Marc Anthony Bynum has been cooking his tail off since he was 15 and got a job at Margo & Frank's Mermaid in Freeport. "I was working the saute station on Friday and Saturday nights," he said. "It was trial by fire - literally."
Since then, Bynum has cut a wide swath through Long Island's restaurant community, working in nearly a dozen kitchens: upmarket (Four Food Studio, Melville) and down (Boston Market, Farmingdale), South Shore (780 Grill, Long Beach) and North (Rookie's Sports Bar, Huntington), where he first started attracting attention. He worked for six months as sous chef at Prime in Huntington, one of three high-end restaurants owned by the Bohlsen family, and in September the Bohlsens plucked him to take over the kitchen at their three-star Islip flagship, Tellers Chophouse.
Bynum is now 30 years old and has been cooking professionally for half his life. Most weeks, he works seven days straight. He can't remember the last time he took a vacation. His punishing schedule and slow, steady ascent are in direct contrast to many young chefs' get-famous-quick schemes. "I call it a microwave mentality," he says. "Everyone wants to be a superstar right now."
He doesn't want to be a superstar?
"I do," he says, flashing a wicked grin, "but my motives are pure."
The language of success
It would come as no surprise if Bynum did rise to culinary superstardom. He is handsome, charming, inspirational and funny with a supply of catchphrases itching to catch on. "Negative, captain," is his cordial variation on "no." "Bah-shay" is a multipurpose exclamation, signaling encouragement or approval, which has been adopted by his kitchen crew. "Bah-shay, my man," Bynum might say to a prep cook who was making fast work of a pile of potatoes.
"That is smooth," is how he characterizes a great dish, a great idea or a great electronic device - for example, his own Palm Pre, which he uses to snap photos of platings he is particularly proud of, photos he might share via Twitter, Facebook or on his blog, mbynumcreations.blogspot.com.
Bynum has mastered kitchen Spanish, the lingua Franca of the American restaurant, though it's a subject he said he failed at Farmingdale High School.
Son of Farmingdale
Bynum was born and raised in Farmingdale, the third of five children. He credits the town's multicultural populace and harmonious vibe for "teaching me to get along with everybody." In high school, he played football and basketball, wrestled and ran track. The experience of team sports has helped him immeasurably. "Having to rely on somebody else, that's what running a kitchen is all about."
But he was not an academic star. His salvation came in the form of a vocation education. The Levittown Memorial Education Center offered a two-year certificate program in food handling, which Bynum completed while going to high school. It constitutes the only formal culinary training he has had.
Without that opportunity, he says, "I could have gone either way."
After Levittown, Bynum bounced around various chain operations before landing at the Melville Marriott, where the kitchen was run by Dan Doherty. Bynum worked under Doherty for two years, learning every aspect of food preparation. It was Doherty who taught him how to divide large commercial cuts of meat into individual portions with a minimum of waste, a skill that is required at Tellers, where the menu features the most rarefied "boutique" beef. No one but Bynum and his sous chef, Juan Leon, is allowed to cut meat at Tellers.
A chef and his mentors
Bynum believes, "If you want to be a good leader, you have to be a good follower," and even though he is now in a teaching position, he is adamant about continuing his own culinary education. He left a job running his own kitchen at Rookie's to assume the second-in-command post at Prime because he knew how much he could learn from Prime's executive chef, Gregg Lauletta.
In July, the Bohlsens hired Cornelius Gallagher as their corporate chef, overseeing the kitchens at all their restaurants (Tellers, Prime, H2O and Beachtree Cafe). Gallagher, who cooked alongside such world-renown chefs as Daniel Boulud, David Bouley and Gray Kunz, was cited as "best new Chef in America" in 2003 by Food & Wine Magazine for his work at Oceana in Manhattan.
Bynum was thrilled at the prospect of learning from Gallagher. During a recent dinner service, he and his saute guy eagerly watched as Gallagher demonstrated how to test fish doneness by poking it with a cake tester: The barest resistance means the fish is just short of done and should be taken off the heat; it will continue to cook as it rests.
As for his greatest culinary mentor, there's no contest. That honor belongs to his mother, Arnetta Bynum Williams. An accomplished home cook, Williams inspired her son with her ribs and collard greens, her pancakes served with whipped cream and strawberries. She taught him to season confidently. Most importantly, Bynum noted the faces of his family as they sat around the table to enjoy his mother's cooking. "I saw from their expressions," he says, "what good food really means."
THE CHEF RECOMMENDS
Favorite tellers menu items Swordfish with sweet-potato beurre blanc (left), the short-bone and long-bone (right) rib-eye steaks, hash browns cooked in duck fat, lobster quesadillas, and his ribs, which are dry-rubbed, seared under the broiler, braised for 31/2 hours and then finished on the grill.
Seasoning secrets Bynum keeps a tub of kosher salt mixed with black pepper right next to the broiler, sprinkling the mixture liberally on the steaks just before they go in. Fish gets a light sprinkling of salt and freshly ground white pepper "so it doesn't look like it picked up dirt in the pan," he says.
What he cooks at home Virtually nothing. If he gets hungry, it's cereal and milk, peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches or the odd can of pork and beans.
Dining out When he has time, he'll go into Manhattan for a full-blown dinner - Gotham Bar and Grill is a favorite - but he's more likely to stop at IHOP, where he favors the Two x Two x Two - two pancakes, two eggs, two pieces of meat - which he finds "a consistent product every single time."