The Austin Chronicle

Eberly Reopens, Ready for a Whole New Year

The elegant dining venue (and chef Jo Chan) returns with the heartiest food

By Wayne Alan Brenner, January 1, 2021, Food

We believe this is another reason for rejoicing: Eberly is open again. The elegantly appointed exemplar of American fine dining just south of the river had been shuttered due to our least favorite pandemic for, what? Eight months?

"It was almost nine months," said Executive Chef Jo Chan. "We closed in mid-March and didn't reopen until December first."

Time really has become a trickier thing to reckon – almost as tricky as trying to run a hospitality business in the current situation. "It's been a crazy time for our industry, a really unstable time," Chan agreed, "and we were trying to do the best that we could for our customers, for our staff – for safety and all those things. We kept coming up with days that we were going to open, you know?"

Like back in midsummer, maybe? "We talked about a date in June," said Chan. "We talked about a date in July, and in September – but things kept happening, and it felt like the situation was getting worse with the virus. We were like, 'No, it doesn't seem like the right time.' And then, finally, we decided, 'We've got to do it, we've got to get back in the game and get jobs for our staff, have to bring everything back to order.' And that's what happened this week."

We know the sorts of things that are involved with an eatery's reopening in The Time of COVID-19. And, indeed, those are the very protocols Eberly's figured out and put in place.

"We've really reevaluated every step of the restaurant," said Chan, "from the moment we come in, and the way we make contact with everything. We're thinking about the ways we interact with each other, making sure we're always wearing masks, making sure everyone's washing their hands regularly, and that there's sanitizer everywhere. It's been tough, and of course there are additional costs with all the safety measures."

This is a sadly familiar refrain throughout the industry. But one of the things that makes a restaurant stand out from its fellow nom-mongers (aside from an impressive dining room and a 152-year-old bar from Greenwich Village's legendary Cedar Tavern) is the individual talent and skill and perspective of its kitchen's head honcho, of course. It's about a team, certainly, but it's also about a person. So we asked chef Chan – a 31-year-old Chinese Filipina American, as the census takers would note, who moved to Austin after working for Marcus Samuelsson and Jonathan Waxman and at Nobu in New York City – what her own personal response was to those nine months of closure. How, we mean, did she keep from absolutely losing her mind?

"I did kind of lose my mind for a while," she told us. "After 10 years in the industry and working in places like New York and abroad in Sweden and all these places, there's been a real level of intensity to my life. A workday for me is always 12 to 14 hours, and so to go from absolutely pedal-to-the-metal to just nothing ... was a little bit maddening. But I tried to take a silver lining out of it, like, 'You know what? Let's take this almost as a half-time moment, to reevaluate and find some other things to be interested in.' Because I'd never really had that. I've worked somewhere between 60 and 100 hours a week for my entire career – and that doesn't leave a whole lot of room for hobbies. Or any kind of interest. It was like, working food service, I took a 10-year hiatus from my personal life. So it was kind of nice to jump on a Zoom [call] with my family, to reconnect with friends, to read a book, or watch a TV show. To just have a bit of normalcy, you know? I got a dog. I walked my dog. I was like, 'Oh, this is a regular person's life!' But it's hard to be away from what you love."

So she's back at it – and Eberly with her. Eberly and its carefully masked staff, its rooms like you'd imagine Rockefellers dining in back in the day, its unique cocktails to complement that Cedar Tavern bar's storied history. And of course pastry chef Sarah Seghi's delectable confections.

"One thing we've been surprised by already is how normal things can feel," said Chan a week after reopening. "It's been great to celebrate birthdays, to celebrate anniversaries, and it felt like people were rooting for us and were happy to be in our space – and hopefully that continues on through next year."

And what's the menu like now, chef?

"Well, my food always comes from a really emotional place," she says. "And in the winter, even before COVID, I usually revert to comfort food – that kind of stick-to-your-bones, solid, hearty food that makes you feel good with the colder weather and all that – which just so happens to coincide with where we are now. So when I went to write this new menu, I was like, 'Let's get back to that. Let's cook the things that people don't know how to cook as well at home or don't necessarily have access to at home.' So right now we're selling an insane amount of our short ribs with cheddar polenta. And I think part of that is, oh, it's a braised-meat item, it's short rib – which people don't buy for themselves at the store on a regular basis – and it really gives you those rich flavors of winter. We've got this steak on right now, too, and we're doing a black garlic and peppercorn sauce on it – so, yeah, all the kinds of deeper flavors that people associate with the holidays."

And what of the future, we wonder. Not like Chan is going to conjure predictions for anybody – she's an acclaimed chef, after all, not a haruspex – but, even while continuing to dish up fine meals for Eberly guests, what is she looking forward to when these damned 'ronas are finally history?

"Hopefully we can get back into more exciting things," she says, "and to doing collaborations. That's what's really missing in the industry right now: We're not able to fly around the country and collaborate with each other, to further the national conversation about food. And hopefully those things will come back as the vaccine comes in. Those are the things that I'm looking forward to in the next year – and to having large gatherings again, to just having that big festive vibe in our building that we used to have, you know?"

Oh, yes. And until then? Chef Jo Chan smiles. "We're just really thrilled to be open again," she said.

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