"I do this because I love what I do and I want to make people happy, and so that people can eat what I love."
There are so many paths a young chef can embark on in New York City, striking out in one direction only to take up the mantle elsewhere as age, changing trends, and opportunities shift. At M. Wells Steakhouse in Long Island City, pastry chef Bethany Costello enjoys getting to march to the beat of her own drum, eschewing a chef's coat and not conforming to a particular style.
The result is an arrangement of desserts that run the gamut from thick layered ice box cakes to a chocolate charcuterie plate. Throughout it all she's very present, lacquered with tattoos of a cupcake fighting a whisk, a Kitchenaid mixer with pink wheels, and one she shares with her sous chef, the slogan "Party Hard, Eat Like Kings."
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've sort of been in these situations where they don't trust me at all. Here they've just really trusted me with the menu and given me a lot of room to do what I want.
It definitely fuels my creativity. 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.
How do you feel you've grown as a result? I've definitely learned to take risks at this job. I thought you always had to have a specific style, and I don't really have one; I have a collection from everything that I've learned. So here I've learned to embrace everything 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 something you wouldn't have had the guts to try a year or two ago that you're psyched about now? I just put a mille-fuille on my menu—they 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. And it came out really, really great.
What was the most exciting part of that dessert for you? 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 ever put together before and I was finally 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, f--- yeah, I got it! Because it's like a puzzle for me. I like the science part of it, but desserts are puzzles to me. You can take all these things and put it together and 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 since you serve them tableside. Why add that? The dessert cart came about because Hugue had it in his mind that he'd open a steak house and get a trolley to serve cakes. 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.
And the challenge? The challenging thing is I have only 2 1/2- by 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.
Has it taught you anything? 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, but weren't on the show. What do you think it might have changed for you? I'm kind of glad I didn't do it, because there's the struggle now of being a chef on TV or being a chef. It's been a very interesting experience trying to decide which I want to be. 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. I do this because I love what I do and I want to make people happy, and so that people can eat what I love. I'd rather do that than have a million Twitter followers because I was on a TV show. It's a weird time to be doing this.
About the author: Jacqueline Raposo writes about people who make food and cooks a lot of stuff. Read full versions of past interviews and more at www.WordsFoodArt.com or tweet her out at @WordsFoodArt.