Admittedly, when my friend, sommelier Brett Feore, shared the details of his latest career move a few years back, I didn’t have much thought on the subject. A bit new to the restaurant world, particularly regarding the happenings of food-forward cities like New York, I was still trying to catch up on the who’s who within the culinary community.
“You know Scott Bryan, right?” Brett said, passing me a press release with details of the new restaurant. “He was in Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential.”
“He was?” I answered, trying to remember bits and pieces from the book I had read a few years prior.
Upon Brett’s insistence, however, I stopped in at Apiary, a cozy restaurant in the Big Apple’s eclectic East Village, while in town for the New York Wine & Food Festival in 2009. From my perch at the bar, the comfortable atmosphere of Apiary, from its hip tunes and contemporary Ligne Roset furnishings to its perfectly executed food and wine pairings, pulled me in, quickly becoming a regular haunt of mine during each visit.
An accomplished chef, and 1996 Food & Wine Best New Chef, Scott Bryan is best known for his work as a former partner and chef at Veritas, a popular spot in the city’s Flatiron District. Impressed by his thoughts on food, as well as his take on the ebb and flow of restaurant business, I sat down with the kitchen veteran at Apiary’s beautiful bar in October to talk about where he’s been and what he’s seen during his time in the ever-churning food scene.
Q: So, how’s business?
A: We had a good summer. We had a better summer than last year, which is good. It seems like the word around town, maybe the economy, has helped. Hopefully. We’ll see. There are still a lot of people not doing too well.
Q: What’s your philosophy behind the Apiary menu?
A: Basically, seasonality. The menu changes with the seasons. I try to use local as much as I can and keep it very straight forward. For a little restaurant that seats sixty people, we’ll do 130-140 covers a night, so I’ve got to keep it where I can execute everything properly. I buy good product. I’m also a big fan of farm-to-table, but I’m not insane about it.
Q: Are you influenced by what other chefs are doing in their kitchens?
A: Oh, yeah. I always keep an eye on what’s going on in the city, but I’m not influenced by trends so much. I have my own style, and I stick to it. Go with the seasons, keep things very clean. I think that if you have more than two good ideas on a plate, a dish can fail.
I used to work with Eric Ripert, so I always keep my eye on him. Michael White is a great chef. Scott Conant. But I’m not caught up in the whole celebrity thing. I’m not a big fan of what’s trendy. I like Wylie [Dufresne]. He has a lot of chutzpah. People like David Burke push the envelope, but some things work and some don’t. I just want to buy good, seasonal ingredients and make a great dish.
Q: What do you think really sets Apiary apart from other restaurants in the city?
A: I think we really give a great value. You come here and you can get fantastic wine, reasonable portions. You’re not going to pay $18 for two little bites. So many places in New York are like that. Also, we don’t compromise on quality. You go could go to elsewhere, but you’ll end up spending $300-400 for two people. We’re a little expensive for the East Village, but for what you get, it’s a great deal.
Q: Do you find yourself reflecting back on your years at Veritas?
Veritas was a great opportunity because I was the only working partner. The other partners – they were money guys. They let me run the kitchen, and I don’t really have any regrets. Like I tell people, it was like Studio 54. At that time, it was the right place to be. Wall Street was jumping, and we did $4.5M in sales, which is quite unique for a small restaurant that’s only open for dinner. Together with m partner, Steve Verlin, we were really the soul of the restaurant. Once Steve died, I couldn’t really see myself working there any longer. We really saw things eye to eye, had the same philosophy. He was a great guy, but [when he died] it was a cue for me to go.
Q: When you left Veritas, did you think about leaving New York?
A: I went down to D.C. and consulted, but I was open to leaving permanently. I love New York. I have to been in a cosmopolitan city, because what I do isn’t going to fly in suburban Georgia. The thing about New York, though, is that nowadays, rent is astronomical. The cost of business is so expensive. It’s like, why bother?
Q: What are some of the changes you’ve seen in the industry?
A: I’ve been a chef since 1982, and there have been a lot of changes. The biggest thing I’ve seen in restaurants in New York is that back in the old days, if you worked in a restaurant kitchen, you were paid a salary but they could work you seventy hours a week. Nowadays, everything is hourly. The rent in New York is also a big change. When I first moved here back in the 80s, restaurants here in the city used to close for one or two weeks in late summer, so that everyone could take the same weeks off. Now, no one can afford to close. They have to stay open breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It’s one of the biggest things I’ve seen, because you can always change your food costs or your labor costs, but not your rent.
Diners in this town also expect a lot more than they used to. They have higher expectations because there are a lot of great restaurants in New York, and the overall quality has risen 30-40%.
Q: What’s coming up next for you?
A: Right now, I’m just continuing to develop ideas and build regular clientele. Make sure that everyone in the restaurant is being taken care of and making money. It’s actually a nice break to be a chef instead of an owner.
**Photo credit: Apiary, New York