Table Talk with Chef Bryce Shuman

Current Gig
Executive Chef, Betony

About the Chef
In high school, Chef Bryce was determined to become an actor. When he didn’t get in to the acting schools of his choice, he started working at a restaurant in North Carolina. Three years later, Chef Bryce made the life-changing decision to attend culinary school in San Francisco. He worked at Postrio and Rubicon in SF before heading to Delaware, where he met and became good friends with Chef Hari Cameron at Nage.  Chef Bryce came to New York City in 2007 and worked under Chef Daniel Humm at Eleven Madison Park as Sous Chef and Executive Sous Chef for almost six years. In May 2013, Chef Bryce and fellow EMP alum, Eamon Rockey, opened Betony, a modern American restaurant named after a plant in the mint family.  Betony, which was awarded three stars by the New York Times, is already well-known for its creative, approachable, and downright delicious food.

Betony:  41 West 57th Street (between Fifth and Sixth Avenue) 

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Chef Bryce Shuman at Betony

Where did you grow up?
It’s hard for me to say where I grew up because I feel like I’ve been growing up until this very moment. (Laughing)  I was born near Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and lived there until about the second grade. My family moved to Pennsylvania, where I stayed until the seventh or eighth grade, and then we moved back to North Carolina – first to Greenville, then Winston-Salem, and back to Greenville again. Needless to say, I moved around a lot when I was younger.

What did you enjoy eating most as a kid?
My dad used to make tuna melts for me as a kid. When we opened Betony, I had a version of a tuna melt on the menu. I just love them.  I also loved eating at my mom’s house during the holidays. She’s a great cook who is constantly pickling things and baking different types of breads. It was my responsibility to make the salads and set the table.  It was also my job to clean up afterward. (Laughing)  For the holidays, we would have some sort of roast along with boiled dill potatoes, soup, and homemade bread. We always ate dinners together as a family and we were never allowed to take food and sit in front of the TV. I think cooking really brings people together – it’s such a bonding experience.
My favorite BBQ place is B’s Barbecue in Greenville, North Carolina. It’s this little place, basically a shack, and it’s amazing. They even have a road named after them: B’s Barbecue Road. There are smokehouses out back where they smoke whole hogs — Carolina BBQ style — and they serve it with chicken, corn sticks, coleslaw, Brunswick stew, boiled potatoes, and rice. When B’s runs out of food, they close, so if you’re not there by 1pm, you’re not getting anything. (Laughing) They are located close to a hospital, so you see this tiny shack and down the street, there are all of these doctors with their Mercedes, Range Rovers, and BMWs parked along a ditch – it’s quite the juxtaposition. (Laughing)

At the moment, what is your favorite ingredient and what do you like to make with it?
I really like acorn squash. That was another thing that my mom prepared when I was a kid. She cut it in half, seasoned it with salt, pepper, and a little bit of brown sugar, scooped some butter into it, put a clove of garlic and some thyme in there, and threw it into a hot oven and roast it until it got all soft and caramelized.  It’s like candy. Right now I’ve got this pasta dish on the menu that is essentially an acorn lasagna with acorn squash. We take acorn flour and make pasta out of it – we roll it out and laminate herbs into the dough.  Then we take the acorn squash and roast it, just like my mom did, scoop it out, put it in the blender to make a nice puree, and add some brown butter. That goes on the bottom of the plate. We turn the acorn squash into banana fingers and confit them in a little bit of olive oil before searing them in brown butter. When trimming down the acorn squash, we use the extra trimmings to make the sauce. It gets roasted down in a pan with garlic, thyme, sage, and shallots, then we hit it with a little bit of cognac and white wine. After the alcohol cooks out, we reduce it down, add some chicken stock, simmer it, strain it, season it with lemon juice, melt butter into it, and blend it until it’s frothy.  So we’ve got the pasta, acorn squash puree, acorn squash sauce done. Then we add crumbled bits of parmesan, herbs, grated nutmeg, and a crumble of pumpernickel, pumpkin seeds and caraway for some crunch. It’s really tasty… and it all started with a simple acorn squash.

What kitchen items are important for a home cook to own?
There are little things that we use in a professional kitchen that I think are convenient to have at home. I don’t want to sound silly by saying that you should have a pair of tweezers, but there are mid-sized tweezers (in between tongs and the little guys) that you can use to do a ton of stuff, like sautéing and picking things up very delicately. If you are searing pieces of beef or turning veggies over in a pan, they come in really handy and I find myself using them at home a lot when I cook. A small offset spatula helps, too. I also use a cake tester a lot at home. When I’m cooking potatoes for puree, I know exactly when the potatoes are done. When I’m cooking meat, I know what the temperature is inside. The cake tester comes in so handy when doing all of these other things besides actually testing how done a cake is.

If your food were music, what music style(s) would it be and why?
I love music. I have turntables set up in my living room and I collect drum & base and jungle records. I used to play them – but only for parties at home or for friends, not out in nightclubs or anything like that. (Laughing)  I also collect a lot of jazz and bluegrass, as well as eighties pop and freestyle.  I’m really into bluegrass, which has a very distinct style. I would say that my food is most similar to bluegrass because it’s fun and it has soul. It feels very comfortable, but at the same time, you need to have an incredible amount of technique in order to pull it off and make it sound good. It’s approachable and it just makes you feel good.

Where are your favorite places to travel for the cuisine?
I enjoy going to Blackberry Farm in the mountains of Tennessee. Sam Beall is the owner and Joseph Lenn is the executive chef. You stay in these cute little cottages and they teach you fly fishing and take you shooting. The food is amazing. They’re raising truffles in the hills and have trained truffle dogs by a guy who used to be a dog trainer in the circus. Pretty awesome! It’s such a beautiful place. In the future, I would really like to go to Southeast Asia and spend six months or a year there. I just love the cuisine!

If you had not gone the culinary route, what would you have done instead?
I really loved to DJ for a while and I thought that I would figure out a way to do it for a living. I also wanted to be an actor when I was in high school. I was pretty much obsessed with acting and ended up going to a conservatory for my senior year of high school. I came to New York to audition, but didn’t get into the acting schools that I liked. At that point, I was like, “OK, I’ll take a year off to grow as a human being and experience more things so I can bring some more life into my monologues.” (Laughing)  I needed a job so I started washing dishes at a restaurant back in North Carolina. It was great –and I met my wife there. (Smiling) I moved up through different kitchen stations, from dishwashing to cold apps, then hot apps, saute, the grill, and finally, I was promoted to chef de cuisine. After three years, I came to this crossroads and was like, “Well, what am I going to do now?” I decided to go to culinary school out in San Francisco, and the rest is history!

Which chef do you admire most right now?
To be truly inspired, I need to have a personal connection. I tend to be inspired most by the people that I know and work with. Chef Daniel Humm has been such a huge influence in my life.  He is such a determined and talented chef who has taught me so much. He’s the most incredible chef that I have ever worked for.  Another chef that I admire is Stuart Brioza of State Bird Provisions in San Francisco. He’s a super talented guy who always finds the greatest ingredients. The way he uses them is just fun and delicious – everything he makes tastes so good. He was the first chef to turn me on to matsutakes, which are my favorite fungus, maybe even more than a white truffle. They have such a great flavor and aroma, it just knocks my socks off every time I smell a bowl of them (taking a big sniff and laughing). I have great respect for all of the chefs that I have worked with along the way.  Brett Cooper of Outerlands in San Francisco was one of my culinary school classmates. He’s a brilliant chef who is doing some really amazing things.  Christopher Kostow, who also worked for Chef Humm and is now running The Restaurant at Meadowood in Napa Valley, is such an incredibly talented chef. He’s so driven and super passionate. I have a lot of respect for the chefs at The NoMad – Abram Bissell, James Kent, Angela Pinkerton, and Chris Flint. They are all amazing and talented chefs.

When you get a chance to dine out, where do you like to go?
I tend to seek out Thai or Chinese restaurants. I really like spicy Szechuan and Isan Thai food!  I like going to Café China and Wa Jeal. I haven’t been to Legend yet but I want to check it out. Zabb Elee in the East Village is pretty tasty, too.

If you had to give up one of the five food groups (Bread & Potatoes; Milk & Dairy; Meat & Fish; Fat & Sugar; Fruits & Vegetables) and could not eat anything from that group for the rest of your life, which one would it be and why?
This is a terrible question! (Laughing) I think it would have to be Bread and Potatoes. I could do alright without them. I definitely could never live without vegetables because that’s most of what I eat. Now, I don’t claim to be healthy – I cover them in fat, sugar and lots of butter. Fat and sugar are what make life worth living. (Laughing)  I just love meat and fish too much to give them up. I might be able to give up dairy. It’s gotta be between dairy and bread. Man, this is hard! (Laughing)

Table Talk with Chef Bryce Shuman