For Peels' Shuna Lydon, Baking Consistently Is Only a Small Part of the Job

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Shuna Lydon
When we spoke with Shuna Lydon last week, the Peels pastry chef was in the midst of planning her Thanksgiving menus. Premature as that might sound to those outside her profession, Lydon told us that dedicated bakeries -- as opposed to restaurants that happen to sell baked goods -- typically start planning at the beginning of July. "Bakeries," she explained, "are like the fashion industry, where they're talking about spring or summer of 2012 now."

As a pastry chef with two decades of experience, Lydon is more than capable of envisioning the future while attending to her more immediate task of producing the sort of classic but wholly original American desserts and pastries that have earned her a steady following at Peels. Raised in Manhattan, Lydon counts Gramercy Tavern, the French Laundry, and Bouchon -- where Thomas Keller made her head pastry chef -- on her résumé. Prior to taking her current job at Peels, Lydon worked in London at both Anna Hansen's Modern Pantry and the Bread Factory, one of the largest bakeries in the United Kingdom. In the first part of our interview, Lydon talks about how she created her menu at Peels, the similarity between kitchens and gangs, and why her desserts are "so not weird."

So how do you find time to do all of this advance holiday planning when you're so busy with your day-to-day work at Peels?

We're an interesting breed of the modern human because our jobs are not in front of a computer, they're in the kitchen. We have a very eensy-weensy office at Peels because the mothership is Freemans, and that's where all of the main offices are. So I'm doing a lot of stuff when I get home -- [the restaurant's] PR company jokes that the earliest they get e-mail from me is 2 a.m. I'm not going to say my industry is the only one like this, but we never stop working. It's all part and parcel of the overall picture. Last night I was with Excel for a long time.

It sounds like your schedule doesn't leave a lot of time for sleep.

It doesn't always leave time for sleep, that's true. But it's sort of like when you get used to working in the industry, you just figure out how to carve out that time. If you have one day off a week, that's the day to sleep and catch up. If you don't have any days off, you remind friends and family, "Hey, you're not going to see me for a while." But after a year of us being open, all of the chefs here, we work very, very hard on giving each other weekends or two days off in a row. Especially at a certain physical age in this industry, you can't afford to be so exhausted because the injuries that can incur are terrifying. Like if you see someone fall asleep on their feet, if you're responsible you're going to say, "Go home," or, "Lie down for a little while."

It's not an industry that readily indulges basic bodily needs.

I was talking with one of our sous chefs recently, and he made a beautiful point that this business wants 1,000 percent of you and won't take less. It's so full-on. But he said the amazing thing about that is the reward is great if you give that much, but if you give less or say you can't give more or something else is going on and you're bringing it with you to work, the reward decreases exponentially.

Someone asked me recently, "What do you consider success?" I said when my team is learning, and when I'm in touch with people who have worked with me and they're like, "This is what I'm doing; this is what I took away from my experience with you." I guess it's sort of like being a parent -- it's a similar feeling. We're sort of as good as our hustle. A lot of people can cook; there are home cooks that can outdo the best restaurant chef. It's not about cooking; it's about the whole sort of picture you're creating. It's very similar to you guys: The newspaper isn't published because of one department. There's the science section, sports, traffic ...

Although kitchens demand you work much more closely with your co-workers than our cubicles do here.

It's one of the more intimate environments to work in because you're completely naked. Like, there's no veneers. If you walk into a kitchen and are like, "I'm not going to show what my personality is really about," you are proved so horrifically wrong so quickly that you don't have time to recover. When I was learning to manage for the first time and Thomas [Keller] had made me pastry chef of Bouchon, I was like, This is a big responsibility, I take it seriously, I want to honor chefs and show my gratitude. I would go to Eric [Ziebold, a chef at the French Laundry], who became sort of my mentor on some level because I needed guidance, and he said, "Shuna, you have to manage so that you can go to sleep with yourself at night." You have to have your own integrity.

And at the same time, you have to learn how to navigate the personalities of everyone you're working with, or in charge of.

When I worked in London, suddenly I was the only American, and in one job, I was the only woman in charge. It was a lot of onlys. I worked in one kitchen in London where there were at least 12 countries and four continents, many, many religions, and dozens and dozens of languages. You realize when you work in your home country and language how much you take for granted. I learned some very difficult lessons navigating in that because I was working there as a chef; I wasn't an assistant. How do you be the boss of people that are from a really different point of view than you? Maybe in their culture, women don't leave the house. Kitchens are fantastic practice for life and vice versa. New York City is a great example: You get on the subway and you have no fucking clue what's going to happen. You're riding the subway with thousands of strangers a day, and a stranger is driving the train.

Restaurants are whole cultures of people. The kitchen is many things: It's a gang, it's a family, it's a rough neighborhood. You have to really be very, very good. If you're a bull in a china shop, you'll get a certain amount done, but you'll get so much more done if you're like, "This is how this kitchen is functioning already." At Peels, we built a culture in the kitchen and worked very hard at making the atmosphere -- when people come in, we want them to feel a certain way. Someone has to make that happen; it doesn't just happen on its own. It's really important that when you start to know who you are you work in a kitchen where people have a similar outlook. Otherwise it can be really, really difficult. I think that navigating is beyond just learning how to bake consistently. It's the navigating of the people and the languages and ideas about what's right and wrong, courteous and discourteous.

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Peels - CLOSED

325 Bowery, New York, NY

Category: Restaurant

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