A little over a year ago, Eamon Rockey and Bryce Shuman opened Betony in Midtown. The pair came with an excellent pedigree: they met while working at Eleven Madison Park, where Shuman worked his way up to executive sous chef and Rockey worked the front of house. Rockey eventually moved on to Atera, and then to open the acclaimed Nordic restaurant Aska, but the pair reconnected and decided to open their fine dining restaurant in what many considered a very unlikely neighborhood. But the restaurant went on to receive a James Beard Award nomination for Best New Restaurant, and a three-star review in the Times among other accolades, and the team continues to pack the house on a nightly basis. Now Rockey and Shuman discuss Betony's slow start, the surprises of Midtown, and why there's still so much work to do.
So you two first met at Eleven Madison Park, then parted ways for a while before opening Betony. When did you first start thinking about Betony? Was it something you talked about when you were working together, or was it chance that you teamed back up?
Eamon Rockey: It was opportunity that brought us back together. We never spoke about a project together while I was at Eleven Madison. I was at Aska when he stopped by, and we shared some milk punch and talked about the future. Bryce was the executive sous chef at the time, and that carries a lot of weight in New York. Aska was on its feet, and the right opportunity was certainly a possibility for me.
Bryce Shuman: When we were working together at EMP, my mind was so far from the next step. I just wanted to make sure my station was set up on time for service, and that chef wasn't going to tear into me. Working at that restaurant, you're just so focused on getting the job done and doing it right. Chef got me to stay at the restaurant so long is because I was so busy I never had any time to think of anything else. We weren't talking about next moves.
Eamon: That time period was a really special time. From 2007 to 2010 the restaurant just transformed. Seeing that place go from a time when there were even people left over from a different regime, a different everything, to slowly bringing on the great people that now make up the foundation of it.
Bryce: We had a good time. And I think we were really fortunate to find each other again, because we make a great pair. I think we complement each other well.
How do you complement each other?
Bryce: Besides the obvious fact that Eamon's primary focus is in the dining room and my focus is in the kitchen, we are always talking about the vision. How are we, together, going to teach and breed a crew of excellent hospitality professionals and still do everything that we think is cool? And still make the diners really happy and excited to be here? Eamon and I have the same vision, we speak the same language, and as long as we continue to do that, we're gonna be successful at it.
Eamon: One of the things that is integral to our relationship is the continued growth of this restaurant culture. Not just a bunch of people who come here every day, but rather who live and breathe the idea of this culture.
Bryce: Yeah that's important. We both want people who aren't just showing up here because it's their job, they aren't just waiting tables while they're looking for their acting big break. Or if they are, when they're here this is what they're about.
Eamon: It impacts them as much as they impact it. It's a two way street, so the successes and failures of the restaurant are felt by them, and vice versa. It becomes a blurred boundary between self and community. At the year mark we took the time to look back on the year.
Bryce: Yeah, we closed the restaurant, we got everybody together, we talked about the past year.
Eamon: We restated our mission. We opened with a mission statement that was right for our opening. Then we took a year, and worked and worked and dedicated ourselves to that, and then we reassessed. We made it much shorter, focused it. Then took time to write out the things we were proudest of from the last year, as a team.
Bryce: And that could be anything from getting a great review from the Times or the James Beard nomination to, "Nestor becomes a captain," or "Juan learned how to scrub a pot." And then we broke into groups and were like, "Ok, now what are we gonna work on in this next year?" We're making our own gin, I'm thinking about a caviar service, and about how we can expand the menu, give more options to our guests. Because sometimes I hear, "Oh, the menu is a little small." Which was important to me in the beginning. I really wanted to have a very small menu, and make sure every dish was a finished, complete thought. But sometimes if you hear something over and over and over again, maybe you should do something about it.
So what have been the biggest surprises you've encountered in the first year of being open?
Eamon: One of my biggest surprises was learning how much life there is in Midtown. As someone who has worked downtown for so long, I saw Midtown as being picturesque in many places, and historic in almost all, with great reasons to come here, but not necessarily to live and to breathe here. But there is so much personality to Midtown. Some of the most brilliant and wonderful and interesting people live within a block of Betony in any direction. I love spending time in Midtown now.
Bryce: Yeah, I mean, I don't know if it was a surprise, but something that I realized was that people live here. This is a neighborhood. People don't just work and play here.
So why did you pick Midtown, not knowing those things about it?
Bryce: I think actually it was the previous perspective that gave an allure to it. Because we felt like we could do something different, and that we had the opportunity to stand out a little. There were many people whose opinions we respect who were surprised that we were making the decision to come here. But I really believed that we could do something great no matter where it was. So why not take a chance on some place where we can be unique?
Eamon: I think about the bar program a lot. For a long time people would say things like, "You can't get cocktails that are in the style of downtown drinks in Midtown." Not that there aren't places to have great cocktails, or great beer, or great wine, or whatever it might be, but craft cocktails aren't really a Midtown thing. And I was really worried about that, because that's something that I take very seriously. But I stuck to my guns of having big pieces of ice, having spirit-centric cocktails, things with egg white, milk punch. A more downtown list in an uptown bar. I was worried that people weren't going to like it, or wouldn't get it, but luckily those fears were unfounded. This is a fun neighborhood, people here want to have fun, and I hope that folks downtown are getting excited about coming uptown again.
What was the review process like?
Eamon: It was absolutely exhilarating.
Bryce: Yeah it's pretty electric. It's on fire. You feel it. The team knows that this is really important to a new restaurant to be well-received by critics in town. Especially for us, with that risk of opening here, we felt a lot of pressure to ensure a really great review. Because maybe people wouldn't come up here. Or maybe people who lived in the neighborhood wouldn't want to come check it out. One of the last lines in Mr. Wells' review in the Times was, "What the restaurant needs is a crowd." And we did need it. We were empty.
Eamon: He brings up a really good point. One of the major differences I found between Midtown restaurants and downtown restaurants: downtown if it's new, it draws a crowd, especially if there's something that people can latch onto. People downtown are risk-takers. But people in Midtown are looking for someone to tell them "You should check this place out."
Bryce: During the process the team was incredibly charged. And that's not to say that the process is over. It's ongoing. We get reviewed every day by everyone who sits down to lunch or dinner here. But during those first few months it's an awesome time to be a cook. During the time when Frank Bruni was coming to Eleven Madison Park, leading up to when he gave the restaurant four stars, it was on fire. Chef was on fire, he was on the line plating food, putting his elbow in my ribs, tasting everything. And after that, very much the same way it did here, the covers doubled overnight. It was a packed house lunch and dinner no matter what, a month out. It's a great time to be a cook, to see that and to feel those changes. Then you're set up with this whole other set of pressures, to deliver on expectations. Now it's our responsibility to make sure everyone leaves raving, otherwise it's a failure.
In those early days when it was quiet, did you ever have any doubts? Were you ever nervous?
Bryce: Nervous? Yes. Doubts on the review? Every single day. The night before the review came out, I did not sleep. I stayed up reading reviews of amazing two star restaurants, just preparing a speech. In this setting, if it was a one star review it would be that we had really messed up, so I was hoping that wouldn't happen. But he could have written a really great review with two stars, and then I feel like the team would have been disappointed. I was preparing myself to tell them like, "Hey, we've got something really special here, keep pushing, let's keep it up," and preparing to talk about these other amazing restaurants that have two stars, because there's a ton of them.
Eamon: There was never any doubt from my perspective as to whether or not the message that we were communicating externally and internally was 100 percent genuine and from the heart. The doubts for me were only whether others would understand the messages I'm trying to convey.
Bryce: Or did I do it well enough that day? It's terrifying. It was my first opportunity to be a chef, so I considered it my first public critical analysis of what I'd done up to this point. It's our first opportunity as a team, and I think it helped to set a tone for us to do great things in the future.
So what's next, either here or in a larger sense? What do you want to do more of? What do you want to do better?
Eamon: We're a year in. We opened initially for six nights only. Then we opened for lunch. Then we opened for private events. Every few months it's like, "Hey let's bite off a lot more right now," and it happens overnight. Every time a few months pass it's like, "OK, are we pretty stable now? Can we incorporate another massive need from a labor perspective and a logistics perspective?" Now we have grown into our space, and while there's always room to add more, I want to turn the lights back in and focus on perfecting the layers that we've built over the last year. We have the team in place, we have the concepts and vision in place, and it's about watering those flowers and making sure that they grow.
Bryce: The focus is definitely here, it's not on other things. We are the best that this restaurant has been ever. But I know that we are so far from what our potential is and where I want to be in the kitchen as far as organization, as far as the mechanics of what we do in the kitchen. We're so far from what I see as being top notch. I want to really focus on making us the greatest restaurant we can possibly be. Our staff is tremendously talented. Our sous chefs have worked in some of the greatest kitchens in the city and around the world. And we do great food and have great service; the point I'm trying to make is that I know we can do it better.
Eamon: It's all about people. We have the people that we've been bringing together for a year, and now it's the goal to give them the opportunity and the training and the tools to operate at the highest level possible and push beyond the boundaries that we have presently.
Bryce: I know if Eamon and I put our heads together and are determined, and we're focused, and we work really hard at it, there's nothing we can't do.
Eamon: Because there's no other option.
Bryce: There's no other option.
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