Eamon Rockey and chef Bryce Shuman first met in 2007 while working at Eleven Madison Park. Now, six years year later, the two men have come together to open Betony, a restaurant in the former Brasserie Pushkin space that strives to bring fun and warmth to a stretch of West 57th Street not exactly known for such things. For Shuman, Betony is a dream realized, his first solo effort, after having played a role in EMP's remarkable ascent over the last half decade. For Rockey, the new restaurant might be the home he's been searching for after stints at Compose, Atera, and Aska. In the following interview, Rockey and Shuman discuss joining forces, their goals at Betony, and what it's like to collaborate.
Can we start by talking a little bit about how you met and how the experience at Eleven Madison park eventually took you here?
Bryce Shuman: Eamon and I worked together at Eleven Madison Park. We were always very cordial at work and we respected each other. I was immediately impressed by Eamon's enthusiasm. He had gone to CIA as a chef, and he brought that same intensity and enthusiasm to working the front of the house. I was a sous chef at the time.
Eamon Rockey: We started within a couple of months of each other, in 2007. I remember it vividly. Everyone noticed when Bryce joined the team. He was so positive, so energetic, always pushing. He was a positive force in the kitchen and really made an impact. I started as a food runner, so I started from the bottom and could really see what was going on in the kitchen. We'd hang out all the time at the Redhead. That was EMP's spot, before they were even serving food. It was called Detour then. I spent three years there.
How long were you there, Bryce?
BS: I was there close to six years.
ER: After I left EMP, I worked at Compose, then evolved it into Atera, and then left to open Aska. Not to jump too much or too fast, but one day someone came into the kitchen of Aska and said, "I think one of the Eleven Madison chefs is at the bar. He sort of slipped in under the radar and ordered a few things, but I went over and we started talking. I had heard that he wanted to do his own thing, and so that conversation took us to where we are now.
Bryce, how difficult was it leaving Eleven Madison?
BS: It was hard. Those people are my family. Chef [Daniel Humm] has been such a mentor to me, so it was very difficult to leave. They invested a lot in me. But being an executive chef was my dream.
How did you get this space?
BS: The owner of this space has always been a fan of EMP, so I had the opportunity to meet him. He was looking for a chef. I did a tasting menu for him and got the job. That was it.
And when did Eamon come in?
ER: So they found Bryce, and when this was catalyzing from a number of different perspectives, I think Bryce realized he would need someone in the dining room.
BS: I can't do everything on my own. I remember when Dennis Leary opened Canteen in San Francisco, he did everything. It was hilarious and amazing. I can't do that here.
What did you two want to do with the restaurant?
ER: We always talked about doing something that was a reflection of the things we care about. In my case, I wanted to highlight some of the finest wines and spirits and methods of showcasing them in a space that was the result of our own vision but also fit the neighborhood. We get excited about the high ceilings, comfy places to sit, a big bar, and a window to show it all. The staff here, at this stage, is a really tight group. The people that work here have to have a core value set.
BS: We wanted it to be a fun place. You have to have great cocktails, familiar flavors in a modern way, and make it all accessible. We have 85 seats, so people can get in here and eat. We have an à la carte menu, so people can stop in for lunch before the airport or the theater or just have a glass of champagne. So many people work around here, so they can come by and drink after. It's for the neighborhood.
Eamon, you mention doing the things that you care about. Can you explain what that means in terms of your role?
ER: Sense of place is really important to me. We're in Midtown. There are some of the best restaurants in New York around here, and also some of the most exclusive ones. So offering — or at least striving to offer — things at that level while keeping them fun and accessible and simple is important. For instance: we have three constantly rotating draught beers from the region. Our cocktails are some of the best in the city from my perspective, since we use really great glassware, great ice, and the best spirits and freshest ingredients. We make things in-house whenever we feel the cocktail will benefit from that. At the end of the day, we keep it really, really simple.
For example, our pisco sour: I think Lizzie from Macchu Pisco makes the best single varietal pisco in Peru. I love using her product. We make our own gum arabic syrup, which isn't easy to do, but we think it's worth it. We use Peruvian bitters, as well. That's a cocktail you can get anywhere, pretty much, but on its most basic level we try to make it a little more authentic and put a lot of effort into it. We're not trying to reinvent the wheel, we're trying to make the car go faster.
And Bryce, can you discuss what it means to present familiar flavors in a modern way?
BS: I love chicken liver mousse. The recipe here developed out of what I would do in my apartment in San Francisco. My wife and I would get a roasted chicken and then spread the liver, after sauteeing it, on green apple. Or I'd take it, turn it into a mousse, and put it in ramekins. Then I'd take the chicken fat from inside the cavity and render it down, eat the crispy chicken cracklings, with a little salt and hot sauce, and then strain the fat and cap off the ramekins with that. That was one of my favorite ways to eat it, because you get that mousse, that bit of chicken fat that melts everywhere immediately, when you spread it on something.
So chicken liver mousse, celery, apples — these are familiar flavors for a lot of people. Instead of serving a pot of chicken liver with the fat just on top with some bread and apple, which is awesome, I try and present it in a modern way. We take the chicken fat and blend it with a little caraway shortbread and some parsley, which makes it bright green. Then we take the mousse and form it into spheres and then blend that chicken fat, parsley, and shortbread until it's like a glaze. Then you dip it in there and it wraps around the chicken liver mousse and then you make a crumble with the chicken skin and then there's apple chips and purée and celery. You taste it and it's completely familiar, but it's also a bit of a surprise. There are interesting textures. It makes it fun.
Not to make you repeat yourselves, but how do you try to make a place accessible and fun, when the perception a lot of people have of Midtown is that it's a bit more grown up?
ER: One of the most important things for me was spending time in the neighborhood and seeing what makes people happy. I wanted to grown into this area. We turn the music up a bit and make it a little loud at the bar. There's some great soul music playing, and we're OK with people laughing, eating with their hands, and feeling comfortable.
A lot of people go out to eat and have the dining experience be the focus. We really welcome that. At the same time, we hope people come here because it offers them a venue that's a continuation of their social circle. They can escape from their office. You can think about the meal and geek out as much as you want, but it can just be a bar you can come to over and over again.
Bryce, this is your first solo project. How nerve-wrecking is it?
BS: More than anything, I'm just happy. New experiences are nerve-wrecking, but I've finally gotten what I wanted, and that is the biggest feeling.
How do you work together? Is it collaborative, or do you just do your own thing?
ER: It's very collaborative, but there's also a tremendous element of trust. There's never a time when I look at my phone and get bummed out or frustrated because Bryce is calling me. I look forward to that no matter what. He has my back.
BS: We've been presented with a lot situations where a decision has to be made, and we'll almost immediately say the same thing. Very rarely do we disagree intensely.
ER: And when we do disagree, it's easy to defer. His knowledge of music dwarfs mine, for example. At other restaurants I've had a bigger impact there, but I see Bryce's passion for it and it's easy for me to let him handle it.
BS: I've been collecting records forever, since my dad would collect used books. He'd get the books at yard sales, and I'd get the records. I always wanted to be a DJ. We started out with a lot of jazz music here that I had transferred from vinyl, and then we realized it wasn't working and switched to soul.
ER: This is so new and fresh for both of us, and I want people to know that we are going to work to keep changing and growing. This hopefully will be a different restaurant a year from now.