When Peels’s executive pastry chef Shuna Lydon was growing up, there were no ski vacations. No one in her family owned a house, and there was no such thing as retiring and sitting on a beach. “It was a truly working class background,” she says. Instead, her electrician grandfather, journalist parents and musician uncle led lives “where you worked every day at your craft, and you hoped to make a living and stay off welfare.”
With role models like these, it’s no surprise that Lydon got her first job at age 14 (assembling silk flowers at a Manhattan Garment District factory) and pulled her first 80-hour week at 15. Her work ethic made entering the culinary profession, where inhumane hours are a badge of honor, a breeze. It also helped her set an air, land and sea record for baking achievement, rising from a dishwasher in Oakland, California, to pastry sous chef at the French Laundry in just five years.
Today, Lydon oversees in-house desserts and the take-home bakery at Peels, the wholesale bakery at sister-restaurant Freemans, as well as private functions and off-site catering orders. Her deeply American baking (banana bread, apple pie) evokes grandma’s classics, but with a purity, concentration of flavors and sweet-savory punch that hints at something more dangerous, like a church lady with tattoos. Lydon can also write; her blog Eggbeater — filled with intense, honest posts that reveal her deep interest in mentoring others in the profession, especially women — reads like a more passionate, feminist version of Anthony Bourdain.
It was art and photography, though, that first captured Lydon’s imagination. After graduating from Oakland’s California College of the Arts in 1991, it wasn’t clear to her how to make a living as an artist. One day, she recalls, “I woke up and thought ‘I want to cook for a living,’ even though I didn’t know anything about it.” She “pestered” her way from line cook into the pastry department at San Francisco’s LuLu, and got hooked on baking there. “I started to see that here’s this craft that has a depth, that’s pretty intense, and where I can just go, go, go.”
Her drive and talent have opened doors ever since. The most grueling, yet formative, experience of her career was working for Claudia Fleming at Gramercy Tavern. Fleming was “ferocious, mean and psychologically traumatizing,” says Lydon, and she means that in a good way; she considers Fleming her mentor and colleague. “I realized this is the kind of pastry chef I want to be.”
Staying challenged as she is now at Peels (in addition to her many pastry duties, she also does photography and some social media for the restaurant) is what it takes to keep Lydon happy. When she took off for London in 2008 to work as a pastry chef and social media consultant “it could have been Dubai” for all she cared. “I just wanted something different, something hard,” she says. “I wanted to feel stupid for a while, like I didn’t know what I was doing.”