Some might call him a mad scientist. Others might call him a philosopher, passionate artist, and clever businessman. His staff calls him Chef.
Meet Craig Shelton, chef/owner of the Ryland Inn in Whitehouse, NJ. His restaurant is the first outside of Manhattan to be awarded four stars by the New York Times, he is a winner of the James Beard Award for “Best Chef Mid-Atlantic” (the equivalent of a food “Oscar”), and his face is the first to have graced the cover of Gourmet magazine.
He doesn’t care about any of that.
If you ask him why he loves to be in the kitchen, he will patiently take you aside and begin a lesson that will last for hours. It will involve tastings, drawings of protein molecules and their behavior under conditions of extreme heat, and a cerebrally challenging demonstration of his scientific prowess.
Shelton didn’t plan to spend his life behind a stove. Instead, he pursued a dual degree in Molecular Biochemistry and Biophysics from Yale and set out to be a professional scientist. That is indeed what he turned out to be, but his laboratory is gleaming with stainless steel stoves and copper pots, and his test tubes are in the shape of Reidel wine glasses.
At the Ryland Inn, there is a distinct effort to understand the “why” of cooking. Most cookbooks and culinary schools gloss over this part, as do many restaurants. Things are done a certain way simply because “that’s how it’s always been done.” In 1903, Auguste Escoffier wrote Le Guide Culinaire, considered to this day to be the Bible of cooking. Unfortunately his scientific understanding was limited by the amount of knowledge available at that time. For example, as far as he could understand it, meats should be seared to seal in the flavors and juices. If you watch the Food Network today, you will find nearly everyone repeating this mantra.
The process of searing requires a piece of meat to be cooked at high heat to create a “crust” around the outside. Theoretically, this crust seals in the juices and prevents them from being lost in the cooking process. Once the meat is cooked to a specific internal temperature, it must be left to “rest” for several minutes in order to allow the juices to redistribute through the meat.
He has proven this time and again with meats that are perfectly cooked with even coloring throughout rather than the “rings” of color typical of a seared piece of meat. The result is more tender, more succulent, and more delicious than any I’ve tasted elsewhere.
It is Shelton’s nature as a scientist to question everything. Rules be damned, he develops his own theories. As a young cook working in fine restaurants, he noticed that dishes were often sent back during the latter hours of dinner service. Most of the time they were oversalted. He considered this problem, and set out to formulate an objective way to salt foods based on a physiological analysis of the behavior of the salivary glands.
The accepted method for salting foods is to add a little bit at a time, then taste, and continue to do this until you can just taste the first hints of salt. However, if you are cooking 200 dinners in a four-hour period, your tastebuds are desensitized and build a higher resistance to the taste over time. One way to combat this is to drink a lot of water to cleanse the palate, or eat something acidic to do the same.
Shelton’s method goes beyond this. He tells his cooks to pay close attention to their salivary glands when salting a dish. Once the glands are activated by the salt in the food and the cooks can feel the saliva being released into their mouths, the dish is properly seasoned. It is an objective, physiological method that is extremely reliable, and the proof is in the dining room. While most restaurants have several dishes a night sent back to the kitchen, The Ryland Inn averages about one per year.
Although it would take many pages to explain the science behind it, to put it simply, the acidity of the lemon wedge balanced and enhanced the finish of the French chardonnay, but made the American chardonnay virtually unpalatable. The sugar did it no better a service. The coating of the blue cheese in my mouth mellowed the tannins in the Bordeaux red, leaving a beautiful, smooth finish on my palate. It was like magic.
All of this might seem deceptively simple — follow the science and there will never be a mistake. This assumption is incorrect. According to Shelton, there is a marked difference between a kitchen and a laboratory. “In a lab, a scientist holds one or two variables constant and is thus able to accurately measure what is happening in a given experiment. In a kitchen, the total number of variables is unknown. There are effects from a food’s growing environment, such as subtle differences in the chemical makeup of the soil, or variations in the composition of feeds used to raise a herd of cattle. These differences are not readily apparent. As a result, although we approach cooking scientifically, we can only attempt to get as close to the truth as possible.”
Every movement is precisely calculated by each cook, down to the most efficient angle at which he should bend to pull something from the oven. The effect of this mindset results in an assembly line that could put most industrial factories to shame. To see the process unfold in real time is mesmerizing.
Craig Shelton employs methods to calibrate his factory by thinking like a Chief Operating Officer. Every aspect of the kitchen and dining room has been assigned a quantifiable measurement, down to the number of napkins server X uses during dinner service, and the number of bass filets chef Y has burned during the last six months. Such measures enable Shelton to review 256 pages of data each morning to determine where problems occur and how they can be fixed.
This level of conscientiousness is what allows the Ryland Inn to maintain a level of service that is virtually untouchable by most restaurants. He takes the time to sweat every detail, and the results are magnificent.
One might think that such a level of analysis and precision would create a work environment that is depersonalized and cold. Think again. There is one critical aspect of Shelton’s business that makes it distinctly different from any laboratory or assembly line, and it is probably the most important reason for his restaurant’s endurance. It is the people factor.
His staff is extremely appreciative of the results. His employee turnover rate is very low in an industry where the average can be as high as 125% per year. His dining room hostess has been with him for over a decade, and his Chef de Cuisine, Raj, is probably the most highly trained sous chef in America today.
Shelton’s intensity and desire to teach are a magnet to a hungry mind, and eight or nine hours can easily pass while one is entranced in his explanations and theories. His staff calls it “the vortex.” I get caught in it every time I visit. Whenever I leave his kitchen, I do so in a state of awe, and find my mind racing with the thoughts of all I’ve learned, as well as another set of questions to ask next time. Like how he can stand with his back to the stove and “hear” that a piece of meat is being overcooked. I always forget to ask about that.
Craig Shelton is a rare find in an industry plagued with copycats, megalomaniacs, and people who have made a career out of creating cults of personality. His establishment is an anomaly in a field that follows certain formulas because “that’s how it’s always been done.” Shelton has written his own formulas, and they work with a precision and finesse that leaves most restaurants in the dust.
Jennifer Iannolo is a passionate gastronome, food writer, and entrepreneur. She has spent the last decade collaborating with the world's leading chefs, and has received numerous accolades for her business success, most recently in the New York Times bestseller Secrets of the Young & Successful. More of Jennifer's work can be found on her web site, Gastronomic Meditations.