Meet the Midtowners
Jeffery Lindenmuth - January/February 2014
Running a restaurant smack dab in the center of Manhattan’s commercial/tourist/theater hustle and bustle is not the usual route taken to success and acclaim by the Millennial Generation. But heed this, hipsters: chef Bryce Shuman and gm/mixologist Eamon Rockey have endowed Betony with urbanity and cool, and New Yorkers have taken note. Jeffery Lindenmuth checks out how they do it.
It’s nearly 5 p.m., and Bryce Shuman, dressed in his chef’s whites, is about to prime the kitchen for an October evening service at Betony. Clean-cut, with quiet charisma and a boyish smile, Shuman was headed for the stage until a dishwashing job in his home state of North Carolina derailed his acting aspirations. Just 12 years later, he is standing here, on Manhattan’s West 57th Street, as executive chef of a New York Times three-star restaurant, poised to alert a team already stepping on each other’s toes in the confines of a compact two-story kitchen that things are about to get even busier.
“Eamon and I will not be here for dinner service tonight,” he says, referring to Eamon Rockey, his front-of-the-house counterpart, general manager, and fellow Eleven Madison Park alumnus. “Esquire has put out their best new restaurants of the year list, and Betony is the restaurant of the year.”
Cheers erupt, echoing into the two-story dining room, resonating off the exposed brick walls and rising to the ornate ceiling. Every restaurant opening represents a gamble, but six months ago Betony would have been considered a long shot for success of this sort—a new endeavor helmed by a 32 year old first-time executive chef located at a Midtown address with baggage in the form of short-lived predecessor Brasserie Pushkin.
New York City’s restaurant cognoscenti are notoriously suspicious of well-funded invaders. Rightfully or not, Moscow-based restaurateur Andrei Dellos and his opulent Russian outpost, Brasserie Pushkin, bore the full brunt of their criticism. They generally delighted in skewering both the palatial decor and the Russian haute cuisine, and within a year, Pushkin erected the telltale “closed for renovation” sign. The void left by Brasserie Pushkin became an opportunity for Shuman, the potential to fulfill boyhood dreams of New York City that existed even before he stepped up to a sink of dirty pots and pans at Mesh Cafe in Greenville, North Carolina, over a decade ago. “When you grow up there and think of New York City, it’s Central Park, Times Square, Carnegie Hall, and taxi cabs. I’m pumped to be on 57th Street, the center of the island,” he beams.
From that first restaurant foray, Shuman’s path to Manhattan took a detour when his ambitious nature landed him on the appetizer, then finish, station. Broadway dreams took a back seat to the California Culinary Academy and a job on the line at Wolfgang Puck’s Postrio in San Francisco. Here, his passion was ignited by the behemoth charcoal grill, where he seared through the bulk of the proteins for 400 covers a night. Then at Rubicon in San Francisco, executive chef Stuart Brioza’s natural inclination to mentor met an eager student in Shuman. “I love his inability to not teach you. He was always cooking alongside you so enthusiastically. It’s one thing to learn to break down a fish or make consommé in culinary school, but to witness Stuart making it was a kind of magic,” he recalls. Together, they shopped the markets of the San Francisco Ferry Building, rising early to stand in line at Blue Bottle Coffee, treading carefully with the “crazy date guy” who refused to let them touch the sweet fruits, slowly assimilating Brioza’s respect for quality ingredients and the people who produce them.
Most recently, Shuman spent six years at Eleven Madison Park under Daniel Humm, ultimately rising through the ranks to become executive sous chef. During his tenure, the restaurant garnered four stars from the New York Times and three stars from Michelin. That’s when the Russians called.
“He’s an ambitious guy. He’s a fan of Eleven Mad, and I wound up being approached to do a tasting dinner,” says Shuman of his introduction to Dellos, who was simultaneously preparing to launch Manon in the Meatpacking District. Throughout the process of interviewing and offering dishes, Shuman faced his own perfectionist bent and chef’s insecurities. “In the moment, not knowing what they are thinking, I’d just imagine the most horrible things of myself,” he looks back and laughs. Ultimately, he got the job. The renovation became a transformation—one of Shuman’s own vision.
Then he called on someone he knew.
“I was unshaven, because, you know, it’s Williamsburg. I’m chilling out and having fun and helping run a cool restaurant, when Bryce walks in alone,” recounts Rockey of the day Shuman posted up at the bar at Aska, his Nordic-leaning partnership project with Swedish chef Fredrik Berselius. Aska was already on firm footing—well-managed and well-reviewed—with an edgy beverage program, steeped in aquavit and rye whiskey, created by Rockey himself. A fellow Southerner, hailing from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and just 28 years of age, Rockey had more in common with Shuman than just their stint together at Eleven Madison Park, which he refers to as their “finishing school.” Although the young men did not know each other intimately, Shuman realized a successful restaurant required more than great food, and Rockey seemed the perfect complement. As Shuman puts it, “We started talking, and it was a lot of ‘yes, yes, yes.’”
Yes, the ostentatious vestiges of Brasserie Pushkin would vanish. Yes, Nathan Rawlinson should be commissioned for a series of photos that celebrate New York City. Yes, potter Jane Herold could be persuaded to hand throw 1,400 plates on her kick wheel. Yes, they could make people happy.
And yes, they were scared. “Midtown is frightening,” says Rockey, pausing to add, “It’s also the chance to climb a mountain.” While many young chefs are disposed to distressed neighborhoods, smaller spaces, and tasting menus, the opportunity was West 57th Street. According to Rockey, Betony aspires to be spoken about in the same sentence as Midtown culinary heavy hitters like Per Se, Marea, and Le Bernardin, while staying more approachable for drop-ins than any of those. “We don’t compromise in the pursuit of excellence, but we want people to be able to join us for a bite and beer after work. This is a neighborhood, and people live here,” he says, embracing the haute but not haughty style he deployed successfully at Aska, and before that at Matthew Lightner’s Atera, where Rockey spent a year as general manager.
The result is an affordably priced à la carte menu, with entrées averaging around $30, a departure from the grand $225 tasting menu Shuman helped execute nightly at Eleven Madison Park. Serving the full menu across the 85 seat restaurant and the 35 seat bar is a supreme gesture of hospitality—including for the crush of pre-theater—is indicative of a team driven to please. “It’s very different. The cooks have to be ready to provide a high level of skill at every instant. At any moment, anything can happen,” says Shuman. “But we believe à la carte is a greater service to the guest.”
In the kitchen, Shuman still knows how to craft a narrative, build suspense, deliver a punch line. “When we offer a menu, we’re speaking to you. Then you speak back to us. Then we feed you, and we’re speaking again.” Betony’s menu is devoid of gimmickry, one that struggles to sizzle in a press release. The food descriptions average around five words: “Blue Point oysters, matsutake, pearl barley; grain salad, labne, sprouts.” There are no nods to farms, no details of technique, nothing that might betray the meticulous food. Betony asks to be trusted. Betony begs to be tasted. “I wanted to give enough information for the guest to make an educated decision, but not so much that it removes any element of surprise,” says Shuman. “It should be implied that we’ll be using the best products. If ricotta is on the menu, I’m making that ricotta.”
Of his mentors, Shuman says Humm’s final words of advice ring loudest as he formulates new menu items: “Bryce, just make it taste great,” Humm told him. It’s a credo that succeeds, especially given Betony’s eclectic mix of diners. “I’ve never worked at a restaurant that has such a diverse clientele, and that’s so cool,” says Rockey. “Bryce does two day sous-vide short ribs, and we have 22 year old college students who follow food blogs get all excited. People who have dined at the finest restaurants in the world for the past 25 years are excited about the exact same thing.”
Like much of Shuman’s food, the short ribs are strongly autobiographical, a dish conceived to capture everything he enjoys about dry-aged steak. What appears on the palate at first bite as a familiar flavor soon reveals itself more of a carefully crafted ideal. “I set out to emphasize what I love about an aged steak—the funkiness, marbling, tender and juicy texture, with the flavorful sear of charcoal,” he explains. “So I began with short ribs, which are just a super tasty bit of meat.” After cooking sous-vide to buttery tenderness in fat, the short ribs are brushed with more beef fat, then seared over Japanese white binchotan charcoal with the intense heat reminiscent of Postrio’s massive grill, but without adding any smoke or other flavors that might intrude upon the pure beefiness.
To create his roasted chicken, Shuman begins with an organic Amish farm-raised bird from Pennsylvania, brines the breasts with rosemary, lemon, thyme, and bay leaf for three hours, then cooks them sous-vide to attain juiciness and flavor. The skin-on breasts are then dried overnight, using fans, before being crisped in a black cast-iron skillet with a touch of grapeseed oil. The breast is finished in the oven and emerges not as something distinctly new, but something immensely relatable, the epitome of everything you’ve ever loved about a piece of roasted chicken, served simply with chanterelles and Tokyo turnips.
Rockey’s effortlessly genial manner is equally universal in its appeal. Born to professional chef parents, he attended The Culinary Institute of America where he was drawn to service, worked briefly at Gilt in The New York Palace hotel, then honed his style at Eleven Madison Park as a captain, before opening Atera, then Aska. Having donned his jacket and tie, Rockey is rallying his own troops. “Line-up and family meals don’t get the attention they deserve,” he says. “This is the preamble to service. I have everyone standing, ready, focused, on point. We nourish them with information and then with food. You talk about the breakdown of the American family and the lack of family meals, but that doesn’t happen here. Whether we have a bad day or a good day, we all share a meal,” he says.
It’s in moments like this that the family bonds and gives back, as when one of Betony’s captains revealed he was an avid horticulturalist. Now, he grows herbs for Betony (which, incidentally, is named for a purple-flowered herb also known as bishop’s wort).
It’s nearly time to leave for the Esquire awards. Shuman makes a final sweep of the crowded kitchen he designed from the ground up. His smile fails briefly as he pauses to wipe water droplets from the sink, casting a critical eye on the offending cook. “That water in the sink bothers me,” he says unapologetically. “We have to do everything tighter, faster, cleaner.”
Downstairs, Rebecca Isbell, the pastry sous chef, and her team are operating nearby in enviable comfort over a six-burner CookTek induction stove. The oven is the only source of heat here, as it churns out two versions of every roll, every breadstick, every dessert. All are offered in both regular and gluten-free versions. “Are we into new food trends? Absolutely. You see them in the kitchen and behind the bar, but we don’t draw attention to them,” says Shuman.
Rockey’s own culinary prowess is apparent in the cocktail program, which brims with flavorful house-made ingredients that go beyond current mixologist DIY darlings of bitters and tonics. “There are producers, like Fever-Tree, who are already making high quality tonic, so it doesn’t need my attention,” shrugs Rockey. “We’re not about reinventing for the sake of doing it, but about improving on what’s available.”
Rockey prefers to focus his efforts on less likely, and more ambitious, pursuits, like replacing the ersatz orgeat that even dedicated cocktail lounges are inclined to simply accept. “Commercial orgeat did not speak to the quality of almonds,” laments Rockey. Ultimately, that led him to source bitter almonds, toast them until brown, and then, while still warm, bag them with water and cook them sous-vide. After straining, the liquid, sweetened and seasoned with salt, rose water, and orange blossom water, is destined for inclusion in the original Dessert Shandy cocktail. Taking inspiration from one of Shuman’s opening desserts of roasted apricots with rosemary, and almond cake with almond ice cream, Rockey’s cocktail homage replicates the flavors by combining his house-made orgeat with rosemary-infused Sherry vinegar and apricot liqueur, topped with India pale ale.
Dissatisfied with commercial grenadine, often just corn syrup with artificial color and flavors, Rockey creates his by reducing pomegranate juice to 52 brix. In doing so, he returns integrity to classics like the Ward 8 and the Jack Rose, vintage cocktails with grenadine as a critical ingredient. He’s developed recipes for oleo saccharum prepared sous-vide with sugar and orange peel, ginger syrup pasteurized and clarified with steam, and crème de cacao, all of which are executed by the pastry kitchen. To ensure a frothy Pisco Sour, he’ll pick the insects and detritus from chunks of tree sap to make natural gum arabic syrup.
Betony’s cocktail descriptions also eschew the brand names of core spirits like gin, Tequila, or Bourbon. “To me, it’s all about trust. You establish a level of trust and then make good on it. By not showcasing brands, I’m suggesting that I’m committed to choosing the best spirit for the cocktail,” says Rockey.
In an interesting twist, guests are encouraged to choose their own spirit to be added to the house cocktail, Betony Milk Punch. The base is a traditional mix of whole milk, strong tea, sour citrus juice, simple syrup, and vodka—all clarified by curdling the mixture on the stovetop, then straining it repeatedly. Rockey also includes a rotating ingredient, whether it be pineapple juice, watermelon juice, or beer in the punch base, creating a house cocktail with myriad incarnations. Among Rockey’s latest drink endeavors is root beer crafted using sassafras root and birch bark, infused with ginger, star anise, peppercorns, and other spices, then fermented in bottles in-house for a naturally carbonated adult apéritif (about 7 percent alcohol by volume) with bitter complexity.
In the Old Dog Shandy, a cocktail tribute to his grandfather, Rockey proffers personal memories much as Shuman does with his food. “My grandfather would smoke a steady stream of Camel cigarettes when I was a kid,” he recalls. “I make a pretty intense tobacco infusion from Virginia pipe tobacco and Buffalo Trace White Dog Mash #1 whiskey that’s used to finish the drink and convey the aroma of tobacco as it is sipped. The elements are so familiar and intense that they actually resonate with nearly everyone who drinks it. Even if you don’t know my granddad, the flavors evoke a sort of universal nostalgia.”
As they depart to collect their latest accolade, it’s apparent that the duo remain each other’s biggest fans, and most valued critics. These two young men are closely aligned in language, in sentiment, and in their doglike desire to please.
Beneath the easy smile, Shuman knows things are about to get harder. Expectations are about to get higher. Betony will be expected to continue serving up surprises, whether that means being named Esquire restaurant of the year or delivering chicken liver mousse in the form of a creamy nugget, with a shell hardened in liquid nitrogen and enrobed in clarified chicken fat that’s been thickened with a crumble of caraway shortbread, its buttery richness balanced with a side of Granny Smith apple puree. “We can only say we’ll provide things to people that we believe in,” says Rockey. “We’re about taking a chance on ourselves. The plan is that the things we pour into glasses and put onto plates will be things that we love.”