Craig Shelton:

Craig Shelton:
What I’m trying to communicate in the recipes is not only the steps and techniques necessary to achieve the dish, but also I would like to help people understand what is happening to the proteins, starches, sugars, etc. so that they can understand WHY the technique works. With the help of a few scientific "metaphors," I would like the reader to be able to take the "thinking" behind the dish and adapt that understanding to new contexts.

JM: What kind of training did you have to become such an accomplished chef of French haute cuisine?

CS: I’ve been working in restaurants since I was 14 when I was washing dishes (25 years). I did not go to cooking school; instead I received all my training in restaurants, most of which were French. It has been my remarkable fortune to have been able to work for some extraordinary chefs: Claude Segal of Ma Maison; Roland Chenus of Le Chantilly; Jean-Jacques Rachou of La Côte Basque; Dennis Foy of Tarragon Tree; Gilbert Le Coze of Le Bernardin; and David Bouley of Bouley. The stages that I was able to get in France were particularly beneficial, especially: L’Auberge de l’Ill with the Haeberlins, Jamin with Joël Robuchon, Pré Catelan with LeNôtre, and my pastry stage with Daniel Raguin. If I could only remember 1/10th of what they all taught me I would be twice the cook I am.

JM: You have a 42-page wine list, what inspires you to add another wine to the list? Does this aspect of the restaurant take you away from the kitchen?

CS: First of all, the wine, for me, can have such synergistic potential with the food that I can’t create a dish without thinking about the type of wine I would want to marry with it. I consider the work I do in composing the wine list as part of the expression of the kitchen—not as distinct from it.

In general, I prefer wines from cooler climates, sure they are more vintage-sensitive, but I find them to be more suave and interesting than wines that are merely powerful. Mostly I look to add wines that complement the style of cooking we are doing: elegant dishes with elegant wines, rustic dishes with rustic wines.

JM: What are the advantages and disadvantages of growing your own produce and herbs?

CS: The only disadvantage is that it requires a lot of logistical planning. The kitchen has to adapt to the yield cycles of the garden. Whereas if we were just ordering the produce from a purveyor, it becomes his problem to find what the kitchen needs. The garden is a great gift to us at the Ryland and I believe it helps keep the cuisine honest by respecting seasons and calibrating the palate to how things CAN taste when quality is the only concern.

JM: Does this mean that you do not use any genetically modified foods?

I believe that we have never used genetically modified foods as you mean it. Of course, nearly all modern vegetables are the result of someone crossing this with that to create a more desirable hybrid. Bees have been genetically modifying food since the beginning of time, but that is a natural process of cross-pollination. When people introduce a genetic sequence from animal tissue it makes me nervous. I won’t use it.

JM: What does it mean for you, and The Ryland Inn, to be a Relais & Gourmand?

CS: Ever since I worked in France, it has been one of my greatest dreams to some day be worthy of acceptance into the Relais Gourmand ranks. I still can’t believe it really happened. Undoubtedly, it is the greatest honor of my professional life.

JM: What do you think of Relais & Châteaux's competitor, Châteaux et Hôtels de France, where Alain Ducasse is Chairman?

I consider Alain Ducasse one of the great chefs and restaurateurs of all time. I am sure he will achieve important gains for Châteaux et Hotels de France.

JM: Since your restaurant is a destination restaurant, what do you offer to your guests that a neighborhood restaurant, say in New York City, does not?

CS: A tranquil country setting, and generally the tables don’t turn (except on Saturday). I’d like to believe that we have one of the friendliest staffs around. I hope that guests feel more like they are dining in someone’s home. We are also very flexible in the kitchen. We will try to accommodate almost any special requests.

JM: Your Gourmand Tasting Menu, which changes daily, is 10 courses paired with a different wine for each course, is this what most of your guests tend to order?

CS: Depending on the night, it could account for 15-35% of sales. We also offer two other shorter tasting menus. There are two different wine packages for each menu. Roughly half of the people who order any of our three tasting menus also choose to order one of the composed wine packages which pair a specific wine for each course.

JM: From a chef's perspective, why do you prefer and enjoy preparing tasting menus?

CS: Last year I redesigned the menu to emphasize tasting menus in response to the changing demand of our clientele. Over the last nine years, the percentage of tasting menu sales has grown from 5% in 1991 to almost 75% (on most nights) in 1999. The Ryland has become such a "special occasion" restaurant that most clients want the vast array of experiences which a tasting menu affords. So our menu change was firstly a response to market pressure.

JM: A chef's tasting menu, often times, can be excessive. How do you ensure that your menu is not overwhelming?

CS: That is the reason that we broke up the menu into four distinct parts--each designed to give a different type of dining experience--allowing our guests to choose, for themselves, the type of evening that they want to have. Thus:

A. The GOURMAND tasting menu of ten courses is designed for those who are looking for cutting-edge dishes and are prepared to spend quite a bit of time at the table. This accounts for about 25% of sales.
B. The TRADITION tasting menu of eight courses is designed for the majority of the guests who want the symphonic pleasure of a dégustation without treading into scary things like cockscombs and baby eels. This accounts for about 50% of sales.
C. The VEGETARIAN tasting menu of eight courses highlights our NOFA certified organic gardens, and accounts for around 5% of sales.
D. The A LA CARTE section of 5-6 appetizers and 6 main courses was designed for those who are conducting serious business and want the food to be great but not distracting, or those who don't want to spend as much time at the table.

We don’t like to restrict the guest’s choices. If one person at the table wants à la carte, and another wants a Gourmand tasting menu, and yet another wants the Tradition tasting menu, and still another wants the Vegetarian tasting menu… well, that’s what we do. Naturally, this is complicated for the kitchen, but it is what we thrive on.

JM: Tell me about the Bleu de Termignon cheese that you serve at The Ryland Inn? Why do you pair it with a Monbazillac?

CS: It’s a very rare blue cheese made in the French Alps by only one woman with nine cows. The blue veining is naturally induced unlike most blues. The texture is sublime. We serve it with a tokay pinot-gris S.G.N. or a Monbazillac with lots of botrytis. Let the wine and cheese combine in your mouth together—a sensuous revelation.

JM: I noticed several different gelées on your menu, are they a defining aspect of your style of cuisine?

CS: No, but we are having a lot of fun playing around with some of Ferran Adriá’s techniques. I haven’t really figured out what role I want them to play yet.

JM: Who are your mentors?

CS: All of the chefs I mentioned above. Perhaps it was Robuchon’s influence, although the briefest, that most spoke to me over the last fifteen years. Today, I am most fascinated with the work of Pierre Gagnaire, Michel Bras and Marc Veyrat.

JM: Is it fairly easy to get good cooks for your team? How do you usually go about hiring?

CS: We have had the best success with those people who had little or no prior three-star or four-star cooking experience. Of course, I love to work with advanced cooks. Mostly we hire on the basis of attitude, passion, integrity and commitment NOT because of a fancy resumé. I look for character and integrity above all else.

JM: What are your most prized tools/knives and equipment?

CS: I love my Global and Masahiro knives. But most of all I love my Bourgeat copper pots—and I have lots of them.

JM: Who are your regular purveyors and what do they do best?

D’Artagnan for game and foie gras, Browne Trading for Fish, New York Fish House for sushi type fish, Wotiz for my beef and veal…There are so many extraordinary purveyors who make it possible for us to do what we do. I am grateful to them all.

Do you have plans to build rooms at The Ryland Inn? I know when I dined there I would've loved to wake up there too, especially in the spring when the garden is beginning to grow.

CS: It has been my dream and intention since the day I arrived here almost ten years ago. I think that adding guest rooms would be the single best thing I could do to secure the future of The Ryland Inn.