You’re going to get knocked down over and over. And taste your food, because someone else has to eat it.
What’s the most challenging thing about working in the New York restaurant scene? Keeping up. Things move fast and change quickly. You have to pay attention.
Describe your craziest night in the kitchen. The last night Frank Bruni dined at EMP, I was a sous chef on the meat station. Chef was there, plating right next to me. It couldn’t get any more intense, and we were busy as hell. Chef is plating, tasting, pushing and driving the team. It was awesome.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten? Raw seal. It wasn’t weird when I ate it, but thinking back, it’s not necessarily something I’d go for again.
What’s next for you? To get this restaurant going. We’ve only been open for a few weeks. This is it.