Three stars from The New York Times? Not bad for a chef no one heard of before, that is until he stepped into the kitchen at Betony this spring. He, along with Eamon Rockey, transformed what was once a doomed restaurant space, which briefly opened as a Russian brasserie called Pushkin’s into a midtown dining destination with sophisticated seasonal cooking sans the pretense that often comes with it.
There’s nothing quite like having Eleven Madison Park on your resume. Former sous chef Bryce Shuman worked at the three Michelin-starred restaurant for over five years, under the tutelage of exacting co-owner Daniel Humm (whom he still breathlessly refers to as “Chef”). And now an executive chef himself at the newly opened Betony, Shuman still keeps his Eleven Madison Park education very much in mind. “I don’t want to compare the food, so I’m not even going there!” he quickly insists, laughing. “But I don’t care if I’m opening a taco truck or a fine dining restaurant, I will always strive to uphold the same standards as EMP. The level of organization, the attention to detail, the way people communicate. I hope everything I do is a reflection of that.”
That being said, instead of Eleven Madison Park’s famous four-hour, $195 prixe fixe, you’re more likely to start with a relaxed cocktail at the bar at Betony, followed by approachably-priced items like Fried Pickled Peppers with Fennel and Cucumber Yogurt, Roasted Chicken with Chanterelles and Turnips, and even a take on the Tuna Melt. “That dish is very near and to my heart,” Shuman grins.
We also spoke with the chef about his start as a struggling actor, his biggest career fear, and yes, even the time Daniel Humm unexpectedly showed up in his new midtown kitchen.
What do you think you would be doing if you hadn’t have become a chef?
I actually wanted to be an actor. I auditioned for a bunch of colleges like Cal Arts and Tisch and didn’t get in, so I decided to take a year off and get a job. I wound up scrubbing pots and pans in North Carolina, and it was totally awesome. I’ve never had so much fun washing dishes. It’s just you and some soapy water, making things shiny and neat. And I loved the vibe of the kitchen too, being surrounded by a bunch of things your mom never let you play with like knives and fryers, and getting to stay up late!
So what made you eventually decide to pursue cooking full time?
I just pushed really hard at that restaurant in North Carolina, got moved to the cold appetizer station, and then after two years was essentially the chef de cuisine. In my mind I was still only working until I established my acting career, but in reality I knew I needed to either go hardcore into acting or cooking. And so I decided to pursue my life as a professional chef. I grabbed a bag of clothes and my guitar case, and enrolled in culinary school in San Francisco.
What job would you say really kick-started your career?
I found a job working at Wolfgang Puck’s Postrio while I was going to culinary school. It’s the first restaurant I walked into with a resume. I thought I knew how to cook at the time, and quickly learned that I knew nothing. I got my butt kicked real hard for about two years, going to school every morning and working the line at Postrio at night. I remember walking down the Tenderloin in my chef whites at 2:30 in the morning, with all the club kids staring at me.
What brought you to NYC, and to Eleven Madison Park?
I moved to the city in 2007 and kind of trailed around at a bunch of fine dining restaurants. But when I got to EMP, I was like, wow, this is the best restaurant in the entire city. The feeling in the kitchen was electric. All of the cooks were badass, crushing ridiculous amounts of mise en place without breaking a sweat. And chef Daniel Humm was on fire, driving the staff, driving service. A lot of people couldn’t take it, but I knew it was the place for me.
How did Chef Humm help shape your career?
It was an honor to be taken under his wing. He pushed me harder than I thought I could ever be pushed. He showed me that if you really want and have a vision for something, are determined and relentless and have confidence, you can always reach your goals. Work harder than everyone else. Push yourself to do more than you think you can, and maybe there will be success at the end of the tunnel. I worked for Chef for just under 5 ½ years, the longest I’ve ever worked for anyone, because he always challenged me. I never walked into that kitchen thinking it would be a cakewalk. He’d make you work two stations, and if you weren’t up for the challenge, he’d send you home.
Why did you decide to leave Eleven Madison Park when you did?
I felt like I was ready to take the next step. I could have stayed at EMP forever. There are always challenges and opportunities to learn, because that restaurant never stops growing and evolving. But in the end I knew that if I wanted to be an executive chef, I needed to move on.
Now that you have an executive chef position for the first time in your career, what have been some of the biggest challenges?
Challenges are more about what does it take to let everyone know how important this is to you. Pushing and driving the team to achieve our collective vision. I could say “keeping food costs in check or always finding the best ingredients.” But that’s all just part of being a chef. Really getting a whole team behind you, pushing for this one goal and driving and inspiring each other is the biggest challenge. But I embrace and look forward to that. If you can get a squad of people to believe in you, then you can achieve anything. Of course we’ve only been open for 8 weeks, so we’ve got a long way to go!
If you were to eat at Betony as a guest, what would you order?
Well, the cocktails are freaking delicious, like the Pisco Sour and Desert Shandy. And I love the Grilled Short Rib, the Poached Lobster and the White Chocolate dessert. But my favorite is the Grain Salad. Everything is alive. There’s this strained Yogurt that’s almost like a Labne, and Sprouted Peas and Radishes and Clover and a lot of different Puffed Grains and Herbs. It’s so refreshing and light, but at the same time it’s kind of rich. And it really appears very simple and rustic on the plate, almost like you lifted a clod of grass out of the ground, but when you eat it there are all of these different tastes and textures. This is really the food that I strive to achieve… something that’s very simple in presentation and idea but requires a tremendous amount of technique and detail. And of course, food that is so wholly delicious that you just want to eat a big bowl of it.
Who do you see your primary customer base as being?
We have a wide variety of people. A lot of locals from the neighborhood who have told us how psyched they are to have us in the area. Our bar is jamming with the after-work crowd… lawyers, financiers, people in publishing. And we’re the perfect pre-theatre restaurant. I also get a lot of industry friends coming in. I feel like every other evening I get a chef that’s worked at EMP. It’s great to see them in here and supporting the restaurant.
I would imagine that you take great pleasure cooking for all of your patrons, but whom have you been most excited to see in the restaurant?
Frankly, I can’t believe I’m cooking for anybody! But I always look forward to seeing people that are good at what they do. Being respected by your peers is what you strive for. Chef has been in. I was downstairs in the kitchen, head down, hunched over a cutting board with knife in hand trying to get ready for dinner service, and I hear him say “Oh, pretty cool.” He had always threatened he was going to come and taste through the line before service! (EMP co-owner) Will Guidara has also come by and had dinner with friends. They’ve both been so supportive. I told them, the best thing you can do for me is eat here every other week and give me a hard time. I just want to make them proud. I want them to have some sense of ownership of this restaurant, because they gave so much to me.
What’s your greatest fear as a chef (even if it has no grounding in reality)?
My greatest fear is that there’s something that will make me give up or quit. Something beyond just meeting challenges or solving problems. I’ll always have to deal with not everyone liking the way I cook. But the only thing that I would ever be really scared of is a circumstance that would force me to give up or stop completely.
Now that you’re heading up a major NYC kitchen, what’s the next big life/career goal for you?
I just want this to be a successful restaurant; it’s all I can focus on. I have goals, as does anybody who’s ambitious. But the most important thing to me is that this restaurant here is successful. I want the cooks hustling and the bar to be full. I want the servers working with speed and efficiency. I want to hear the sound of knives and forks being set down on the plate, music in the dining room, and glasses clinking, every single day!