After meeting on a cruise ship twelve years ago, chef Matty B and director Rupert Noffs made their mutual vision a Lower East Side reality. Their restaurant foregoes the sawdust floors rusty beams, and fake rafters that monopolize the restaurant aesthetic in New York for owner Rupert Noff’s tropical art-deco vision. Chef Matty B’s painstakingly written menu is a constellation of pan-asian flavors, built from locally sourced ingredients. To top it all off, the pair donates a dollar to charity for every one of the aptly named Karma Cocktails they pour.
We caught up with the pair and got their take on the appeal of the Lower East Side, the problem with the term ‘asian fusion,’ and the restaurant’s house condoms.
Hey gentlemen. Let’s start with the basics: who are you?
I’m Rupert Noffs, an owner and the director of the Lucky Bee.
I’m Matty B and I’m the chef and an owner.
Did you two meet in the city or back home in Australia?
I’m originally from Manchester, in the UK. I met Rupert whilst working on a cruise ship.
Epic. How did that go down?
I was the singer and dancer, and he was the DJ.
When was that?
Twelve years ago. One of our first conversations was about opening a restaurant together, so the Lucky Bee has been in the works since then. We moved to New York in 2011. I brought over Gideon Shoes, a charity Australian sneaker label exclusively made from kangaroo and cane toad skins.
Why restaurants? Why not a cruise ship line?
I’ve always loved food and eating out and going to bars and clubs. Whenever we sit down in a restaurant I always start critiquing everything, the food, the service, whatever. So it’s been a passion of mine, but I’m an entrepreneur. Having this as my business is also a passion. This is my own thing, my company in America.
Was Gideon Shoes your own venture?
Gideon Shoes was run by the Ted Noffs Foundation and I was the creative director. all of the funds went back to the Ted Noffs Foundation to help out Aussie street kids.
So your background is in design-can you tell us how that’s influenced the aesthetic in here?
I’m so over that rustic barn look, with the natural wood and Edison light bulbs that you see dining out everywhere in New York. We wanted to steer away from that concept and aesthetic. We wanted something more fun. I’ve always loved that classic art deco look you find in places like the Beverly Hills Hotel or the Royal Hawaiian. Places that have been exactly the same since 1912. That’s where the whole idea came for the pink-it’s a classic color.
How would you describe the food at the Lucky Bee? How does it match with that aesthetic?
It’s pan-asian. I hate the word fusion. Pan-asian means it’s Thai, Vietnamese Cambodian some Chinese elements in there. as well but the real backbone to it is the fact that we think its really important to know where the food’s from.
How long has the menu been in the works?
Long time. I wrote the menu about two years ago. It’s split into three sections. There’s drinking food, like chicken wings, small plates, like tartare and small salads, and large bowls all based on curries.
What dish were you most excited to roll out last night?
The papaya salad. It’s a papaya salad traditionally made with a mortar and pestle. We use Chinese snake beans garlic, thai chiles, and obviously shaved green papaya and then mix and pound it all together with a sesame and palm sugar dressing. The flavors of papaya salad should be crunchy, sweet and sour.
Tell us about the curries…
We make the curry paste from scratch. using galangal, lemongrass, chiles. We cook the curries in coconut milk to give them depth, and the vegetables we use are from the Union Square farmer’s market.
What dish are you most excited to serve tonight?
I think the chicken wings. Everyone loves chicken wings, but mine are really good. They’re super salty and we make our own Szechuan salt in the house. They’ll make you drink a lot of cocktails.
Good man. Tell us about the drinks here.
The cocktails are broken up into two sections. There’s the classic cocktails, just mixed with sugar syrup. The second section is Karma Cocktails which is part of a charity initiative we’re working with.
A dollar from every karma cocktail we’ll donate to the New York Beacons Association. That’s why we call them Karma Cocktails.
How did the charity component of the Lucky Bee come into being?
It’s important as well that there’s a charity aspect to this. We don’t want to be just another restaurant.
Why did you choose the LES to open up your spot?
This area has become a melting pot for new restaurants. Its become like a real foodie area. They’re trying to push out dive bars back up on Delancey so that this area becomes more of of a culinary destination.
It’s also great to be in an area with such history. You go back and Australia’s unbelievably beautiful-we’ve got the beaches and the harbor. But the bricks on these walls are two hundred years old. At the front of the basement there are a hundred year old shop windows where you’d walk down the stairs and come in. So that’s really special.
Have you had any notable moments when you said fuck it, or fuck what other people think-we need to do this our own way?
We’ve had a lot of those.
Everyday I wake up and I’m like ‘what the fuck am I doing?’ I started acting when i was a kid so i had a lot of No’s in my life growing up. Audtioning and people saying ‘No, we’ll call you.’ I used to find that really threatening and frustrating. Now i’m like ‘How about: fuck you watch this? I love proving people wrong.
Speaking of which-what’s your relationship with New York City? Have you two always expected to end up here?
My parents took me over here in 1997, and when we flew off my mum turned to me and said, ‘You’re going to live here one day.’
I never expected to open a restaurant in New York City. For me, the exciting thing is the restaurants. But we still pinch ourselves all the time. Even when we walk uptown it’s like, ‘Oh, its the empire state building.’
At the same time the city never lets you get too big for your boots. You’re constantly fighting. Someone just told me to fucking calm the fuck down. That’s the thing about New York. After living here for so long, you go back to Sydney with that attitude and people find that very threatening. Aussies are like calm down, calm down mate. You gotta slow down.
Funny how that is. Are there any particular restaurants in the city that you two admire?
Mission Chinese, I love Mission Chinese. That’s a restaurant I wish I opened.
Indochine for me because its not just a restaurant. It’s a pop cultural icon: Andy Warhol used to hang out there, you walk inside and you’re sitting next to Calvin Klein. its a beautiful place to hang out.
Has that influenced your vision for the Lucky Bee?
I want the Lucky Bee to be an iconic place and not just somewhere where you walk in get something to eat and walk out. There’s great music, there’s art on the walls. We’re going to have a rotation of up-and-coming artists showing on the walls. You’re donating charity drinking cocktails at the bar. We’re creating culture here.
Would those be Lucky Bee condoms over there?
Yes, those are the Lucky Bees condoms.
I thought they’d be good business cards.