For 15 years I boycotted New Year's Eve, grumbling about it being a night for amateurs. Then I started joining favorite and new friends in New York for a several day celebration that included carefully researched restaurants, theater, museums, shopping, plenty of champagne and spontaneous happenings that fit nicely into our perfectly, yet not overly choreographed days. 2013 was my 5th year to celebrate the New Year in New York with Norm Rubenstein, Jeff Fox, Bob Cerullo, Robby and Margot Sanoff, and my now husband, Glen Davison. And I hope I am invited to be a part of this tradition for the rest of my life.
December 31st we had a reservation at Betony, which is named after an herb in the mint family, at 41 West 57th Street. An enthusiastically reviewed restaurant (e.g., the New York Times review said, "...a testament to flavors clear and pure."), Betony has a young, fresh-faced executive chef, Bryce Shuman, who hails from North Carolina. His credentials are notable, but he's not very old - so his resume isn't very long.
Betony opened on May 14, 2013. Not even 7 full months later, Bryce Shuman decided to create an ambitious 10-course (actually 11, with the perfectly prepared black-eyed pea surprise) tasting menu for his first New Year's Eve, and with his restaurant at full capacity.
Tasting menus are hard to get right. By definition, they consist of small courses - presumably perfect bites that include a chamber orchestra equivalent of flavors, colors, textures, temperatures and ingredients. They can't include too much food or too little. They have to be artistically plated and expertly served. (At Betony, each course arrived seconds after just-in-time flatware was placed in front of us - quite the industrious ballet.) Given that it was New Year's Eve and we sat down at 9:30, we had to be finished eating by midnight so we could receive our champagne and celebrate the dawning of this promising New Year. Timing-wise, we had about 13.7 minutes (on average) for each course.
The timing was quite perfect. Betony's wait staff was well educated about the menu, highly efficient and accommodating, and not overly chatty. The executive waiter who functioned almost as a maitre d' or captain for our and other nearby tables was business-like as he announced the next course with a complete list of its delicious elements.
After such an explosion of flavors and this fine celebration, what can law firm leaders learn from our Betony experience?
- Step out and take chances. It's clear that Chef Bryce Shuman had the vision and confidence to pull off this elaborate multi-hour evening, its staging and execution. Have a vision to do something bold and follow through with it. Don't be afraid that it might not work out as you hope - if you approach it that way, it surely won't.
Law firms that make bold moves get noticed and remembered. Careful scenario planning, rehearsal, and the perfect combination of logical and creative thinking will ensure success.
- Give yourself, your lawyers and executive staff stretch assignments. It's 2014 - don't be inert. We shouldn't be doing things the same way we did them in 2010, or even 2013. Identify one or two initiatives that can really make a difference in your law firm's future, in the quality of your client relationships and in your profitability. Don't back away from mandates if they are important for the health and growth of your firm. Bah humbug to those lawyers who insist on self-determination as opposed to fully engaging and investing in the spirit and trajectory of your firm.
- Get to know your partners. If you know them better, you'll trust them more. Improve communication in your firm - at all levels. Authentic communication is the only foundation for people working better together.
- Don't try to be something to everyone. The Betony New Year's Eve menu wasn't for everyone. Foodies would love how experimental and original it was, even if they didn't love every single choice that Chef Bryce made. But many would rather have a grilled steak and baked potato. It's hard to serve all masters - choose the path you want to take and be entirely true to your vision and plan. And as Betony did, brilliantly execute on what you choose.
- Anticipate, and see around corners. The one thing we noticed that wasn't perfect at Betony was the service from our young wine steward. Norm wanted a particular Pinot Noir, which they didn't have. That seemed surprising given the gravity of this evening in the short history of the restaurant. Norm asked for a recommendation that would be similar in price and taste, and received one. It was a good selection (2010 Westrey Pinot Noir - Oracle Vineyard Dundee Hill).
We asked for a second bottle (there were 6 of us) and were told that we had drunk the last bottle - and he walked away. At the outset, our wine steward should have assumed that we would want another bottle - after all, it was the start of New Year's Eve (and I'm certain we looked thirsty). He could have done one of three things: a) Told us when he suggested the Westrey that it was the last bottle so we could decide if we still wanted it; b) Instead suggested a Pinot Noir that had 3 or more bottles available (and put at least two aside for us), or c) The second time the Pinot was sold out, he could have made yet another suggestion without our having to ask for one again.
- Be accessible. Invite people to contact you and respond when they do. I asked the hostess for a card for the restaurant when we left. She gave me two - one for the restaurant and one of Bryce Shuman's cards with his personal email. She set an expectation with me that if I emailed him, he would respond. I did contact him - I wanted to know how they pulled it all off. He responded quickly: "I am glad that there was a sense of choreography in the dining room. It is something that we try to achieve every night. In fact there is a saying in the service industry 'it’s ballet, not football.'
"We did not rehearse for the tasting menu itself, but I would like to think that we are constantly rehearsing and practicing our skills at communication and teamwork. When things go smoothly in a restaurant it is because communication is happening efficiently and the dining room staff and kitchen staff are working in tandem.
"Sometimes things just go right, and those are the nights that keep me and the team inspired. Keep us loving what we do."
As the clock was striking midnight and all patrons were embracing and kissing, Chef Bryce came out of his kitchen beaming, surrounded by his eager team of chefs and servers. They lined the stairway, toasting guests and each other, brimming with pride about how the evening turned out. Of the five extraordinary New Year's Eve dinners we've had in New York City, Betony won our hearts and palates hands-down. I can't wait to enjoy Chef Bryce's everyday menu my next trip to New York.
Norm Rubenstein - Chef Bryce Shuman - Jeff Fox
Chef Bryce Shuman - New Year's Eve 2013
Glen Davision - Deborah McMurray