You can learn a lot about a person through a phone call in a Subaru parking lot.
A dessert cart, tattoos of a cupcake and whisk fighting each other cartoon-style and a Kitchenaid mixer with pink wheels and a skull and crossbones, and a no-chef’s-jacket air of “I just make fucking pastry!” about sums up what I learned about Chef Bethany Costello, with an iPad of questions in my lap and an old headset in my ear.
A lot of chefs talk about putting themselves on the right path in their careers, working their way up the brigade-style system to reach whatever goals they or their mentors set out for them. Life, in general, often expects people to work that way, counting achievement by checks marked off on lists we bind ourselves to. But, sometimes, achievement comes from just saying “yes” to a challenge, and letting life take you in one direction and then another, enjoying whatever stage you’re at in the process.
Such seems the trajectory that landed Costello at M. Wells steakhouse, the lauded restaurant in Queens that’s hard to find but always packed to the brim. She’s got a pretty cool story to share. So here’s the long version of our talk, cut for my column on Serious Eats.
Bethany Costello’s Got an Interesting Kitchen
Taken March, 2014
You get to do a cool variety of desserts at M. Wells, and the environment seems rather original. What stands out to you comparatively from others you’ve worked in?
This is definitely the closest kitchen I’ve worked in. It’s so much fun. I’ve worked for chefs who see me kind of as a little girl since I am young – I’m only 27 – so I’ve sort of been in these situations where they don’t trust me at all. I sort of accidentally got the job at M. Wells, and they’ve just really trusted me with the menu and given me a lot of room to do what I want.
You accidentally got the job?
Yeah, it’s kinda a great story. I’d quit my job because it wasn’t for me, and taken a month long break from the business and kind of convinced myself I’d be a flight attendant instead. I’d travel the world, and it’d be totally fine; I’d totally walk away from this. And then I got a call from my chocolate purveyor who needed help with some cakes for an event, and it turned out to be the New Yorker anniversary party that M. Wells was putting on. So I went in for three days and made these ridiculous black forest cakes, and Hugue said he didn’t have a pastry chef and asked if I wanted to work for him and I was like, “Yeah, whatever”. I’d never gone to M. Wells and had been out of the restaurant arena for about a year at that point, so I was just kind of not into it. Then I found out what M. Wells was and was like, “Oh shit; it would kind of be insane to work there.”
How does the close-knit kitchen fit with what you want to be doing?
It definitely fuels my creativity a lot. Also I’m a big believer in that the emotions you have for the day go into your food. I know it sounds kind of ridiculous, but we listen to Spotify all day and dance around and sing and just have a good time doing what we do, and I feel that really translates into the food. We’re not in a like a traditional stuffy kitchen environment; I don’t wear a chef’s jacket. We’re really lax about a lot of things like that. We’re all there for the food; we’re not there for being pretentious.
What kind of music?
Depends on the day, but we listen to a lot of nineties rock, and some days we’ll do 60’s music, or punk rock, or days where it’s just rave music or small bands. When you stand in a tiny room for 10-12 hours a day, you learn to discover a lot of different genres of music.
How do you feel you’ve grown as a result?
I’ve definitely learned to take risks at this job. I thought you always have a specific style. People would ask me, “What’s your specific style?” And I don’t really have one. I have a collection from everything that I’ve learned that has turned me into the chef I am. So here I really just kind of learned to take everything and embrace it and take a chance, and say, “Well, I don’t know if this will work, but let’s try today and see what happens.” It’s really helped me not be intimidated by my job.
Is there an example of that now on your menu? Maybe something you wouldn’t have the guts to try a year or two ago that you’re psyched about now?
I just put a mille-feuille on my menu… My cooks made fun of me because I called it a “mil-ee fwee”, and I was like, “I’m not French, so I’m not going to pronounce it this way. Sorry guys.” In the past I probably would have stuck with a very French dessert and thought I couldn’t branch out. But now I did a baklava filling with a Greek yogurt and elderflower mousse and a pistachio buttercream, so it’s a collection of Austrian and Turkish flavors mixed into a French dessert. I wouldn’t have really thought before that I could be like, “I really like these things and they go well together so let’s see what happens.” And it came out really, really great.
The chef de cuisine and I will also collaborate on working with sweet and savory, which is something I would have never done before. We did a kaiserschmarrn – an Austrian dish – and put seared foie gras on it with this awesome vanilla blackberry jam ice cream that’s awesome. I’d never had a chance to work with a savory side, which is crazy for me; I can’t do savory at all. So having people there saying ‘let’s blend our flavors together’ is very neat.
What puts a dessert over the edge in your book?
My big thing is texture. I have to make sure that there’s a differentiation of textures in my desserts. And balance, too. And salt is a big thing for me, too, because I feel it’s underused in pastry and people are scared to put it in, but a little bit really brings out the flavors and gives balance.
When do you get really excited about a dessert that you’re making?
I’ll use the mille-feuille for example again, because I couldn’t get the balance of flavors together. I’d been racking my brain all week, and I was walking my way down from the subway trying to remember all the flavors I’d put together before and I finally was like, “Well, what if I put this and this and this together?!” And I was on the corner and actually did a fist bump in the air, like, “Fuck yeah, I got it!” Because it’s like a puzzle for me. I like the science part of it, but deserts are puzzles to me. You can take all these things and put them together but it’s the last thing that will really make it work. It’s like I’ve cracked the code – Yeah! Got it done!
I love the pictures of you and the dessert cart, which I would assume gives you more of a direct connection with your guests than most pastry chefs. Why add that and what’s the advantage?
The dessert cart came about because Hugue had it in his mind that he’d open a steak house and get a trolly to serve cakes. So I searched around and found one in Toronto that I really loved, but it was gold and $7,000. So we got one of the installers at the MoMa to custom build one for us; I drew him the worst picture, and was like, “Can you make this?” And it ended up coming out beautifully and exactly what we wanted.
The challenging thing is I have only 2 ½ x 3 feet to put 8 desserts into. So spacing was an issue. I haven’t had as much time to do service, but when I did it was very interesting, because I’d never worked front of the house before. I would go to the table and talk to the people about the desserts, and they would stop and ask me what my favorite was, and I could never pick a favorite. So I’d say, “I don’t have one, it’s like asking to pick a favorite child, but this is the one I had for breakfast today.” The whole actually having to serve plates when you’re not used to it… I’d come to the table, nervous, and always forget silverware or something.
Is there anything you’ve learned from that, that you’re better at now than you were before?
I’ve learned that some people are very awkward when a chef comes to the table; they don’t know how to interact with you, and that would make me really nervous. But now that I can answer questions with a stock list of answers I’m fine, because that was probably my hardest part. And also how to take a good picture. Because there are some bad dessert cart pictures of me out there.
You auditioned for Top Chef: Just Desserts back in 2009. What was the impetus for that? Your hopes?
I actually went into it not expecting anything. My whole family wanted me to go into it, so I did it just to see what would happen. TV kind of scares me a little bit, the whole production of it, but I thought when I went on I could be the character; the young white girl who was sorta quirky, that was my thing. But it was really intimidating, because I didn’t know if I could work under pressure and was still a line cook. Everything about it made me nervous.
I ended up filming a TV show pilot last summer; the show Unwrapped with Marc Somers did a pilot for a game show spinoff, where you recreate Hostess products. That was right up my alley; I love Hostess. We did Twinkies, and I won the first round and lost the second round, but I didn’t care because I got to hang out with Marc Somers the whole day. I was like, oh my god, Marc Somers is here. At one point I think I said, “I’d like to take the Physical Challenge, please.”
Do you think Top Chef would have changed something for you?
I don’t have any regrets. I’m kind of glad I didn’t do it, because there’s the struggle now of going to be a chef on TV or going to be a chef. It’s been a very interesting experience trying to decide which I want to be. I got asked to do Chopped and had to sit down and decide, “Do I want to be known just for being on TV or do I want to be known for my food?” And working at M. Wells I made this decision that I want to be known for what I make, and not because people watched me on TV. That was kind of my thing. I do this because I love what I do and I want to make people happy, and so people can eat what I love. I’d rather do that and have a million Twitter followers because I was on a TV show. It’s a weird time to be doing this.