Chef Chat with Antony Bustamante

Reyla's executive chef explains how the restaurant's new "Four Bites” concept syncs with the way people’s sense of taste works.

Antony Bustamante in the kitchen at Reyla. Photo courtesy of Nevenn Herve-Samant

Antony Bustamante is a quiet, tattooed chef who started cooking in the Navy. He’s also the guy bringing warm-and-fuzzy communal dining back to a serious culinary setting. Bustamante is chef at Barrio Costero and its sister restaurant Reyla, a Middle Eastern restaurant in Asbury Park that opened last July and is now home to Bustamante’s “Four Bites” concept of shared plates.

Bustamante was chef at Barrio Costero when our restaurant reviewer visit last March, so we know he can create attention-demanding dishes like the rapturously simple “Sweet Potato.” But with “Four Bites,” Bustamante shifts emphasis away from the chef-to-plate-to-diner-to-Instagram (sigh) model of modern fine dining and back to something more social and gastronomically rewarding—for the chef and diner. We caught up with Bustamante in the holiday bustle to ask where the concept came from, and why now.

Table Hopping: How did you get your start?
Antony Bustamante: I joined the military right out high school. I was a cook on the ship, by choice. After a couple months, I was promoted to Captain’s Cook and did that for a year and a half. It was easy—our captain didn’t really eat much. So I tended to go into the sailor’s kitchen most of the time.

TH: You started at Barrio in October 2016, then took over Reyla. Is it a challenge, switching between Mexican and Middle Eastern?
AB: It’s a good thing I have no hair to begin with, I guess! It can be tough. I actually read a lot of books, books about other countries, history, geography. I read those to get some understanding of where food comes from.

TH: Can you describe what “Four Bites” means to you, and where you got the idea for it?
AB: I actually read it somewhere! I was reading something about the optimal temperature food should be so you can taste everything [and it] talked about this “Four Bites” thing. The theory goes after four or five bites of one dish, it gets repetitive. But the first four bites, you should be able to understand the flavors.

TH: How do you get people to take “just” four bites?
AB: We encourage our guests to have two to three plates per person. They are smaller portions, shareable portions. That’s the “Four Bites” thing—you only need a few bites of each. It keeps it fresh. And we want to educate people on Middle Eastern cuisine, [and this way] they can taste a few different things.

Chef’s Daily Assortment, with halloumi, cherry zhoug, pickled endive, Boston bibb, pistachio tahini vinaigrette, pork belly, avocado, smoked tomatillo, dandelion greens, pine nut spread, duck confit gyro, cilantro labneh, pickled vegetables, pine nuts, laffa/filet mignon kebab and fried cauliflower/salatim. Photo courtesy of Alsenio Espinal

TH: How did you implement it? Was staff ready to deal with customers who might want their own dish?
AB: It was a complete overhaul of the menu, the layout, the concept… [For staff], when we started “Four Bites,” we had a two-hour tasting the very first day. [We] explained every dish to the employees, where I got inspiration—what ethnicity, what country these dishes came from. I explained the “Four Bites” concept. Now [staff can] explain to a guest what we do and why we do it.

TH: And cooking? Do you take interplay of textures, flavors, temperatures into account?
AB: The cooking’s not much different. It’s all in the prep: we prep every single dish to where I can cook the proteins or it could be built in six minutes. But it also goes to smaller portions. But the dishes are all complete. All the flavors work.

TH: What about costs? Does it affect your margins—or guest bills?
AB: It helps diners. It helps us, too. Instead of me giving you pasta for $18, I can give you seven smaller portions. I make more and it’s something new for your eyes, your nose, and your taste buds for the next hour and a half.

TH: How often can you play with the menu, given the format?
AB: This is the first menu we went with this format. We have two new menu items in the works. We’ll probably put them in sometime in January. We want to keep customers coming back to try something new.

TH: What about presentation? Do you feel like you’re sacrificing an aesthetic with shareable plates? Is “communal” a bad word for a serious chef?
AB: The dishes don’t necessarily have to be the most beautiful looking dish. I’m not Alinea, I’m not the French Laundry. I think a lot of customers do want that, especially because people take pictures of food all the time, whether it’s cheese fries or a famous dish. I like dishes to look good, yes. I want people to feel the passion, some of the artistry I put into the dish. But when it comes down to it, it can look pretty, it can look bad, but it has to taste good.

Reyla is located at 603 Mattison Avenue in Asbury Park; 732-455-8333.

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