How Cyle Reynolds' Quest for Fine Dining Led to Thai Fried Chicken in Maine
Falling in love with a cuisine, and moving on from the pressures and expectations of traditional high-end kitchens.
Cyle Reynolds is chef and (with partners Jordan Rubin and Sasha Brouillard) co-owner of Crispy Gai in Portland, Maine. In addition to getting his start in Portland, Reynolds has cooked in Michelin-starred restaurants in Thailand, Chicago, and New York.
Where did you grow up, and how did you get into food?
I grew up in northern Maine, in Kingfield, and there wasn’t a whole lot going on up there. I always liked to cook. I would cook for my friends. I remember for prom, everyone went out to the one restaurant in town that had tablecloths. But I cooked for my prom date.
When did you first think about cooking professionally?
Well, I moved to Portland after I failed out of school several times. I originally went to pharmacy school. Now, I always tell people you should take a break before you go to college. You’re only 18, and taking out all that money in loans is pretty crazy. I ended up failing out of school twice, and I had a pretty bad drug problem which contributed to failing out of school two more times.
A friend of mine told me they needed a dishwasher at this restaurant in Portland called Silly’s. I needed money. I needed to pay rent, so I started washing dishes. I was always a quick study, and I really liked the the fast-paced chaotic vibe. It was a very busy restaurant, definitely burn-and-turn. It felt like an adrenaline rush, and I got into it real quick. I waited my time to get on the line, and as soon as I did, it wasn’t long before I was expo’ing in the kitchen.
That was your first line cook job? How long ago was that?
It’s got to be like 12 years ago now.
How long did you work in Portland?
I stayed in Portland for a while. I ended up getting a sous chef position from one of my buddies, but I found out as soon as I got hired that he was trying to leave. He needed to hire his own replacement. That was at Nosh, and I stayed there for a year, and it was really fun. But I felt like I wasn’t a good fit for that place. I was on this quest for fine dining. It was a really good experience to learn how to manage and do a lot of the ordering. I definitely learned a lot about my mise en place.
What drew you to fine dining?
I was young, and it seemed like the only challenge at the time. Now I love cooking the food that I like to eat. But at that age, fine dining was like this exclusive club that I wasn’t a part of. And I wanted in on that.
So where did you go next?
After that, I went to Central Provisions, and I started at the bottom again—not dishwashing, I was an AM line cook. During my time there, I went from AM line cook to chef tournant. I really burnt out by the end of it. The times were a little different back then—like, not clocking in because you had to stay under a certain amount of hours, but you still had to get your job done. Fun stuff.
So after after two years of that I was pretty smoked, and I ended up going to Thailand, initially for vacation, and I just fell in love with it. But I couldn’t stop working, so I was an apprentice at a knife shop in Bangkok called Cutboy. I was sharpening knives. I treated it like a stage. I wanted to get paid by what the owner knew, but he insisted on actually paying me.
The owner, Sam, became a close friend. He recently opened a couple more locations, and I think he just moved to Penang, Malaysia. But his primary location is still in Bangkok. One day he was like, “Hey, look, just so you know, someone’s coming in to offer you a job. If you want to stay in Thailand, which I know you do, you should take this job.” The day that my flight was booked to leave was when I decided not to get on the plane.
This was for the job at Canvas?
Yeah. I started as chef tournant there.
What was that like?
We were trying to do a lot of stuff that felt very ... I don’t know how to say it other than, “progressive,” with Thai ingredients. I really liked parts of working there, but I found out that I liked actual Thai food more than I liked trying to turn Thai ingredients into other kinds of food.
“I found out that I liked actual Thai food more than I liked trying to turn Thai ingredients into other kinds of food.”
My biggest joy in working at Canvas was the cooks. I had so much fun working with them. We’d go out after work together. I don’t drink anymore—I’m over ten years sober now, I got sober while I was at Silly’s actually—but we’d all go out and everyone would be drinking, and I was so excited to talk about what are we going to eat. Work felt like work, but on our days off, we would go out and experience all this culture and food, and it was incredible. I had such a good time there.
It sounds like when you finally got into a fine dining job, it actually didn’t hold your interest as a chef.
There are a lot of parts I still really like about fine dining. After Thailand, I went to Chicago for a couple of months, and I wanted to stage at Smyth so bad. I thought it was the coolest restaurant in the country, and I still do. I think it’s something very special because they take risks, and they’re trying to do new and innovative stuff.
But for the most part in fine dining, you get overly complicated dishes that are at best room temperature by the time they get to you. I care more about something being really flavorful and fun and exciting in the way of of flavor, rather than it being fun and exciting in the way of, say, beets on a piece of paper. Or luxury ingredients—I’ve had so many of them now that it’s not as exciting to me to eat caviar or foie gras, any of that stuff.
And after Chicago you ended up in New York?
I was in New York from late 2019 to early 2020. My very good friend Steve, who I met in Thailand and who was my sous chef, he told me, “Hey, man, look, I got this buddy who I used to work with at the Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare. He’s opening a place, and he really wants someone to come help. What are you doing right now?” He knew I was traveling and trying to find my next thing. I was like, “Cool, I’m in.” That was all I needed to hear. To put our friendship in perspective, my opening night at Crispy Gai, Steve flew up from New York to wash dishes because I didn’t have a dishwasher.
So he’s a good buddy.
For sure. So we had almost nothing at Ukiyo, this new restaurant in New York. The only piece of equipment we had that you don’t have in your home kitchen was the smallest size Rational oven. And we were all fighting each other for our turn in it because we were always behind. The owner wouldn’t let us take deposits on reservations. So without that, we’d start the night fully booked, and then by the time everyone found what they really wanted to do, they booked somewhere else. You’re everyone’s booty call. You prep for a full restaurant, and you end up being half full.
So there were a lot of times where we all would just be hanging our head, having a staff meal, and being like, man, this is so fucking crazy. We still got an excellent start, but we didn’t know if it was going to work. And then we got the Michelin star, and I was so glad, because it was all so much work, it would have otherwise been so depressing.
Did the Michelin star help with the reservations?
What sucked is then the restaurant closed. We got the Michelin star right before COVID. The chef moved back home, and I had left too. So the Michelin star ended up being more for pride than something the business could actually profit from.
Where did you go then?
COVID was really weird. I had originally planned to open a restaurant in northern Maine on the mid-coast area. We were about to sign our contract, and they ended up shutting down every restaurant in the country for the lockdown. So we backed out of the lease. I had already put in my notice to leave my apartment in New York so I could move up there. I really didn’t have a place to stay.
My best friend was managing a resort in the Florida Keys, and he was like, “Well, no better time to come visit than now.” I went and stayed with him for three months, and I had a great time, but it was hard to relax. I hadn’t taken any real time off since I started cooking. It was weird.
I’ve heard from a lot of people accustomed to the high level of action in restaurants that they didn’t know what to do with themselves during lockdown.
I spent a lot of time working out, and that was really fun. I did a very poor job at doing nothing. I played by the pool, and I got really tan. And then once I got tan, I was like, all right, what am I going to do now? But there was nothing to do. Everything was shut down. I went out on a boat a lot. I went fishing. That was fun, but fishing requires so much patience. It did not scratch the itch of adrenaline.
Had you started thinking about Crispy Gai at this point?
I love Thai food, but if you had asked me then if Crispy Gai is the restaurant I envisioned running, the answer would have been no. I still always imagined I would do something in fine dining. My business partner Jordan and I were just doing pop-ups back in Maine, and we ended up doing a small tasting at his restaurant. One of the dishes was fried chicken Thai style, with an option for khao man gai—Thai chicken and rice. Jordan was like, “This is really good.” And I said, “Why? I mean, it’s just Thai fried chicken.” And then he said, “We should do this.” It was comical how the whole thing sort of happened out of nowhere.
We were over at his house during the pandemic, nothing going on. He and I are very different. I’m very type-A, and he is very not. Like he’d have a notepad turned sideways writing through all the lines! But he knew I wanted the restaurant to have the Thai word “gai” for chicken. I thought it was a fun word to use. So he was just writing all these other words next to “gai,” until we randomly ended up with the full name. It was crazy how two very different people got there.
How did you two know each other?
I worked for him for a while at Mr. Tuna. We’ve been buddies for a long time, so this just kind of clicked.
Despite coming together pretty randomly, Crispy Gai has been successful relatively quickly. How do you feel about that?
When we were opening, it was really scary. We gutted the place—it was completely empty with not a single thing left in it. I wish there was something in there that I had wanted to keep so I could have had a staring point.
But after we opened, it happened very fast. I was very lucky that things went so well. I’m very grateful to my opening staff—a lot of them I was friends with for over ten years. One of them is like a brother to me. The other two I worked with at Nosh. I was childhood friends with my general manager, and she and I had worked together as well in the past. We didn’t know what to expect, and it was so much busier than we thought it would be.
I’ve also heard from other people in the industry that personal connections became extremely important when choosing who to work with, post-pandemic.
There are a lot of memes and jokes about leveraging people to work in restaurants by saying “we’re like family.” But in the very best way, Crispy Gai has a very family vibe, and to me that’s really important. I didn’t have a lot of family growing up. When I first started cooking, the only person I was still in contact with family-wise was my sister. Restaurants were like a family to me. So it’s always been important to me that, at least for the people who need it, that feeling is there.
You’ve been in the business long enough to have experienced typical toxic restaurant kitchen culture. How has that shaped your approach to running your own restaurant?
I’ve done a lot of learning from opening a place. The biggest thing I’ve learned is that not everyone is like me. In the past, I really enjoyed the structure of a very strict and I guess borderline toxic kitchen. But that’s one of the things I don’t like about fine dining—the need to have that level of neurosis. It’s not always like that, and I’ve worked in places where it wasn’t the case. But by and large, it’s way more likely you’re going to run into someone who’s got a crazy ego in a fine dining restaurant rather than in a casual place.
I feel like we’re somewhere in the middle of having really high standards, but also it’s very important to have fun. We play music in the kitchen. It’s not one of those places where you’ve got to be quiet and wait to be spoken to. Not everyone likes that kind of pressure. The industry has changed, and I don’t think you can act that way to people anymore, or at least you can’t be that way and retain staff. I like the way the industry is evolving. It’s a lot more inclusive. And it’s going to have to be this way because it’s so hard to find people to work right now.
Have you had issues with hiring and keeping people?
Our turnover isn’t bad, though staffing is difficult because the business has grown. Hiring someone new can be hard because it can’t someone who actually wants that old way, that toxic environment, because then everyone is walking on eggshells. I’m not willing to to put everyone else’s enjoyment of their work at risk as part of finding someone. I’d rather just work those shifts myself until I find someone who’s the right fit. And I’d rather train someone with less experience to do the job correctly rather than hire someone who’s got experience but the wrong attitude.
With more than a year past opening Crispy Gai, what are you looking to do next?
We just got a food truck to do catering. And I’m going back to Thailand. I’ve been gone for five years, and I realized that because my friend Sam at Cutboy was telling me that his son turned five this year. His son was born right when I left. It’s been way too long. I need to get back.
Will that be for vacation or work?
I mean, I’ve kind of accepted that no matter what I do, I’m always going to be working and learning. So I just try to enjoy it for what it is. I wouldn’t go there and expect to just put up my feet and lay in the sun. I could do that anywhere. I’m definitely going to meet up with some friends. We’re going to go out to eat. And of course, I’m going to talk shop.