Conversation with a chef: Honey

In this series, Bucks County Taste sits down with some of the best chefs in Bucks County and shares their thoughts on food, life, and running a successful restaurant.

If you were to throw out on a local Facebook page the question, “What are the best restaurants in Bucks?” one name would come up consistently. Honey.

The cozy 42-seat restaurant is tucked away on a side street in Doylestown, a few steps from the courthouse. Joe and Amy McAtee opened in June 2007 and the restaurant quickly became the buzz of the town. Innovative, creative and tasty.

I was curious. How have they evolved in the past eight years? What have they learned? What is new? So I set up a time to chat with Amy and Joe.

So here I am, hurrying from the courthouse parking lot to make the interview on time. My cute but not particularly supportive shoes gave my ankle a twist which in turn caused my knee (the one without an ACL) to give out, and I went down.

I made it up Shewell Avenue, limping but determined to appear professional. Amy greeted me at the door, we started talking about shoes (she had on a similar pair) and I admitted what had just happened. The next thing I knew, Amy had me settled in a booth, my leg up on a chair with ice on my knee. And that’s how I conducted the interview. Très professional.

But this is who Amy and Joe are —warm, laid back, unpretentious. You’ll hear it in Joe’s words below (Amy had to leave for an appointment). Here are their thoughts on food, hospitality, and running a great restaurant.

BCT: It’s been eight years since you opened Honey. Where are you today?

Joe: When we began, we liked going to interesting places to get ideas. But we’ve become totally disillusioned with this over-the-top stuff. We were in San Francisco once and had a cold consommé with gold leaf. Really, flavor is king; that’s what is most important. Maybe spend a little less money on the gold leaf.

I think of our dishes as street food done with whimsy. Like our B.e.L.T. It’s a twist on the traditional BLT. House smoked Berkshire pork belly, red romaine, tomato marmalade and duck egg yolk on a toasted baguette. Or our Foie Gras Sliders – foie gras, duck bacon, Bosc pear, spiced fig ketchup on a grilled brioche bun. Not your typical slider.

foie gras sliders at Honey; photo courtesy of Honey Restaurant
Foie gras sliders at Honey; photo courtesy of Honey Restaurant

We want people to remember the dish. I saw other chefs doing sprinkled bacon on ice cream. I decided to turn it around and created Black Tea Glazed Spare Ribs. The sauce for the ribs is concentrated black tea with cinnamon, anise, clove, and ginger, served with ginger ice cream.

Black tea glazed spare ribs. Photo courtesy of Honey Restaurant
Black tea glazed spare ribs. Photo courtesy of Honey Restaurant

BCT: How has the food changed over the years?

Joe: It’s kind of like the Grateful Dead or jazz. It’s a living, evolving thing. Food should be like that too. I don’t need to throw away the dish. Instead I’ll change it and do it better.

I’m constantly chasing the way the dish should be made. I tweak little things so it’s in perfect harmony.

For instance, I wanted to reinvent the heirloom tomato salad. Our dish has fried feta croutons, tomato, and a yogurt element to create a dish with different textures and colors.

I’m a variable too – as I evolve and change it affects the food. In fact, when a dish gets on the menu, I’ve been thinking about it for three years.

It’s kind of like the Grateful Dead or jazz. It’s a living, evolving thing.
Food should be like that too.

I make all the food myself and the line cooks put it together. I insist on cooking everything on the menu. I don’t use recipes — for better or worse I do things the way I want. That’s what makes it taste like Honey.

BCT: Honey is different in many ways. How would you explain what you are about, and what the food is like?

Joe: We have more spices in our food than most places. I’d even say the dishes are aggressively seasoned. It’s not for everyone and that’s okay. We’re small so we want people who want what we make.

With each dish I want a balance of the four “S’s”:
Salty, sweet, spiced and sour.

With each dish I want a balance of the four “S’s”: Salty, sweet, spiced and sour. We serve tapas style but with progression. We start with the less seasoned dish and build to more seasoned. That’s why we ask people to order everything up front so we can course it right. Everything is closely timed so that the dishes come out continuously.

Our staff also helps customers order well. For instance, for two people, four to six dishes is recommended. Too many dishes and people get tired, or disinterested.

We also don’t make a big deal about “farm to table.” I don’t think we need to talk about it so much. I always use local, seasonal, and organic. There is never anything on the menu that is totally out of season. And because our food is often global-inspired, it is pan-seasonal, and it tastes the same in summer or winter.

Honey Restaurant interior

BCT: Honey is a small space with a unique menu. How have you stayed so successful over the years?

Joe: We’ve found the right customers and the right staff. We hire on character, not pedigree. I don’t even like being called chef. We have very little turnover especially in the kitchen, and a great relationship between the front and the back of the house. A happy staff will treat customers well.

While flavor is subjective, hospitality is not. Our feeling is when you love a customer, you take care of them. Give them something free out of appreciation. Also, if the customer doesn’t like something, they don’t have to pay for it. I don’t have any ego about the food – I just move on.

In the end, we love what we do. We feel privileged to be a part of people’s special occasions, and we love to love our customers.

Joe and Amy McAtee kissing at James Beard
Joe and Amy McAtee kissing at James Beard

Honey Restaurant
42 Shewell Avenue
Doylestown, PA 18901
PH: 215.489.4200
Open daily for dinner from 5 pm

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