Veteran Chef Scott Bryan chats about The Milling Room, the Upper West Side, and the Nexus of Art and Cooking
[Editor’s Note: My great thanks to good friend, photographer Evan Sung, who recently and graciously offered to help me class up the joint with photographs to accompany some interviews and articles on Toqueland. This marks our first collaboration here. -AF]
Chef Scott Bryan has been a fixture in the New York dining scene for a few decades, most prominently at Veritas, where he was the opening chef and earned three stars from the New York Times, and then at Apiary, where he cooked for the past five years. He was a Food & Wine Magazine Best New Chef in 1996, and has honchoed kitchens at restaurants such as Alison on Dominick Street, Luma, and Indigo. A native of Boston, Scott trained under Bob Kinkead, and worked in many great New York kitchens early in his career, including Bouley, Le Bernardin, and Gotham Bar and Grill, as well as at Joyce Goldstein’s Square One in San Francisco. Earlier this year, he was briefly the chef at Bacchanal, then joined forces with restaurateur Luis Gonzalez at The Milling Room on the Upper West Side in September. The restaurant is divided into a Tavern room and bar up front, and an enormous dining room in the back (some may remember it as the former home of Main Street, then Calle Ocho, before it became Corvo Bianco). Scott and I sat down recently to discuss how he got here, his plans for the restaurant, and related issues.
FRIEDMAN: It’s been a pretty active year for you; you left Apiary then did Bacchanal and now you’re here. How did this come about?
BRYAN: This came about because I basically worked on Bacchanal for, like, two years, talking about doing that venture … I never signed off on the kitchen there which was tiny, way too small. And so I knew it wasn’t going to work once I was there. After about a month there I called Maestro, Alfred Erlich, and I said, “This isn’t going to work; do you know anyone looking for a chef?” And he goes, “Well, this place uptown, the old Corvo Bianco space. The guy Luis [Gonzalez] is looking. They’re going to close. The chef they hired didn’t work out.” So I met with him a few times and we decided to go from there … I was sort of hesitant about taking the job up here because I never worked on the Upper West Side and I know it’s a tough place … but I said, “Fuck it. Why not?”
FRIEDMAN: What’s the reputation of this neighborhood among chefs?
BRYAN: Upper West Side is considered a wasteland.
FRIEDMAN: Why do you think that is? You used to live up here. I used to live up here. There are brownstones. There’s money. There are “foodies.”
BRYAN: This is the second highest income zip code in New York … But the thing about the West Side, there’s a lot of kids, a lot of older people that I think have lived in rent‑stabilized apartments for, like, a hundred years. And so everyone that was in, say, their late twenties to fifty would go downtown, I think, or go to the East Side. And you’ve got a lot of sort of ethnic places, cheap ethnic places here. In the last decade or so you’ve got a couple of good chefs up here: Valenti, Telepan, Fraser. But those places are unique. I mean, Ouest isn’t [expensive], but Dovetail and Telepan now are very expensive. They could be on the Upper East Side.
I think the price point on the West Side is sensitive, maybe. I was talking to these customers who’ve eaten here several times already, and they said, “Your price points are great, but once you go over thirty bucks [for main courses], you’re going to get into trouble.” And I said, “Well, that’s why the only thing I’ve got [in that price range] is a Berkshire pork chop. It’s, like, twelve ounces and that’s thirty bucks. I’m really not making money on that, but I have to charge at least $30. And when I do specials like duck breast and things like that, I can charge $32, or Nantucket bay scallops, $36, and they sell.
FRIEDMAN: Am I correct that this the biggest place you’ve been the chef, number-of-seats‑wise?
BRYAN: Yes. We’ve got, like, 105, 110 seats.
FRIEDMAN: Including the Tavern up front?
BRYAN: No, that’s just back here. The Tavern, we’ve got twelve seats at the bar. You can get, like, forty people up there.
FRIEDMAN: And it doesn’t include the private dining room.
FRIEDMAN: Has this been an adjustment for you?
BRYAN: Well, I’ve worked in big places but I’ve never been the executive chef of a big place. I’m a hands‑on guy, but here I have to delegate more. I’m going to have to hire more cooks. But I’m a hands‑on guy so right now I do all the butchering and everything … It’s physically a lot of work but I like that.
FRIEDMAN: Industry people talk about you as a chef’s chef. You put in the time.
BRYAN: Yeah, yeah.
FRIEDMAN: Do you like it that way?
BRYAN: I like to cook. That’s what I’m good at. What I’ve learned in life is you do what you’re good at, and you hire someone that’s better than you at what you’re bad at. And you don’t micromanage. So, for me, maybe I’m stupid or something, but I get the instant gratification of cooking, of cutting, making the dish, and then so and so says, “That’s the best dish I ever had.” Like my sweetbreads. I’ve had dozens of people tell me [the] best venison dish [they’ve had was the one] I did at Veritas. Shortribs. Maybe I’m a simple‑minded person, but I really enjoy that. And I don’t want to walk around with a clipboard because I’m not good at that. Like my sous chef, I say, “You do the scheduling,” because I don’t like that. But I don’t mind working on the line ten hours, you know?
FRIEDMAN: You came up at a time when the whole celebrity chef thing was really taking off.
FRIEDMAN: People who you came up with are on television.
FRIEDMAN: Did you ever want that for yourself? Or is this how you always saw a day in the life of Scott Bryan?
BRYAN: I’ve always wanted just this. If someone said, “What’s your dream?” I’d say, “Give me a guy that has a lot of money that can buy the building, and then let me cook there so I don’t have to worry about the rent going up three times and I’ve got to get out of business.” And then I’d work there until basically I die, or I retire. And when I get older I’ll hire a young contemporary chef and then I’ll work with him or her and we’ll come up with menu ideas.
FRIEDMAN: Do you enjoy passing on the craft?
BRYAN: I do. And I’m very open. I show everyone everything I know. The only thing that sucks is if they’re not that good or the ones that you just know they don’t have it, and you sort of give up. I hate to say it, but it’s true. I’ll say, “Fuck it. This guy’s not going to work.”
FRIEDMAN: How soon do you think you can figure that out?
BRYAN: A day.
FRIEDMAN: Let’s go through what you’ll be doing here. You’ve got an à la carte menu in the main dining room.
BRYAN: Yeah. We have appetizers, and we have a few pastas, then main courses. And we will do a few sides. Up front, in the Tavern, we’ve got the oven.
FRIEDMAN: And what’s the oven, exactly?
BRYAN: It’s just a gas oven. And it’s going to be a learning process for me because I’ve never worked with one of these ovens.
FRIEDMAN: Was that already in the offing when you came on board? They’d already decided they were going to do that?
BRYAN: Yes, the idea that they were going to do that. It’s a good idea because it’s going to be independent, so I can have one person down there or two. We’ll see how busy it gets. And that will be for the bar. We’ll do simple stuff like maybe brandade, homemade sausages with sauerkraut or polenta. Roasted bone marrow with salsa verde, toasted bread. Maybe a sepia with romesco. Simple, but it goes right from the oven to the bar.
FRIEDMAN: And timing‑wise? When do you think that’ll be ‑‑
BRYAN: The building department has to okay it, so once they do that, I can turn the gas on. So it could be two weeks or it could be a year. I don’t know.
FRIEDMAN: And you’re planning to do brunch on Sundays here? [Update: A restaurant rep says brunch will likely commence in the New Year.]
FRIEDMAN: And the front room will eventually be open lunch hours, and will it go straight through? It won’t close between lunch and dinner?
BRYAN: It will go straight through. And we’ll do some stuff that will be like a bar menu ‑‑ marinated olives, mussels escabeche, ham and cheese croquettes. So you can always have a snack there. [Note: A few of these items are already available at the bar.]
FRIEDMAN: Have you done brunch before?
BRYAN: Not really. At Soleil I did when I opened that place. That was my first real chef’s job. So I’m thinking of doing some of my items I have on the dinner menu.
FRIEDMAN: The regular menu.
BRYAN: Yeah. And we’ll do some egg dishes, maybe do a citrus grilled salmon with grilled brioche and poached egg, chive butter. Maybe a shrimp fritatta with maybe goat cheese and poblano chiles.
FRIEDMAN: That direction.
BRYAN: Americans want everything on the brunch menu–breakfast, lunch, dinner–but I’m not doing pancakes or anything like that.
FRIEDMAN: What do you do to keep up with what’s going on? Do you read the blogs? Do you read any of the food magazines? Do you try to get out and check out other places?
BRYAN: Yeah, I try to go out and eat and check out menus, see menu ideas. And what I’ve always done in life in kitchens, is take what I think is good and disregard what I don’t like.
FRIEDMAN: For instance?
BRYAN: Like sous vide. Some of it’s good. Like [for] foie gras. But when people do venison that way, it’s not good, so I disregard that. I would never do that.
FRIEDMAN: What do you mean when you say it’s not good?
BRAYN: It doesn’t work.
FRIEDMAN: It’s bland?
BRYAN: Yeah. I mean, put the peppercrust on it and roast the venison, pan roast it, nice and medium rare, rare, and then make your pan sauce in the pan that you roasted it in. That’s good. That’s the way I learned. And when I see people cook it in a bag and take it out and sear it, technically it’s done well.
FRIEDMAN: You mean the temperature is perfect?
BRYAN: Yeah, but it doesn’t taste good.
FRIEDMAN: What do you think the appeal of it is?
BRYAN: It’s idiot‑proof. It requires no skill. So you can have a cook that’s really not that good. You sous vide everything, it will come out fine.
FRIEDMAN: Do you have dishes of your own at this point that you consider signature dishes? Do you even like that term?
BRYAN: No, I don’t like it, no.
FRIEDMAN: Why not?
BRYAN: Because you might come up with an idea and it might be your dish, but “signature dish” I don’t like because I can come up with a signature dish every day if I wanted to, in a way.
FRIEDMAN: You mean something that good?
SB: Something very good. I think it was Bocuse that said you’re only coming up with seven great dishes or six ‑‑ five, six, seven, whatever — in a lifetime. [That many dishes] that are really great. And he sort of has a point. But you can come up with damn good dishes, a lot of them.
FRIEDMAN: Do you have favorites of your own?
BRYAN: Yeah. I mean, right now I’ve got a hamachi tartare with yuzu, pickled cucumbers as a starter. Love that. I don’t have shortribs on the menu now, but I will. The sweetbreads, whatever prep I do, I’m known for because I poach it well and pan roast it and make the sauce.
FRIEDMAN: I can still taste the ones I had at Apiary.
SB: Yeah, so I’m known for certain things like skate. I’ve got skate on the menu. I love skate. You don’t see it a lot on menus now, but I sell it; I do a very simple classic French, a verjus tomato-caper butter with lemon couscous. That’s it. Sells great. It’s great.
FRIEDMAN: And you don’t feel a need to screw around with that?
BRYAN: Not at all.
FRIEDMAN: You don’t get restless with these things?
BRYAN: No, not at all. The way I look at it, it’s perfection. I don’t need a gimmick.
FRIEDMAN: This is like when you talk about that pleasure of doing one thing over and over when you started out ‑‑ it’s still the same idea?
BRYAN: That’s it. I mean, like artists. You know, Jean‑Michel Basquiat, Picasso. I like those guys. Pollack. I like abstract. Other stuff I don’t like, other artists. I like Armani. Jean‑Paul Goultier, I never liked. It’s too flashy. Too gimmicky. Some people love it, but it’s not my style, you know?
FRIEDMAN: You think about food in the same terms?
BRYAN: Totally. So I see guys out there trying to push the envelope and put, you know, cocoa nibs with foie gras and pomegranate reduction and for me it’s a gimmick. Just do the foie gras. Do it with a nice acidic herb vinaigrette with some toasted hazelnuts. Boom.
FRIEDMAN: Does that other stuff bother you?
BRYAN: It doesn’t bother me when but I see a lot of press, it sort of annoys me because I think it’s like the emperor’s new clothes. It’s like Jean‑Paul Goultier. Now, they might say he’s a genius. Okay. He’s not to me. I mean, Armani I think is a genius, you know? Porsche is a genius. But some of these other cars, like Maserati, I don’t like. It’s over the top.