Off the Fork: At bigger Hush Bistro, Chef Marc Anthony Bynum’s star rises

Farmingdale native Marc Anthony Bynum has expanded Hush Bistro into a larger space in Huntington. (Photo by Keith Stein at Hurricane of Lions Photography)

It’s 2 p.m. on a Tuesday in late October and although the doors of Hush Bistro won’t open to the public for another three hours, Huntington’s hottest new restaurant is bustling with activity.

A camera crew is setting up for an autumn-themed photo and video shoot at the bar. The cooks are hard at work in the kitchen prepping for the production and the patrons who will follow.

Holding court at a long bench inside the nearly 70-seat eatery is chef-owner Marc Anthony Bynum, who’s interviewing a prospective employee while also conducting the symphony around him. 

Before a staffer can reach Bynum with the plate that’s been prepared, the three-time winner of Food Network’s “Chopped,” a man whose cooking has made the cover of O, The Oprah Magazine, can already see that something’s a little off.

“That’s a whole lot of microgreens,” he says gently, before also noticing the entrée might have spent a fraction too long over the flame. “And the fish, can we make it a little lighter?”

It’s that attention to detail, conveyed directly in hushed tones, that has made Bynum, a native Long Islander, one of the area’s rising culinary stars. A trip to his eatery, which opened this fall in its new location after three years in nearby Farmingdale, is worth it for the food alone. But Bynum is also focused on every element that contributes to the experience.

The name of the establishment derives from the word “speakeasy,” and the chef says it’s a nod to the Harlem Renaissance cultural explosion during the Prohibition era.

“If you had good food, good drinks and good music everything else didn’t matter,” Bynum said. “Once you went down to the speakeasy, you interacted with people you might have seen in the streets but you might not have talked to. That’s what I want to cultivate in any restaurant. I want people to come together for a great experience.”

The story of Marc Anthony Bynum, like Hush Bistro itself, begins in a kitchen in Farmingdale before food was as cool as it is today. That’s where the chef learned to cook as a teenager in the mid-1990s with his mom, Arnetta Bynum-Williams.

Bynum-Williams said she taught all four of her sons to cook, explaining that her reasoning was if they wanted a woman to cook for them, they had better be able to return the favor. For Marc, the middle of five Bynum children, those training grounds included preparing meals for members of Greater Works Apostolic Ministries in Central Islip.

His mother, seeing for the first time all the church members eating the chicken dish her son prepared, realized she better give it a taste test. It was too late.

“I called him over, I said ‘Marc, what is this?’ ” she recalled. “It was so bland, had no taste whatsoever. I said, ‘We’re not feeding patients in a hospital.’

“People who know his food today, would not believe you if you told them that boy could not season,” she said.

His early aversion to spices aside, the now 39-year-old chef said he feels different in the kitchen. Cooking, he says, was the antidote he sought to grapple with depression.

“Food allowed me to find myself, find my voice,” Bynum said.

The future chef would end up forgoing his final years of playing scholastic sports to enroll in a vocational culinary program at Levittown Memorial Educational Center.

Working in kitchens has enabled Bynum, who said he knew at an early age he could never work a desk job, to keep moving. It would later take him on a circuitous route around Long Island — and eventually the U.S. — working for an assortment of restaurants in a variety of roles.

His first stop was “shoveling it out” on the line at Margo & Frank’s Mermaid, a now-closed seafood spot on Freeport’s Nautical Mile. He’d make contributions at some larger chains before settling into a unique role with Marriott, where he worked for three years in his early 20s. There, he was on the Marriott Task Force, traveling the country to places like Missouri, New Orleans and California, helping to open new restaurants for the hotel chain. This experience taught him the business side of running restaurants. He also credits Dan Doherty, executive chef at the Melville Marriott, as having a major influence on his career.

“He’d tell me to come in three hours early if I really want to learn,” Bynum recalled. “In those three hours [every day] he taught me how to butch and different techniques; taste, touch and feel.”

Bynum would eventually parlay that and other more traditional restaurant experiences — including stints at reputable Long Island mainstays Prime and Teller’s — into working as a consultant and operating a craft services business around New York City. It was through the latter that journalist and Oprah BFF Gayle King would try the chef’s chipotle barbecue ribs backstage at “Saturday Night Live” and, on the cover of O, declare them the best she had ever eaten.

Nicholas Sakatis of Moo Burger in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, hired Bynum as a consultant when he opened his space six years ago. When they first met in person, Sakatis recognized Bynum from his first appearance on “Chopped.”

“He took my restaurant to a new level,” the co-owner of the popular burger joint said. “He’s passionate, he’s a great chef and a good guy. He’s also not afraid to get dirty. He doesn’t play that big chef role.”

Bynum eventually returned home to open the first Hush Bistro, a 28-seat restaurant in his native Farmingdale. He believed his hometown, with no fine dining options and in the midst of a revitalization effort, was the perfect place to start out small with a restaurant of his own.

If the original Hush, in its cozy but sometimes cramped rectangular quarters, evoked a speakeasy vibe, the new space conjures a post-Prohibition setting in that it’s roomier and more visibly located in arguably Long Island’s best foodie downtown. It’s on the same street as Chef Franco Sampogna’s acclaimed Jema, creating a venerable 1-2 punch for lovers of food and drinks.

Bynum said the move to Huntington, his wife Lauren’s hometown, was in the cards from the beginning, knowing that community was a good fit for his planned expansion.

Describing Hush in traditional restaurant terms is no easy feat. It’s often referred to as New American, though the chef prefers American Soul, which also considers the comfort cooking he’s known for. The restaurant is ultimately an extension of Bynum’s personality, a place where cultures mesh together. Sure you can order duck breast with turnips, but you’d better believe the menu will also feature ribs with pickled watermelon rinds.

“This is a place where people can have that fine dining experience, but we’re gonna have Biggie playing over the speakers,” Bynum said.

Paying tribute to who he is as a black man in a largely white occupation is important to Bynum, who said he “wants to create opportunities for people who look like” him. He’s working on producing his own show that would give black chefs a voice.

“There’s not a lot of us out there and the ones who are, I think we need a little more recognition,” he said.

Another way the Hush Bistro experience pays homage to Bynum’s personal history is in how it celebrates the island where the chef grew up with local ingredients and drink options. He points to Macari, Bedell and Paumanok as among his favorite Long Island wineries.

“It’s a connection to my island,” Bynum said of the idea behind carrying Long Island beverages and ingredients in his restaurant. “If we go to Italy or France, they use the wines from their own backyard.”

The biggest difference at the new Hush location, aside from its size, is an emphasis on small plates. With more room to accommodate larger parties, Bynum felt it important to give groups the chance to share items and sample more of the ever-evolving menu. He’s also been experimenting with ramen dishes of late and wants to dive into tacos next.

It should come as no surprise that even in these more comfortable digs, the chef hasn’t stopped moving and is still trying new things. That kid who never even considered a desk job isn’t slowing down now. No one is more proud of him than Mom.

“He was able to do what he always wanted to do right in his own community, where he created a following that has stuck with him to the new place,” Bynum-Williams said. “It’s a blessing.”