How to Run a World-Class Restaurant Without Butter
At Betony, executive chef Bryce Shuman has taken a page from Matthew Barney's <i>Drawing Restraint</i> series and banned butter from his kitchen to foster innovation.
Lobster poached in turnip monté, sunflower head cooked in barigoule, turnip pureé, sunflower petals, dehydrated sunflower petals, sunflower crisp, and crème fraiche with lobster roe. Photos by Signe Birck.
I'm in a pristine kitchen, the kind where the stainless steel workstations are wrapped in linen to reduce noise. It's clinically calm. Surrounded by men and women in white, I listen intently as their boss—a pink-cheeked ex-soccer player who looks like a linebacker—discusses their latest assignment: to create compelling dishes without the use of their go-to fat of choice. Butter.
"Butter is like heroin," Bryce Shuman tells me. "When your body has it, you're like, Oh yeahhhhhh." His voice is loud and guttural. When Shuman, executive chef at Manhattan restaurant Betony, first told me his plan to remove butter from every single dish on the menu, including the bread they serve between courses, I thought he was joking. "Even pastry?" I asked.
But he's not joking, and he's not doing it for health reasons. "I wanted to explore other fats." Then, out of nowhere, the eastern North Carolina chef compares his decision to Drawing Restraint, a series by Matthew Barney in which the artist restrained parts of his body in order to break out of his physical boundaries. "Your body requires resistance in order to grow," says Barney in one of the videos.
"What happens when we say, 'We can't do this'?" Shuman tells me. I push a little on the chef, asking for more. Does not using butter mean his kitchen is more or less restrained?
"I love butter," Shuman assures me, but he's tired of the bad rap French chefs get. "Everything is covered in butter. It's glazed in butter, mounted in butter, and brushed in butter." By giving it up, he hopes to facilitate a new level of creativity in the kitchen. He poses a rhetorical question: "How do I create something that you have to come to Betony for? A flavor that is all ours, and that can't be reproduced anywhere else?"
After years of culinary training, Shuman's staff responded to his challenge with a loud and affirmative "yes, Chef!"
Sous chef Stephan Ilnyckyj looks over and tells me: "You just say yes, and then you do something else." He shrugged. No biggie. Resistance came from only one person, Rebecca Isbell, Betony's executive pastry chef. "I am admittedly the most hesitant," she says.
While other fats can overtake or change flavors, butter, Isbell explains, complements and adds intensity. After her brief eye roll, Isbell re-focused her attention on creating new breads, spreads, and desserts. She knew she'd have to ditch her favorite parker roll due to its high butter content, and pondered what to replace it with. The pastry chef spent a rainy day Googling and reading vegan cookbooks.
Bread proved to be her biggest obstacle. What butter does for texture, conditioning, and moisturizing is what Isbell noticed first. She noticed that breads made with butter stayed fresher longer. So Isbell had to solve the problem of dry bread. For her new pretzel roll, which is coated in traditional lye, she folded olive oil and crème fraiche into the dough to replace the 50 grams of butter she typically uses. Then she brought the bread to the kitchen's weekly chef de partie meeting—the meeting I'm in the kitchen for.
Like all dishes at Betony, even the bread is reviewed by a panel of judges. In this case, it's the handful of savory chefs that make up a small portion of the 40-strong team. Here they try new dishes and discuss what's working, and what is not. No one is allowed to say, "I don't like it."
"We try to talk about specific things," Shuman explains. "What are the things we look for: color, texture, flavor, consistency, aroma, appearance, seasoning. And sensory stuff: crunchy, soft—is it supposed to be? Is it firm? Appearance: What's the visual effect? Random and erratic, messy on purpose? Is it geometric? We're not offering positives or negatives. Then flavor—'The dish is this, this, and this.' Do you taste those things? Are they the best examples of those things, are the flavors muddled or masked? Seasoning—that's straight-up salty, sweet, bitterness, sour, umami." The chef trails off. In my mind, I calculate the work involved in perfecting a single dish: hours, days, weeks, months.
Standing around, we all look at the perfect, dark brown pretzel rolls. "Kenneth, did you try this?" Shuman asks, referring to a sous chef. "I like it a lot, but it still seems a little wet inside," Kenneth replies. Shuman continues: "Is it cooked enough? What happened to the fermented seeds? Color, texture, appearance, seasoning, consistency?" Isbell chimes in: "The color is fine, but it could be darker." While the conversation continues, I eat the roll, trying to find a flaw.
It took almost a month to nail the sunflower dish. Standing, I devour it in minutes. Poached in turnip monté, a play on beurre monté—but made from shallots, tender turnips, and a small amount of sunflower oil—the shellfish is topped with an emulsion of lobster oil and served alongside a sunflower heart (it tastes like an artichoke heart) that has been braised with carrots and onions. The turnip monté is also used to glaze the sunflower heart and baby hakurei turnips. And lastly, there's a tuile made with sunflower puree. The complexity of the dish is impossible to miss, and each ingredient somehow accentuates and amplifies the others. I taste the Earth, the ocean, and the sun that the sunflower turned to face.
OK, all sunshine and flowers aside, what about dessert? The plum dessert is Isbell's take on a southern Texas dish she calls buttermilk pie. It's pâte brisée (or pie dough) that utilizes lard in the dough to make it flaky. The lard comes from pork bones. Then buttermilk custard—similar to flan—plum fluid gel, and plums three ways: fresh, pickled, and poached (in perilla syrup).
The options for how to replace butter in a dessert can be counted on one hand: lard and oil (coconut, olive, and canola are the top three). Each of these options bring along its own set of attributes. Lard is musky, and, according to Isbell, "you can taste the difference." Coconut oil is a solid fat that you have to heat to make it workable, and it lends a taste that is impossible to mask. Olive oil lends an earthiness that you almost can't avoid, but for a moist crumb it's hard to beat.
There's no discussion of when Betony's butter-free menu will go away, but fall is here, and Shuman is likely already planning his next change.
When the pretzel roll finally passed her coworkers' muster—and her own—Isbell began serving it to diners. But it doesn't arrive to the table with butter. Instead, it comes with a whipped, house-made ricotta cheese seasoned with whole grain mustard. I tell them I think it tastes like whipped butter served in a silver cup alongside a baked potato. In other words: delicious. Who needs butter? I don't. Apparently, neither does Betony.