Betony's Bryce Shuman: "I Don't Want Anything on the Menu I'm Not Thrilled About"
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.
At home in North Carolina, both of Shuman's parents--who split up when he was young--liked to cook, leaving an indelible impression on their son. "My dad was famous for these awesome lunches, one of which was this tuna melt that I've kind of re-created here," he explains. "The first time I had a wild mushroom was one that he found on a log in our backyard in Chapel Hill." In his mother's kitchen, he was responsible for making the salad for dinner every night, and he clocked innumerable hours helping her bake.
But even with an early childhood food education that sounds like the plot of an Anthony Bourdain travel show, Shuman didn't set out to become a chef. "In high school, I was determined to be an actor," he says. "There was nothing else I was going to be." He was so convinced of his career path, he went to an arts school in North Carolina for his senior year of high school, and then auditioned for college programs at Tisch and Cal Arts. But his plans changed when he didn't get in. "Someone suggested I take a year off to grow as a human being. So I decided to do that and re-audition the next year."
He needed a job, so he started washing dishes at a North Carolina restaurant. "I loved washing dishes," he recalls. "When you're washing dishes, it's all you have to worry about." But he also fell in love with the camaraderie and team mentality fostered in the kitchen, as well as the dangerous nature of the work. "It was all the things your mother told you never to play with: fire, knives, and staying up late." He moved up through the restaurant, meeting the woman who would become his wife in the process, until he was eventually promoted to chef de cuisine. And at that point, he decided it was time to get out of North Carolina.
He dabbled with the idea of going back into acting before settling on culinary school, and so he moved to San Francisco and enrolled at the California Culinary Academy. Not long after he started, he landed a job at Wolfgang Puck's Postrio, where he'd put in early morning hours before heading to class. And through that process, he learned what it really meant to be a professional chef. "A lot of cooks say, 'I didn't go to culinary school, I went to the school of hard knocks,'" he says. "But it really jumpstarted me. This is a real and noble profession, and to be good, you need to have skills and discipline. You need to be determined and very competitive. That all dawned on me at the same time. I realized that if I wanted to be good, I needed to work really, really hard."
By the time he graduated, he was running the grill at Postrio, a massive contraption that had a giant rolling grate and needed to be fed coal every day at 4:45 p.m. "We cooked all the meats on that thing," he says. "The flavor was awesome."
Just when he started feeling comfortable, though, he moved to garde manger, which, he remembers, could make you feel like you were about to drown. "It taught me that as a cook, when you get to your station, you have to be shot out of a cannon," he says. "The first 30 minutes of the day are the most important."
After working all the other stations at Postrio, he moved over to Rubicon, where he learned to use recipes that were measured to the gram and worked with dishes that he describes as "beautiful, light, fresh, delicious, exciting." When he was ready to leave there, Shuman and his then-girlfriend (now wife) stopped through Delaware for a summer--where the chef barbacked at an Irish bar to save money--and then headed to Europe, where they trekked over much of the continent before he spent a winter working in a restaurant in Brussels, trying to decipher kitchen instructions given only in French, a language of which he spoke very little.
Back stateside, Shuman decided it was time to move up to New York, and after trailing a number of top-echelon kitchens, 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," says Shuman of his time there, where he eventually rose to the role of executive sous chef. He also learned leadership: "He taught me how to be responsible for a crew of cooks. Someone making a mistake under you is still your fault. You had to be all over it. It's your job to know."
Shuman stayed at EMP for six years, but in February 2013, opportunity came knocking again, and the chef decided to join another EMP alum, Eamon Rockey, to open midtown's Betony, where he took is first executive chef role. That restaurant opened in May, marking a defining moment in Shuman's career. "For me, this is the dream," he 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 part one of our interview, he weighs in on the chefs he admires, his disdain for frozen squash, and the New York restaurant where he celebrates a special night.