Distilled's Shane Lyons: "I'm a Spoon Freak"
"All things delicious go with all things delicious." It's a mantra Distilled chef Shane Lyons repeats several times over the course of our conversation. By way of proof, he offers a recent experience: "There was a woman sitting at the chef's table every night, and I told her all things delicious go with all things delicious. She was like, 'Oh yeah? Fish sauce and chocolate.' I was like, 'Pfff. Easy.' So I make this smoked graham cake with warm chocolate custard, and I put two dots of fish sauce on the graham. And she makes this face like her mind is blown, and she has to say, 'OK, that was really good.' It was like a three-point fadeaway."
This is part one of this chat. Read part two of my interview with Distilled chef Shane Lyons.
It's a philosophy Lyons formed over a storied culinary experience, which began when he was a child. His mother graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, and she'd helmed the burners at the Greenbrier in West Virginia and the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs. "She was one of the first woman chefs," Lyons explains. She met Lyons's father, also a chef, and the pair opened their own restaurant, the Painted Lady, also in Colorado Springs.
But while he grew up cooking, an early start in Hollywood sent him down an entirely different track: He became a professional actor when he was seven or eight. "I went to Sundance when I was 12, and then I moved to L.A. and started a career," he says. "I was on a show called All That for three years; I was the fat kid."
When he was 16, his tenure with Nickelodeon ended, and he moved back to Colorado with his folks. He soon landed a job as a dishwasher in a restaurant owned by someone who'd been a dishwasher for his parents. He moved up through the stations, and when he was 17, he decided to head to his mother's alma mater, enrolling at CIA. "When I graduated at 18, I was the youngest-ever graduate," he says. "They had a 15-year-old in there, but I hear he washed out."
After that, Lyons bounced from kitchen to kitchen, working as a private chef for an actor in L.A. for a little while before heading out to New York City, where he did brief stints at Craft Bar and Café Boulud. "That was an amazing, amazing kitchen," he says of the latter. He soon saw that Momofuku Noodle Bar was hiring, and he jumped on board, working under Kevin Pemoulie, whom he says made a major impact on his career. "That's where I feel like I learned to be a cook, even though I'd been one for many years," he says.
After Momofuku, Lyons headed back to Colorado Springs, where he returned to Nosh, this time as head of the kitchen. "It was a small-plates concept with a less-than-ideal identity," he explains. "I put an ethos behind it, and I'm really proud of it--they're still using a few recipes that we developed there. For the market, it was really progressive. Colorado Springs is conservative."
It wasn't long, though, before New York came knocking again, when Nick Iovacchini, his partner in Distilled, asked him to help him open a restaurant, a two-year process that was fraught with obstacles. "We have learned that one does not simply open up a restaurant," he says.
After the guys finally landed a Tribeca space through Drew Nieporent, formerly of Centrico, they had to survive Sandy, which completely destroyed their basement. Still, they marched on with their plans. "Nick's a great optimist of a businessman, and he plays the longest game of chess I've ever seen," Lyons says. "We're fortunate to have a great team and have made it through."
Distilled debuted last month, opening the doors on what the owners hope becomes a community touchstone. "We wanted to do something that is integral to the neighborhood and create a business with great longevity," Lyons says. "We're striving to strike a balance between being very user-friendly but exceeding expectations in execution."
In part one of our interview, Lyons weighs in on the basic potato masher, reveals which New York restaurant sells "the best frickin' sandwich," and talks about his admiration for the bodega guys who sling sandwiches.
Up next, Lyons talks about the knife he dropped on the streets of New York.