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Chef Scott Bryan on Greedy Landlords and What Happens When a Critic Shows Up

B.Allulli-7.jpgAnthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential has an entire chapter devoted to Scott Bryan, a "no-bullshit, no muss, no fuss, old school ass-kicking cook of the first order." Bryan, who gained a cult following at restaurants like Indigo and Veritas, is notoriously publicity-shy, but agreed to talk to mark this month's five-year anniversary of Apiary, the East Village restaurant where he's been since 2009.

I hear you love doing interviews.

Scott Bryan: Ha.

You've been called the most underrated chef in New York. Why do you hate promoting yourself?

You have to do it to a certain degree, but people get into the business nowadays because they want to be on the Food Network. It's so much smoke and mirrors and gimmicks.

There's such a high fail rate for restaurants. What's the secret to making it to five years?

Besides doing delicious food, the most important thing is to give good value and be consistent.

Doesn't having a good rent have something to do with it?

That's why most restaurants go out of business, because of leases. It's completely absurd what landlords want now. The owner of 5 Ninth in the meatpacking district started out in 2004 paying thirteen thousand a month. When he closed this year he was paying twenty thousand. Guess what the landlord wanted. Take a guess.

Sixty thousand?

Ninety-five thousand. There's no way a restaurant can pay that much and make it in that space. You're going to see more and more restaurants closing. I hear Pastis is going to close in December because the landlord wants ten million -- that's a made-up number, but it's something absurd. A branch of TD Bank, with no overhead, can pay that much but not a restaurant.

Since the cost of living is so high in New York, are you having trouble finding line cooks for your kitchen?

In the last few years it's gotten much more difficult to find staff. There are so many restaurants, too. Andrew Carmellini opens a place like Lafayette, he needs 70 cooks since he's serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. I hear he's having trouble finding good people. The pay is not good and it's a lot of work. One-third of them will drop out of the business in three or four years, just throw their hands in the air.

Have you ever thought of throwing your hands in the air?

Yes, I definitely did at one point. I opened a restaurant called Soleil on the Upper East Side and the owners wanted me to compromise on the quality of the food to bring costs down. I wouldn't do it. But I stayed in the business and opened Veritas and Indigo. Once it's in your blood you're sort of cursed. I can't go work in an office.

You haven't gone the TV/celebrity chef route.

That whole thing is a bunch of bullshit, if you ask me.

There's been so much controversy about Pete Wells' Daniel review, taking away one of his stars. Do you want to weigh in?

In my opinion, they fucked up.

Who's they?

The staff. They were too obsessed with this one guy. If what he wrote is true -- that his table got the cheese cart and his colleague's table didn't -- that should never happen. It's a four-star fucking restaurant, it should be perfect for everybody. The colleague was still paying $195 for the tasting menu and it sounds like he got service that was not up to standard.

You've worked at some four-star restaurants like Le Bernardin, Lespinasse and Bouley. What's it like when the Times' critic comes in?

If he orders duck the chef might make you cook two ducks and you give the critic the one that looks better. Usually it gets very quiet in the kitchen. Everyone really focuses and no one talks. When critics have come into my restaurants I always say make sure everything is cooked correctly and seasoned properly. If they don't like the dish, okay. Sometimes it's a matter of personal taste. You have to take it all with a grain of salt.

I've heard a lot of chefs look up to you. Who are good cooks, in your opinion?

Michael White, what he does is great. Scott Conant is a very talented guy. Ripert, Daniel, Jean-Georges. Mark Ladner at Del Posto does a good job. The sushi guy at Soto, Yasuda, 15 East, they're all super talented. I like seasonal, delicious food that's accessible. I'm not a big fan of the whole molecular cookery thing. Something that cooked in a plastic bag for three weeks doesn't do anything for me. I find a lot of chefs nowadays try a little too hard to be creative, gimmicky, and it's not something you want to eat every day. I could go to Il Buco every day. You don't have to think about it, just this very straightforward holy trinity of olive oil, lemon and salt.

Your three-course tasting menu is only $38, which is really a great deal.

It is. And Mondays are a lot of fun, when we don't charge for corkage. We get a lot of industry people and it's kind of like a little club, people bringing in really interesting wines.

Apiary has never gotten a full review from the Times for some reason. Does that bother you?

When it opened, Frank Bruni wrote a Diner's Journal piece about the place, but then the chef left and when I came on board we only got reviewed by New York magazine. You don't know what you're going to get so it's fine by me.

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