Tyler Lyne, executive chef at Neuman's Kitchen, has been working in restaurants since he was a teenager. His philosophy toward food and catering — honed in Michelin-starred kitchens — prioritizes storytelling through food, with an emphasis on ‘simple, honest’ cooking. His wife and business partner, Jennifer Lyne, is a pastry chef and he jokingly calls their union the perfect pairing of sweet and savory.
We talked to him about catering major events, molecular gastronomy, and working against Instagram gimmicks.
The Vendry: Is it hard to find clients that want the “simple, honest” food you specialize in? Are they looking for something more flashy?
Lyne: I find that people actually gravitate towards it. When you have an event people are averse to things that are outside of the box because they have to cater to a group of people and a lot of opinions. They tend towards the classics. Take something as simple as apple pie, if you can do apple pie in a really cool way, you’re hitting it on two levels.
The Vendry: What are the pressures that go along with the phenomenon of food having to be Instagrammable? How does it impact client expectations?
Lyne: People look at chefs as artists, right? And the problem with that statement is that art is based on inspiration. So, if I'm a great artist, there might be a week between great works or there might be 20 years between my great works. Artists are working tirelessly trying to come up with their next work of their own. That puts them on the map.
Chefs are still technically considered craftsmen. And being craftsmen, you don't have the luxury of waiting until inspiration strikes. Chefs have to perform every single day, every service. That person coming in and sitting down to eat a meal is expecting greatness. There’s the paradox: chefs are craftsmen and you can't force inspiration. So saying I need the next Instagrammable moment is like saying you need the next great work. It’s not feasible. It’s not replicable every day. Instead, clients should ask for an excellent meal. When you’re sitting down and you have a great meal, you remember it for the rest of your life. It’s the simple things that make it memorable.
The Vendry: When clients come to you, do they know what story they want to tell or do you have to help them with that?
Lyne: I mine that information from them by asking good questions. Are we the right fit to deliver what they’re looking for? When you have to force it, it may not be the right job. The problem in the catering industry (and elsewhere) is that everybody is so hungry for everything, so everyone is saying yes to everything and that's a big mistake.
The Vendry: What is the biggest piece of advice you would give somebody that is new to catering?
Lyne: Be methodical and cook with purpose. Every step in plating a dish is a touch. Garnishes quickly add up. Do the math in the beginning and see whether it yields a desirable result because you have to get the food out in a timely fashion. If I had to go back to the very beginning, I would have started with that right away and built beautiful dishes by consolidating touches.
The Vendry: Speaking of energy, you teach molecular gastronomy. Is that something you are able to use in catering large events, since it’s so complicated?
Lyne: Being a chef is like being a chemist. If you know the rules of the substances you work with, you will get the results you want. When I was young I experimented with molecular gastronomy for the sake of doing it. I would sit on the train and think about the coolest thing I could come up with then try things out at the restaurant I was working at. Then I began tailoring that technique to its perfect medium, which is only using molecular gastronomy where it is the best choice.
A great example is hollandaise sauce. With the right technique, you can cool down a hollandaise and put it in a squeeze bottle. So let's say we're going to do a Oysters Rockefeller, and then on-site you have this stable, emulsion of hollandaise in a squeeze bottle that you can then squirt on all your Oysters Rockefeller, throw them in an oven to heat them up and then serve them. You’re using this molecular gastronomy, but nobody would ever know that this is what you're doing. People are going to get this Oysters Rockefeller and think, "Wow, this is a beautiful Oysters Rockefeller with a great hollandaise on it." You’re using science to help you make better food.
The Vendry: What are you most looking forward to in the future of catering?
Lyne: Imagine you’re eating a dish of seafood while at the same time, in crystal clear, high fidelity sound you are listening to waves crashing on a beach. Maybe the distant cooing of a seagull. That’s a transcendent experience. It transports you to another location. It may dig up a deep, dark secret or memory of yours from when you were a kid and you went on a vacation with your family every summer to Cape Cod. But that memory is totally intimate to you. If you sat down with 16 people they are going to have 16 different experiences of the meal. To me, the future of catering is not Instagrammable moments but rather to cook from the soul and to use technology to add a fourth dimension to the experience – whether sound, color, video or smell.
Everyone is after the gimmick, but a gimmick is a short-term return. You can only do it once or twice before people want to know what’s next. We've been eating good food for the last thousand years and we'll eat it for the next thousand. Just cook good stuff and provide good service! That’s old-school hospitality.