Bryce Shuman is as passionate about music as he is about cooking. The North Carolina native who plays blues guitar and loves talking about bands he loves such as Cashmere Cat and Lightnin' Hopkins, originally thought he’d be an actor, not a chef. He was in a Chapel Hill performance conservatory in high school and auditioned for a variety of colleges. But, as a cocky 18-year-old – his words, not ours – he decided to pursue his love of jungle music and DJ-ing when he didn’t get into his top choice school.
Needing a job to support his new lifestyle, he stared working as a dishwasher at a local North Carolina restaurant and found – surprise surprise (since you know the end of the story) – that he loved the kitchen. Dishwashing, in fact, remains something he finds ultra-satisfying. “I like the order and the instant gratification,” he says. “You can see the fruits of your labor right away.”
Eventually, he moved up the line, where, once he got to hot apps, he says his future wife, Jenn, took more notice of him (she was a waitress at the restaurant at the time).
Following his newfound cooking dream, he moved to San Francisco to study at the California Culinary Academy, working nights at Wolfgang Puck’s Postrio and later, for Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski at Rubicon where he soaked up the craft and started fine tuning his own style.
The opportunity to join Daniel Humm’s team at the Michelin three-star restaurant Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan a year and a half later was a way to both move back East and flex more of his culinary muscle. He was at Eleven Madison six years, rising to executive sous chef. In 2013, he moved to Betony where, in 2015, he was named a 2015 Food & Wine “Best New Chef”.
Still a huge music fan who can talk blues as easily as he chats about food, Shuman says, the only sounds he likes to hear in his kitchen is that of focus. “The sound of focus is clear and distinct communication that happens very quickly to achieve the goal,” he explains. “I don’t want to hear pots banging, silverware hitting anything, plates clacking, papers being shuffled, or any yelling. Any unnecessary words need to disappear.”
At home, though, that’s another story. That’s when he’ll play Leon Redbone – one of his favorites for a dinner party -- along with perhaps Chet Baker, Doc Watson, old acoustic Muddy Waters, Albert King or Robert Johnson.
Get him talking about music and he lights up, just the way he does when talking about ingredients – miso remains a favorite. Shuman makes a walnut miso using aspergillus oryzae and blooming on nishiki rice to make koji which he then mixes with roasted walnuts and ferments for three months. The salad is finished by grilling the bitter greens and scallions on white binchō-tan, a traditional charcoal of Japan. “We dress everything using a vinaigrette made from the walnut miso,” he says.
Aside from miso, he and his staff make vinegar and hundreds of different types of pickles and preserves.
Shuman is also big on responsibility. As the father of a two-year-old, he says he has a newfound sense of being careful with resources.
Responsibility, according to Shuman, also means driving education for his cooks through experimentation and by creating a world in which they can be successful. “I have the greatest cooks in the city and I mean it,” he says. “I hire the cooks who want to be the best chefs in the world so my job is to create an environment so they can grow and be successful and then together as a team we’ll be successful. And, oh yeah, you’ve got to make it taste good. And we do that again and again every day.”
His job, he says, also requires accountability to the business, to the cooks, and most of all to the diners.
And that means a sense of new discovery and tastes to those who get to experience his creations. Shuman describes his style as inventive American cooking. “When people say American food, they think hot dogs, hamburgers and pizza or some bastardized version of x, y or z and I think that’s a real problem,” he says. “I want people to know American food as a cuisine born out of the combination of our culture, rooted in tradition, and available for exploration. And that’s how I describe it at Betony – we explore. It’s inventive American cuisine because I’m borrowing from the cuisines that inspire me to eat and to cook.”
Among his favorite dishes on the now-closed Betony’s menu is a milk-fed piglet that comes from a farm in Quebec. He also has a ravioli dish where each filling is created with a different flavor -- think onion, garlic, parmesan, lemon, and celery root so that every time you taste a bite, it’s a new and different experience.
Eating out inspires him. Among his top places to go: The Modern, Eleven Madison Park, and since he loves spicy food, Café China, which he says offers amazing Sichuan. He also loves a great sandwich from Saltie in Williamsburg.
In the end, what he does is not so different, he admits, from what he thought he’d do way back in high school. Cooking and its visual presentation, explains Shuman, are, in the end, very much like a performance.