CRAIG SHELTON

Corrections or additions?

This article by Pat Tanner was prepared for the October 18, 2000

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Ryland’s Shelton, Chef/CEO

He likens himself alternately to a football coach,

an orchestra conductor, a drill sergeant, a parent, a child playing

at being a grown up, and the CEO of a Fortune 100 company. To most

of the world he is simply New Jersey’s most acclaimed chef. Craig

Shelton of the Ryland Inn in Whitehouse has graced the cover of

Gourmet

magazine, was named best chef in the mid-Atlantic region by the James

Beard Foundation, and is one of only eight American chefs dubbed

"Relais

Gourmand" (and only one of 60 named worldwide) by the prestigious

international rating organization, Relais & Chateaux.

Since Shelton took over the reins of the Hunterdon County restaurant

in 1991, it has consistently captured top slots in "best of"

lists of every major restaurant survey. Yet in a recent conversation

at the famed "inn," Shelton claims that the one thing he never

envisioned for himself was operating a restaurant in the hinterlands

of New Jersey.

"I was never looking to open a stand-alone restaurant outside

of New York City," says Shelton, emphatically. "The truth

of it is there is no logical reason that there should be fine dining

outside of major metropolitan cities. It makes no sense; it is failure

by design."

This situation, he says, has nothing to do with a lack of

sophisticated

clientele — a widely held idea he calls "benighted" —

and everything to do with economics. The only way it works, he says,

is for a restaurant to be attached to a hotel, and cites as an example

the Inn at Little Washington in Virginia. The Ryland Inn, despite

its suggestive name, offers no accommodations.

"Our economic formulas between hotels and restaurants are so

debased,"

Shelton continues. "In America, a dinner must cost one-third to

one-half the price of an equivalent dinner in France. Lunch? We expect

it to be about one-tenth of what Europeans pay. On the other hand,

Americans happily pay $3,000 for a luxury hotel suite — of which

$2,500 is pure profit — while complaining bitterly about a $250

meal." He claims that it is not unusual for a successful

fine-dining

establishment to expect only a 10 percent profit, and that in many

instances the cost of goods exceeds price. "Gastronomy in America

is a loss leader," he exclaims. "Few, if any, four-star

restaurants

are not highly subsidized."

"In the 1980s and 1990s quality restaurants were failing at a

high rate. Maybe one out of ten made it, and they were making a 10

to 20 percent profit, at best. It’s not a leverageable business like,

say, computer software. It’s an artisanal craft." Shelton bemoans

the fact that, "no matter how many racks of lamb I make, I’m going

to have the same labor and materials costs." And these costs,

he adds, will be as great as, if not more than, those for restaurants

in major cities.

So what forces impelled Shelton, despite these daunting conditions,

to take on in 1991 a struggling establishment with a middling

reputation,

just off Route 22? That’s the focal point of our interview, which

is scheduled for one hour at Shelton’s restaurant, housed in a

200-year-old

white clapboard structure in a rural setting but still within sight

of busy Route 22. For the first 20 minutes of the allotted time, this

reporter waits for Shelton in a comfortable private dining room. When

Shelton finally arrives and learns that the reporter is interested

in the business side of the operation as much as the food, he moves

the interview to a conference room, where, he says, "there are

hard surfaces" for making charts and diagrams. The interview lasts

more than three hours, beginning with the question about the move

from New York to New Jersey.

"I had been chef de cuisine at Le Bouley for three years. An

investor

there proposed to invest in me. I looked at several hundred spaces

in New York City. Simultaneously, I was looking in New Jersey, where

I had a dream of having a country restaurant or a small luxury hotel

with a boutique restaurant," Shelton begins.

"I went to some friends who worked on Wall Street," Shelton

explains, "I told them I needed a location with massive corporate

support nearby." He had concluded that was the only way a

stand-alone

fine-dining venture could succeed. "I asked them to name the three

or four industries that would grow over the next decade." They

named financial services, telecommunications, and pharmaceuticals.

"So I asked them, where is the world epicenter for each of these

industries. They told me they were all at the same place — the

crossroads of Routes 287 and 78 in New Jersey. Bonanza! I drew a

compass.

The Ryland Inn is four miles from those crossroads."

Simultaneously, the land developer who had bought the Ryland Inn and

50 surrounding acres in 1989 was struggling. The developer had made

an initial investment of $2.5 million, followed that with a $5 million

upgrade of the restaurant, and then, says Shelton, the market had

"tanked." The partners hired Dennis Foy, a restaurant

consultant

who was known for a restaurant in Chatham, the Tarragon Tree, that

was highly regarded. Foy referred the partners to Shelton, then at

Le Bouley and still in search of that restaurant. They made an offer

to make him an equal partner if he could merely make the restaurant

break even. There was no financial plan. "Thank God I was young

and stupid," Shelton says today.

The hard part, Shelton claims, was not affording the Limoges, the

Riedel glasses, or the set of Bourgeat pots for the kitchen. It was

inculcating a four-star frame of mind into the brigade of 12 chefs,

all male, that staffed the small, dated kitchen.

How did he do it? He playfully mentions a paddle the

size of an oar. Shelton tells of making one cook wear Teflon-lined

oven mitts for days on end for every task, including mincing shallots,

because the poor fellow had complained about singeing his hands.

"In the European model, you have one cook for every three patrons.

But I promised not to lose money, which meant that on Saturday nights,

when we would have several hundred covers, I would have one cook for

every 25 seats.

"I needed to get 1,000 percent productivity out of my cooks,

without

affecting quality," he says. "My main job is managing human

resources. I don’t consider what I’ve accomplished as extraordinary;

what our team has done is extraordinary."

This is where he mentions football and the Oliver Stone movie,

"Any

Given Sunday." "Every day we had to work on speed and quality.

I screamed every day. I told them, we’re going to pick up 26 plates

in four minutes. If at the end of four minutes only 25 plates are

up and one is missing, I will throw all 25 in the garbage. I did

it!"

he says, eyes ablaze.

Asked why any cook would tolerate such treatment, he mentions the

Navy Seals. "That is what a four-star kitchen is like. Exhaustion,

cuts, blood, people passing out from the heat," he says. "But

at the end of the day, you’ve tested your mettle, you’ve looked to

your core."

Shelton, now 40, grew up in Rye Beach, New Hampshire.

He cites his father as his role model for strong ethics and a

commitment

to integrity. The father of two himself, Shelton describes his father,

who worked on navigation systems for submarines at the Portsmouth

naval yard, as "a strong disciplinarian and a Yankee through and

through."

His passion for cooking, on the other hand, comes from his mother,

who is French. "My grandmother still lives in France. My

grandparents

had a restaurant in Cognac; she cooked and her husband ran the front

of the house," he says. "My strongest emotional memories are

of sitting in that restaurant." To this day he has dual

citizenship.

Shelton graduated from Yale in 1982 with degrees in molecular

biophysics

and biochemistry. He had been pre-med at Yale but — as he has

explained — his passion for cooking simply took over. By the early

1990s, Shelton had trained with the finest European chefs, including

Joel Rubochon and Paul Haeberlin, and in top American establishments,

such as Le Bernardin, Bouley, Le Chantilly, and the Rainbow Room in

New York.

Shelton is proud of the care he takes in thoroughly training his

staff,

and takes a parent’s pride in the many who have gone on to establish

names for themselves, such as James Laird of Restaurant Serenade in

Chatham and Patrick Yves Pierre-Jerome of Stage Left in New Brunswick.

Ryland Inn alumnus Michael Schlow captured this year’s Beard award

as best chef in the Northeast for his work at Radius in Boston.

The accomplishment, other than mentoring, of which Craig Shelton is

most proud does not, surprisingly, center around his food, or even

the inn’s acclaimed three-acre, certified organic garden. "I have

been able to equalize demand throughout the week," says this

businessman.

"In the beginning, demand was just for Saturday nights — and

only peak hours. Now we try for 150 personal dinners every night,

and we’re coming real close to that. It’s a miracle — I can

finally

have a right-sized business," he concludes.

Much of that midweek business comes from those pharmaceutical,

financial

services, and telecommunications giants that surround the Ryland Inn.

Shelton identifies with the CEOs of those companies, and has put into

place a tripartite organization matrix that rivals that of any Fortune

500 company.

Tellingly, the top administrator is David Merves, the chief financial

officer, who has an MBA and came to the Ryland Inn 18 months ago.

Shelton estimates that these days he spends no more than 20 percent

of his time in the kitchen, but he considers this his "play"

time. Cooking, he explains, allows him to appear grown up, even though

he feels he hasn’t in actuality. (Shelton has two children, Olivia

10, and William, almost 2. His wife, Isabelle, also assists at the

restaurant.)

Having a stable customer base has allowed Shelton to refine the scope

of his food and, he believes, improve its quality. The Ryland Inn

menu currently centers around three tasting menus: traditional,

vegetarian,

and gourmand. Each menu contains 8 to 10 dishes, including such

exotica

as cock’s combs, monkfish livers, and a Marguerita of white chocolate,

lovage, and thyme. Each has a base price ($88 for the traditional

menu), but it can increase to as much as $150 per person if diners

opt for one of two suggested wine packages.

Reflecting on the path that led to this point, Shelton says, "it

some ways, it was a happy accident. I wound up looking for a country

place, somewhat in distress. We agreed upon a risky venture —

a self-financed project. We made no apologies for being in the

country.

We found an extraordinary group of (mostly) young people who would

work for less money in order to hone their skills and for emotional

fulfillment."

"Yet," says this highly acclaimed chef and successful business

professional, "I’m still disappointed. I’m still far away from

my creative peak. I hope I’m capable of a lot more."

— Pat Tanner

Top Of Page
CRAIG SHELTON

He likens himself alternately to a football coach, an orchestra

conductor, a drill sergeant, a parent, a child playing at being a

grown up, and the CEO of a Fortune 100 company. To most of the world

he is simply New Jersey’s most acclaimed chef. Craig Shelton of the

Ryland Inn in Whitehouse has graced the cover of Gourmet magazine, was

named best chef in the mid-Atlantic region by the James Beard

Foundation, and is one of only eight American chefs dubbed "Relais

Gourmand" (and only one of 60 named worldwide) by the prestigious

international rating organization, Relais & Chateaux.

Since Shelton took over the reins of the Hunterdon County restaurant

in 1991, it has consistently captured top slots in "best of" lists of

every major restaurant survey. Yet in a recent conversation at the

famed "inn," Shelton claims that the one thing he never envisioned for

himself was operating a restaurant in the hinterlands of New Jersey.

"I was never looking to open a stand-alone restaurant outside of New

York City," says Shelton, emphatically. "The truth of it is there is

no logical reason that there should be fine dining outside of major

metropolitan cities. It makes no sense; it is failure by design."

This situation, he says, has nothing to do with a lack of

sophisticated clientele — a widely held idea he calls "benighted" —

and everything to do with economics. The only way it works, he says,

is for a restaurant to be attached to a hotel, and cites as an example

the Inn at Little Washington in Virginia. The Ryland Inn, despite its

suggestive name, offers no accommodations.

"Our economic formulas between hotels and restaurants are so debased,"

Shelton continues. "In America, a dinner must cost one-third to

one-half the price of an equivalent dinner in France. Lunch? We expect

it to be about one-tenth of what Europeans pay. On the other hand,

Americans happily pay $3,000 for a luxury hotel suite — of which

$2,500 is pure profit — while complaining bitterly about a $250

meal." He claims that it is not unusual for a successful fine-dining

establishment to expect only a 10 percent profit, and that in many

instances the cost of goods exceeds price. "Gastronomy in America is a

loss leader," he exclaims. "Few, if any, four-star restaurants are not

highly subsidized."

"In the 1980s and 1990s quality restaurants were failing at a high

rate. Maybe one out of ten made it, and they were making a 10 to 20

percent profit, at best. It’s not a leverageable business like, say,

computer software. It’s an artisanal craft." Shelton bemoans the fact

that, "no matter how many racks of lamb I make, I’m going to have the

same labor and materials costs." And these costs, he adds, will be as

great as, if not more than, those for restaurants in major cities.

So what forces impelled Shelton, despite these daunting conditions, to

take on in 1991 a struggling establishment with a middling reputation,

just off Route 22? That’s the focal point of our interview, which is

scheduled for one hour at Shelton’s restaurant, housed in a

200-year-old white clapboard structure in a rural setting but still

within sight of busy Route 22. For the first 20 minutes of the

allotted time, this reporter waits for Shelton in a comfortable

private dining room. When Shelton finally arrives and learns that the

reporter is interested in the business side of the operation as much

as the food, he moves the interview to a conference, where "there are

hard surfaces" for making charts and diagrams. The interview lasts

more than three hours, beginning with the question about the move from

New York to New Jersey.

"I had been chef de cuisine at Bouley for three years. An investor

there proposed to invest in me. I looked at several hundred spaces in

New York City. Simultaneously, I was looking in New Jersey, where I

had a dream of having a country restaurant or a small luxury hotel

with a boutique restaurant," Shelton begins.

"I went to some friends who worked on Wall Street," Shelton explains,

"I told them I needed a location with massive corporate support

nearby." He had concluded that was the only way a stand-alone

fine-dining venture could succeed. "I asked them to name the three or

four industries that would grow over the next decade." They named

financial services, telecommunications, and pharmaceuticals. "So I

asked them, where is the world epicenter for each of these industries.

They told me they were all at the same place — the crossroads of

Routes 287 and 78 in New Jersey. Bonanza! I drew a compass. The Ryland

Inn is four miles from those crossroads."

Simultaneously, the land developer who had bought the Ryland Inn and

50 surrounding acres in 1989 was struggling. The developer had made an

initial

investment of $2.5 million, followed that with a $5 million upgrade of

the restaurant, and then, says Shelton, the market had "tanked." The

partners hired Dennis Foy, a restaurant consultant who was known for a

restaurant in Chatham, the Tarragon Tree, that was highly regarded.

Foy referred the partners to Shelton, then at Le Bouley and still in

search of that restaurant. They made an offer to make him an equal

partner if he could merely make the restaurant break even. There was

no financial plan. "Thank God I was young and stupid," Shelton says

today.

The hard part, Shelton claims, was not affording the Limoges, the

Riedel glasses, or the set of Bourgeat pots for the kitchen. It was

inculcating a four-star frame of mind into the brigade of 12 chefs,

all male, that staffed the small, dated kitchen.

How did he do it? He playfully mentions a paddle the size of an oar.

Shelton tells of making one cook wear Teflon-lined oven mitts for days

on end for every task, including mincing shallots, because the poor

fellow had complained about singeing his hands.

"In the European model, you have one cook for every three patrons. But

I promised not to lose money, which meant that on Saturday nights,

when we would have several hundred covers, I would have one cook for

every 25 seats.

"I needed to get 1,000 percent productivity out of my cooks, without

affecting quality," he says. "My main job is managing human resources.

I don’t consider what I’ve accomplished as extraordinary; what our

team has done is extraordinary."

This is where he mentions football and the Oliver Stone movie, "Any

Given Sunday." "Every day we had to work on speed and quality. I

screamed every day. I told them, we’re going to pick up 26 plates in

four minutes. If at the end of four minutes only 25 plates are up and

one is missing, I will throw all 25 in the garbage. I did it!" he

says, eyes ablaze.

Asked why any cook would tolerate such treatment, he mentions the Navy

Seals. "That is what a four-star kitchen is like. Exhaustion, cuts,

blood, people passing out from the heat," he says. "But at the end of

the day, you’ve tested your mettle, you’ve looked to your core."

Shelton, now 40, grew up in Rye Beach, New Hampshire. He

cites his father as his role model for strong ethics and a commitment

to integrity. The father of two himself, Shelton describes his father,

who worked on navigation systems for submarines at the Portsmouth

naval yard, as "a strong disciplinarian and a Yankee through and

through."

His passion for cooking, on the other hand, comes from his mother, who

is French. "My grandmother still lives in France. My grandparents had

a restaurant in Cognac; she cooked and her husband ran the front of

the house," he says. "My strongest emotional memories are of sitting

in that restaurant." To this day he has dual citizenship.

Shelton graduated from Yale in 1982 with degrees in molecular

biophysics and biochemistry. He had been pre-med at Yale but — as he

has explained — his passion for cooking simply took over. By the

early 1990s, Shelton had trained with the finest European chefs,

including Joel Rubochon and Paul Haeberlin, and in top American

establishments, such as Le Bernardin, Bouley, Le Chantilly, and the

Rainbow Room in New York.

Shelton is proud of the care he takes in thoroughly training his

staff, and takes a parent’s pride in the many who have gone on to

establish names for themselves, such as James Laird of Restaurant

Serenade in Chatham and Patrick Yves Pierre-Jerome of Stage Left in

New Brunswick. Ryland Inn alumnus Michael Schlow captured this year’s

Beard award as best chef in the Northeast for his work at Radius in

Boston.

The accomplishment, other than mentoring, of which Craig Shelton is

most proud does not, surprisingly, center around his food, or even the

inn’s acclaimed three-acre, certified organic garden. "I have been

able to equalize demand throughout the week," says this erudite

businessman. "In the beginning, demand was just for Saturday nights –

and only peak hours on that night. Now, we try for 150 in personal

dinners every night, and we’re coming real close to that. It’s a

miracle — I can finally have a right-sized business," he concludes.

Much of that midweek business comes from those pharmaceutical,

financial services, and telecommunications giants that surround the

Ryland Inn. Shelton identifies with the CEOs of those companies, and

has put into place a tripartite organization matrix that rivals that

of any Fortune 500 company.

Tellingly, the top administrator is David Merves, the chief financial

officer, who has an MBA and came to the Ryland Inn 18 months ago.

Shelton estimates that these days he spends no more than 20 percent of

his time in the kitchen, but he considers this his "play" time.

Cooking, he explains, allows him to appear grown up, even though he

feels he hasn’t in actuality. (Shelton has two children, Olivia 10,

and William, almost 2. His wife, Isabelle, also assists at the

restaurant.)

Having a stable customer base has allowed Shelton to refine the scope

of his food and, he believes, improve its quality. The Ryland Inn menu

currently centers around three tasting menus: traditional, vegetarian,

and gourmand. Each menu contains 8 to 10 dishes, including such

exotica as cock’s combs, monkfish livers, and a Marguerita of white

chocolate, lovage, and thyme. Each has a base price ($88 for the

traditional menu), but it can increase to as much as $150 per person

if diners opt for one of two suggested wine packages.

Reflecting on the path that led to this point, Shelton says, "it some

ways, it was a happy accident. I wound up looking for a country place,

somewhat in distress. We agreed upon a risky venture — a

self-financed project. We made no apologies for being in the country.

We found an extraordinary group of (mostly) young people who would

work for less money in order to hone their skills and for emotional

fulfillment."

"Yet," says this highly acclaimed chef and successful business

professional, "I’m still disappointed. I’m still far away from my

creative peak. I hope I’m capable of a lot more."

— Pat Tanner


Previous Story Next Story


Corrections or additions?


This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com

— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.

Facebook Comments