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An Interview with Chef Craig Shelton on Background and Aeon Hospitality (Part One)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2020/08/01


Chef Craig Shelton has over 40 years of experience in science-based cooking and teaching in the hospitality business. He trained in eight of the world’s greatest restaurants, including “El Bulli”, “Jamin”; “Ma Maison”, “L’Auberge de l’Ill”, “Le Pré Catelan”, “Bouley”, “Le Bernardin”, and “La Côte Basque. Chef Shelton has earned countless awards as Chef-Owner of his own restaurants including a James Beard Best Chef medal, NY Times 4-Stars ratings on four separate occasions, a 5-Star Forbes rating, the Relais & Châteaux Grand Chef title; and Number One Top Restaurant in America in 2004 from GQ. Mr. Shelton is also an instructor at Princeton University in the Princeton Environmental Institute, where he teaches a freshman seminar on the interrelationships between public policy, agriculture, diet-related disease and anthropogenic climate change. Mr. Shelton began his expertise in this area while an undergraduate of Yale where he earned his degree in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry. He is a co-founder of the think tank, Princeton Center for Food Studies, the founder of King’s Row Coffee, and a co-founder of Aeon Holistic Agriculture, Inc. He is recognized as a consummate business consultant with specialization in macro finance. He is known for his ability to generate excitement in his cooks and instill in them the drive toward excellence by connecting all aspects of gastronomy to the larger intellectual landscape – chemistry, ecology, literature, art and human physiology. His great passions are reading and ocean sailing. His full C.V. can be seen here. More about Aeon Hospitality, Mountainville Manor, Aeon Holistic Agriculture, Kings Row Coffee, and Princeton Studies Food (in the hyperlinks provided). He discusses: some family background; adolescence and young adulthood; undergraduate work; a blue-collar community; an earlier interest in the food industry and hospitality; expertise required to found companies, businesses, oriented around hospitality and food; and Aeon Hospitality.

Keywords: Aeon Holistic Agriculture, Aeon Hospitality, chef, Craig Shelton, hospitality, Kings Row Coffee, Princeton Studies Food.

An Interview with Chef Craig Shelton on Background and Aeon Hospitality (Part One)[1],[2]*

*Please see the footnotes, bibliography, and citation style listing after the interview.*

1. Scott Douglas Jacobsen: In regards to some family background, what were some relevant parts of it – geography, culture, language? What were some pivotal moments of early life, which you’ve taken full steam ahead now?

Craig Shelton: I grew up in a little seacoast town in New Hampshire called Rye Beach. I grew up in Europe because my mother is French. We did do a lot of time in France, in particular. We lived in a remote area, where there’s quite a distance to the next kid of my age. So, I had a lot of time on my hands–almost boredom. I had to make use of this myself. One seminal moment was when one of my aunts, my father’s sister, decide to study with the Dalai Lama in Nepal. She gave her complete set of Harvard classics to me. She sensed that I could use something like that. I proceeded to read the entire series. For the next 3/4 years, I must have been 12, so, maybe, by the age of 16, which was an unusual thing for a kid to do. A little funny story was when I was transferred from junior high school to high school in Portsmouth (New Hampshire) High School, public school. They did the usual sort of standardized testing. Something must have gone terribly wrong. I was told to go to this particular English class. They were teaching children how to spell 3-letter words like “cat” and “dog.” Now, I was a very reticent child, very obedient. So, I sat there a puzzled but trusting authority. I do not say anything for the first few days. After a point, it seemed obvious to me that something was not right. I go to the teacher and ask if he is sure3 that I belong in his class. We get to talking. I am talking to him about Schopenhauer, Kant, Wittgenstein…

Jacobsen: …[Laughing]…

Shelton: …Aristotle… [Laughing]. He’s like, “Holy shit. Something must have gone wrong with the system because you scored ‘off the charts’, so we thought you were illiterate.” That was a funny moment. They put me in a different place after that, which was a little better suited. But I thought it was funny.

2. Jacobsen: What about adolescence and young adulthood?

Shelton: I felt somewhat different than most of the people around me, pretty much all of the people. I felt it was very necessary to hide my intellect because you would trigger resentment if you excelled intellectually. You know what I am trying to say.

Jacobsen: Yes.

Shelton: You try to develop and imitate the mannerisms, the interests. You pretty much keep the true inner life to yourself. But it is helpful in that regard because there wasn’t a gifted program, so you needed to fit in. I stabbed in the dark trying to find a haphazard way, to self-educate where the school curriculum didn’t offer what I needed. I was really without guidance in the whole thing. My mother, to her credit, put herself through college and became a professor at a young age at the University of New Hampshire in Literature. That really, really helped me a lot to get exposure to an academic community and have access to a university library.

3. Jacobsen: What about yourself? What did pursue in undergraduate work in early adulthood?

Shelton: No, I wasn’t sure of the options available to a child in university. It was a normal working-class type neighbourhood for the most part with a little bit of middle class, an occasional doctor or something. So, I was not really exposed to the academic way of life. You might give a little hint from someone like a friend of the family who is a doctor, who might encourage a little. It is still more of a working and career type of pursuit, e.g., a trade or a profession like law–but not pure academics. That just wasn’t part of the community culture at that time.

4. Jacobsen: The idea of living in a blue-collar community. You are somewhat aware of academics. However, it is not part of the culture for the encouragement of it. In that context, you can get an education, but have a goal of getting a job sort of education. It is not the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake.

Shelton: Yes, you did not dream of something academic as a future. For a lot of us in that community, it seemed aspirational to just to go to college, like, “Wow! You’re going to college.” It was a big deal. If you said that you wanted to go to one of the Ivies, it is not even something that was ever disclosed. So, the idea of postgraduate education rarely entered any of our minds. We had the concept of a doctor and a lawyer. Graduate school seemed like something for the very well off. I hope I’m not distorting my memory of it. There were, maybe, 5% or 10% in the school who were serious students. The teachers, they were a great lot. They were nice people. They were earnest. But what was very clear, there wasn’t a track for gifted people. We just blended in with everybody else.

5. Jacobsen: Did you have an earlier interest in the food industry and hospitality?

Shelton: Yes, so early, I was, basically, born into it. My grandparents from France, my mother’s parents, opened a restaurant during the occupation, the German occupation; he was a leader of the resistance. He died before I was born. I grew up in the summers and vacations spent in France breathing in the whole restaurant culture. We would have relatives and outings, aunts and cousins, who are deep into gastronomy, deep into wine collecting. In fact, one of my uncles was the owner of a famous cognac firm, called Hardy. But it was just our family life. When my grandmother was done cooking, we would sit around the big table of the kitchen and laugh a lot and tell stories. I had a lot of great memories. My mother had a lot of traumatic memories from the restaurant life, on the hard life of her mother. She cautioned me against it. Nonetheless, when I told her I wanted to be a professional chef, she totally supported the switch—as did my father.

6. Jacobsen: How did you begin to develop the expertise required to found companies, businesses, oriented around hospitality and food?

Shelton: One of the things that I like to point out about a restaurant is that although it is about the craft—and the people who love the craft: the waitstaff, the cooks, the chefs, it is a collection of craftsmen in their best iterations. But, by the same token, it is a real business. It has all the same functional needs of any other business structure. It needs a Finance division. It should have composed of different subdivisions: 1) Accounting, 2) MIS (management information systems),  and 3) Administrative and Compliance. It also needs a Marketing division, with its three subdivisions: 1) Research and Advertising, 2) Customer Service (which measures subjective data), and 3) Sales. The third Division is Operations and its three subdivisions are: 1a) FOH (Front of House), 2) BOH (Back of House), and 3) Property Management. Each of those subdivisions requires years and years of independent, unique formation, academic, professional. All of this is largely ignored in the hospitality profession. I got my training in the craft in traditional ways. I decided to study from a good number of the world’s greatest chefs. I studied 7 or 8 restaurants including the #1 in the world at the time, which was “Jamin” with Joël Robuchon in Paris. Le Pré Catalan in Paris, Pastry form LeNôtre, Les Trois Marches in Versailles, l’Auberge de l’Ill in Alsace and others. I went to America and trained up through the standard formation from the lowest rank at Ma Maison (LA), Le Chantilly (NYC), to Sous Chef at La Côte Basque (NYC), and Le Bernardin (NYC), finally to the chef to cuisine at Bouley (NYC) the number one restaurant in America and transform it into that for four years and a half years.

Also, I have also been a very light sleeper for most of my adult life. No more than a few hours, it gives time to read approximately one book every two days. I began this self-education in the world business and the world of marketing. I went through hundreds of books towards that MBA type of education. Books on finance, economics, business theory, leadership, marketing, guerilla-marketing, service, on wine, on dietary science, plus a ton of cookbooks. After that, I opened my own restaurant in a rural area of New Jersey. It was a very special type of business problem because, in America, fine dining is predicated on the ability of city restaurants to do multiple seatings. You have to think about the fixed costs and the variable costs. The labour and the overhead are fixed, whether 1 seating, 4 seatings, or 5 seatings per night. When you can allocate the fixed expense across multiple seatings, it allows you to reduce the price. So, it is counter-intuitive. In reality, a Manhattan restaurant can charge exactly one half of what a rural restaurant would have to charge to stay afloat because the rural restaurant only gets a single seating. Of course, rural restaurants find other ways to stay alive. They compromise quality and compromise labour in addition to a bunch of other tricks. But it is never an apples-to-apples fix. Something gets lost in the translation. I wasn’t willing to have the compromise of quality. It was a necessity to stay alive and learn about all of these things in order to find out where there might be some areas of opportunity.

That is, where the fundamental first principles of thinking in the industry might be false and, therefore, might allow me to have a competitive edge, for example, my professional formation and apprenticeships had every chef in the Western world had been taught that, “We sear a piece of meat to lock in the juices.” But I remember from molecular biophysics and biochemistry training at Yale. That didn’t make any sense at all. It leads me to discover that the protein cookery theory was a remnant of the turn of the century in the 1890s from Escoffier attempting to use the science of his day articulated by Justus von Liebig. Unfortunately, most of Liebig’s ideas at the molecular level turned out to be false. But because the industry had not shed these false first assumptions in protein cooking theory, everyone was using excessive labour that was inefficient while turning out the substandard product: loss of moisture, loss of tenderness, and loss of yield.

I believe that I was one of the first chefs in America to apply both the art form and science at a deep level. For me, it was the economics of staying alive. It was easier to train cooks to become competent using a scientific matrix. We were not using the recondite vocabulary of advanced biology, chemistry, and physics. I was using “scientific metaphors.” I was using the language and metaphors that they could follow. I would talk about protein like a “string of pearls”. Each one of those pearls is an amino acid (in a protein) or a sugar molecule (in a starch). What happens with heat, or enzymatic action is that the long string of pearls gets broken down into its constituent building blocks. This unlocks “hidden flavour”. I found that by teaching with that basic scientific matrix, we could get people to a high level of competence as line cooks in a year; whereas, in a traditional way, it could take 5 years to attain that level of competence.

7. Jacobsen: When you’re looking at Aeon Hospitality, what is the integrative vision there? It is a multilayered project, of which you’re the CEO. How are you using the “scientific matrix” to bring a biophysical approach – in a manner of speaking – to cooking and hospitality? Which will be more efficient in the end, though, it is based on economic survival, need.

Shelton: One of the things that snapped all of this together to understand me even better. It was when Iain McGilchrist published The Master and His Emissary. It covered the lateralization of the human brain. The idea that we have two different types of simultaneous cognitions or awarenesses, perceptions. It uses the metaphor of the bird on the branch and the earthworm could be his lunch. This is the problem. How do they eat without being eaten by something else? So, the brain, even down the most primitive species, developed this parallel set of brains. One with the ability of laser focus, logic if you will – deductive reasoning, even if pre-conscious. The other has this ambient, omniscient type of awareness, which doesn’t require codification. We have this problem. For logic to happen, we must perform reification. We must use simplifications to perform the slope calculation to dive down and get the earthworm. In order for non-complicated math for everyday living, we have to perform reification or have to treat beings as if they are objects, as first-order assumptions; we have to treat systems as if they are objects.

Then we can do our maths. In the short run for things like a bird swooping down and catching an earthworm, it is perfectly valid and reasonable. The problem, once we build the false first assumptions on those, then the more rigorously, deeply, and at length that we cogitate, the more embedded the false assumptions become and the farther from the truth that we veer. McGilchrist has validated our approach. I can summarize, “We shouldn’t be shocked when we discover extraordinary errors in our institutional thinking, in the thinking systems of the institutions. We should expect this as a regular occurrence. It must happen.” So, that marinates the whole approach. Almost everybody thinks the easiest way to have a highly successful business, a highly successful restaurant or hotel, banqueting facility, in a sphere is to add something of a genius or remarkable and new. But in my opinion, that’s the hardest way to improve a business and risky. It is so much easier to just stop doing so many stupid little things.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Founder, Aeon Hospitality.

[2] Individual Publication Date: August 1, 2020:; Full Issue Publication Date: September 1, 2020:


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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