From The French Laundry and Bouchon in Napa and Aziza and Citizen Cake in San Francisco to The Bread Factory and the Modern Pantry in London, Shuna Lydon’s list of employers reads like a “Who’s Who” in cuisine and baking. But Lydon (a 2011 New York Rising Star Community Chef), who already has more than 15 years of experience between New York, California, and the UK, isn’t in the business for name dropping. An ambitious and creative talent, Lydon worked her way from the bottom, simply seeking out the best to become the best. And currently in charge of the pastry and baking program at Peels in New York City, Lydon is paying back the pastry community that reared her, sharing her talents and leadership with young pastry cooks and chefs both in her kitchen and beyond.
Although not a self-professed community organizer, Lydon believes strongly in the back-of-the-house relationships that drive the industry—whether those relationships happen between mentor and protégée or between one kitchen and another. And while Lydon believes in social outreach, she’s never looking for her name in lights. She’s more interested in “guerilla outreach,” the kind of moment-by-moment teaching opportunities that rarely happen under spotlights.
When she’s not creating pastries, baking the restaurant’s in-house breads (both yeasted and naturally leavened), or developing the new Peels soda fountain program, Lydon is busying writing and taking photographs for her blog, Eggbeater, which was recently named one of the “Top 50 Food Blogs in the World” by the London Times. In fact, it’s a toss up as to which skills—her pastry or writing skills—are more recognized. “Memorable Fruit,” a portrait Lydon wrote on strawberries for Edible San Francisco was chosen for the book Best Food Writing 2007. Meanwhile, her pastry program at Peels got the attention of the James Beard Foundation, who nominated Lydon for the “Outstanding Pastry Chef” Award in 2011.
Interview with Community (Pastry) Chef Shuna Lydon of Peels – New York, NY
Emily Bell: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Shuna Lydon: I had been doing food retail most of my life. I was an ice cream scooper, I worked in a supermarket. I ended up opening the first Whole Foods in California. I worked front of house, but opened up the bakery in the Berkeley store. I started getting more familiar with that sort of stuff and then it just sort of came to me at some point that I wanted to learn how to do it. I didn’t know anything and it was before the Internet. I started asking around. It turned out I had a friend of a friend of a friend who was a chef in New York City. I was living in California. I was able to set up a meeting with her and a complete cold call. She sat down with me and laid out my options from least to most expensive. She said these words to me that I have said to other people that I have never forgotten. She said, “When I went to culinary school, it was a boys’ club and the men would keep the women out of study groups and try to make them fail. And so I feel as though I owe it to other female cooks to give them advice.” That’s why she met with me and invited me to trail in kitchen.
EB: What was your next step?
SL: She invited me back. She helped me lay out a game plan. I couldn’t afford culinary school and so she said “This is what you do. Start in kitchens, start at bottom.” So when I started again before the Internet I had to look up someone in the phone book. I didn’t know what a resume was. A guy made a resume for me. You look in the paper, mail in a resume. That was the original way of doing things. And I did that. I started at the bottom. I washed dishes. I made pasta. I just really was doing the basics. I worked my way up.
EB: How did you transition to pastry?
SL: After line cooking for a while, maybe a few years, I got really interested in the possibility of baking. I basically bothered this pastry chef incessantly. She’d walk away from me. She was not at all interested in me. I said “I would come in on my day off.” I said I would do anything. I knew how to start at the bottom. And then I got lucky because I was tournant in the restaurant and they lost a plater and so one night a week I was plating besides all the savory jobs I’d been doing. And then I just begged. I just begged. Just every day, every week I said “I will come in on my day off, peel apples, and do anything.” It’s hard to know what was going on in my head. But many, many, many years later, when Anthony Bourdain wrote Kitchen Confidential, and I read it, he has this line where he says pastry chefs are the neurologists of the kitchen. They’re like detail-oriented and minutiae-interested. Even when I was doing savory it was with fruit and vegetables and garde manger. I was more interested in what we considered the sort of more pastry slant of savory. And when it became apparent to me that savory cooks went from garde manger to grill to sauté, it didn’t look glamorous or appealing or macho or interesting to me. It just looked annoying.
EB: What was your training like? How did you learn?
SL: I would come in on my days off and do anything she told me to do. I knew how to go to the library. If I heard something in the restaurant, I’d write it down and go do my own research. I had been told by a chef “buy this book and subscribe to these magazines.” Gourmet, Martha Stewart, Saveur. It’s really about getting as much homework done as possible, and making the whole thing my school. Showing up to work every day no matter what. And then just reading as voraciously as I could on the side. And so once I was plating once a week, it just became apparent to me, what I have more of a love for is baking. It’s like this with home cooks. You figure out at some point what resonates with you. I didn’t really know there was a relative distinction at that point. I was a tournant, doing garde manger, shucking oysters, opening the café, doing savory, and then pastry. Then it was really my job after that. I got hired as a pastry assistant, then it was clear where I was going.
EB: Now that you’re there, what is your philosophy on pastry?
SL: I definitely didn’t see a savory-sweet split. I’m positive it informs it 100 percent. Especially now, many years later. Working with so many savory chefs, without any of them knowing each other or knowing what the previous person said, they constantly said the same thing. They said “you are not regular pastry chef, you approach desserts the way I approach savory cooking.”
I’m interested in classic pairings but it’s important to me to keep people on their toes. I’m not interested in clichés. But I’m interested in seasonal marriages. But I wouldn’t say I’m classical. I’d say I’m definitely this side of innovative, on the side of sort of old-fashioned. I’m a big believer in baking. In getting to the heart and soul of baking. And at the same time this might be someone else’s quote but “I think you have to learn the craft before you can break it” and so I would say that’s a little bit how I operate.
EB: Tell me about how you run your kitchen.
SL: It’s 100 percent mentorship. I’m very unconcerned about someone’s training. In fact I’d prefer someone didn’t go to culinary school in some respects. But I have two people in my kitchen who never saw the inside of a professional kitchen before they came to me. You can’t have an entire team like that, but I definitely walk the walk. I believe that all kinds of training can make you a better cook. I went to art school. I was mixing my own chemicals. There’s a lot of different crafts and practices in the world that contribute to someone being a fantastic cook. We’re not the only ones in the world with a sense of urgency.
EB: Is it hard to dedicate so much time to mentorship in a working kitchen?
SL: I believe very strongly in mentorship. I’ve mentored people that I’ve never met, through professional organizations that I’ve belonged to. I’ve mentored people I work with, people in positions above me. It’s definitely a driving force of mine. There are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of cooks and chefs and dishwashers and prep people who gave to me incredible gifts and if I don’t pay them back, I’m doing the craft and the industry an immense disservice. It’s a selfish crime that there are a lot of chefs out there who choose not to mentor. The craft is based on apprenticeship, like laying stones and being an electrician. It’s a working class craft. We work with our hands. We have to. We have to carry on that tradition of teaching people one on one. This is not my quote, but I really believe in the saying “we keep what we have by giving it away.”
EB: How are you involved in the local culinary community?
SL: From a very sort of guerilla standpoint. I make it a definitive point to have colleagues and nourish those relationships, to keep those relationships, to keep in touch with every person I’ve ever worked with and for. Navigationally it’s very much about owning a lot of humility and not burning any bridges. Rebuilding bridges that other people are interested in burning. Community is incredibly important. I don’t view anyone in any kitchen as competition. I view people, whether I’ve worked with them or not, I believe we’re all in the same pie. I feel like we all participate in the craft in the industry.
EB: How do you participate?
SL: I have a very strong Internet presence. I write a blog from a professional perspective. I meet people from all over the world who want to meet me. I introduce chefs to other chefs. I introduce cooks to new kitchens. I take stagiaires. I place stagiaires. I do stages myself. I travel. I go to conferences. It never stops. I read everything there is to read. I contact people out of the blue. As far as just actual organizations go, I was an incredibly active member of the Bakers Dozen in the Bay Area. I’ve belonged to Faux Food for a long time. I was one of the first members in WCR.
There’s all these different ways I’ve met people, again because I didn’t go to culinary school. I’ve used the whole thing as my school. So I’ve found people that I ask questions of. If I have questions, I’ll text ten pastry chefs from all over. And I also answer those questions. And I’ve become quite close with Jenny McCoy. She actually borrowed one of my assistants for a few weeks. She is introduced me recently to WITS, Wellness in the Schools through Bill Telepan. I’ll be involved with that in the Fall.
EB: What other charities are you involved in? Do you try to actively stay involved?
SL: Over the course of my career I’ve never said “no” to charity. It depends. The way it tends to work in all the restaurants I’ve worked in, you’re not allowed to say “yes” to something the restaurant isn’t saying yes to. It’s a monetary thing. It’s a conflict of interest thing. Because of my Internet presence I get asked to do a lot of things that my company now reserves the right to refuse on my behalf. I did one of those chef dinners at What Happens When, for the charity of the chef’s choice. In my life I’ve done hundreds of events. I used to teach. I would always reserve one or two spots in the class for people who couldn’t afford the class. Maybe you’re not gonna see my name in all these places, but it’s entrenched in me, in what I do basically.
Doing the Wellness in Schools this Fall will be a great opportunity. I am New York City bred. I grew up in the New York City public school system. To give back to the community I grew up in is really important to me. I’ve cooked for people with cancer. I’m not interested in building my resume. I’m involved with it on a core level. There are people in my kitchen who are getting their only training through me. To me that’s very personal. And I feel like a lot of people are wanting to look better than what they practice. “I’m involved” and I’m like “Have you ever talked to anyone who’s actually hungry?”
EB: It seems like you’re interested in hands-on participation.
SL: I’m much more interested in being on the ground in my own community. Things that are actually real. I did this benefit and it was really fancy, and yet I’ve never brought meals into someone who can’t leave their house. I’ve done project Open Hand. I’ve volunteered for people with AIDS. To me, I’d almost rather you say I wasn’t involved. It’s not a list for me. It’s inherent in how I think and believe and behave day to day, hour to hour, week to week, year to year. I get a bit emotional about it. To me you could make canapés for 10,0000 events in your life that benefit homelessness. But if, on a day to day, basis, you don’t actually do something for it, to me it’s a wash. These events cost a lot of money. Where does that money go? I’m more radical when it comes to community activism. I tend to do it within my own sphere rather than go up to Lincoln Center to cook fancy food.
EB: What are your top three tips for pastry success?
SL: Organization, communication, and humility.
EB: What does success mean for you?
SL: Success for me is the success of the people who I teach, who I mentor. Who I coach. Who I release. Who I place. They’re my success. My success is happy people eating my food, being introduced to sweets that aren’t too sweet, being turned on to fruits they haven’t heard of, and being convinced that eating locally and seasonally just tastes better. For me, success is almost private. It’s my own integrity. Can I go to sleep with myself at the end of the night? Can I be proud of who I work for, who I work with? Can the people who work for me feel proud that they work for me? My feeling of success is not a stagnant, empirical place. It’s constantly evolving. Every day I get to start my day over. Can I navigate the personalities within my company? Can I be well-respected among my peers? It’s a very emotional success, more than “I have this name on my jacket and I get paid this much money.” I feel successful when those around me are successful. It’s sort of basic.
EB: Where do you see yourself in five years?
SL: I hope to be continuing to bake. I hope to be in a restaurant kitchen. I hope to have at least one book in print. I hope to be able to travel more. And have more of a positive impact on my profession and my industry and my craft.