Welcome, Eddy! So what was your journey like on the way to being a co-owner of Chinese Tuxedo?
So long story short, I’m Australian, and I’ve lived in NYC for 10 years. My hometown was Melbourne, Australia. I’ve worked in hospitality my entire adult life, more by accident than by grand design. I worked in nightlife, in bars as an undergraduate student in Melbourne. I took a job picking up glasses in a bar, and found I enjoyed the hospitality industry and the people I was working with more than my studies, so I dropped out of university, but I spoke to my then-boss, I said “If I’m going to be leaving my tertiary studies, I want to see what opportunities the hospitality industry might extend.” So I then made the transition to management.
I did that for a number of years in Melbourne, then Sydney - mostly cocktail bars, music venues, and the like. I learned less about the particulars of running a restaurant, but all about the importance of the culture of a venue, the culture of a team, and valuing the guest experience - all born out of nightlife. And then 10 years ago I visited NYC on vacation - I had a sister living in NYC, and I’d never been to the USA before, Obama had just been sworn in, an exciting time. I came to NYC in the spring of 2009 on vacation, and fell in love with the city. I firmly believe that NYC is the greatest city in the world. I returned to Sydney in 4 weeks and immediately started planning to move back to the United States, and remotely I managed to fashion a job offer as general manager of a little pub in Midtown NYC, called “The Australian.” I interviewed over the telephone, the business was able to sponsor my visa, and that’s what brought me to NYC, and I haven’t looked back since then!
I moved here in winter 2009, and working in midtown, living downtown, I managed the Australian for 1.5 years, and then had an opportunity to open my first venue with a partner from the Australian, a bar on 35th Street called The Liberty - my first transition into doing something from scratch, conceptually, the buildout, everything. I really enjoyed the creative process. The problem solving, it’s very left-brain, right-brain, bringing something to market. So I worked on opening the Liberty over 12 months, really enjoyed it. During that timeframe, I was working with a general contractor, Jeff Lam. Jeff had migrated to NYC from China - he’s Chinese-American. And growing up Australian, I always ate a lot of Chinese food, East Asian food really - the analogy I draw is that for someone from So-Cal or Texas, Mexican food is a huge influence, because you have the proximity, the population, the traditions. The Chinese diaspora is amazing, and in Australia, there’s been a couple of generations of really inspiring, incredible chefs, cooking in Chinese and Asian culinary traditions you see less over here - Indonesian, Filipino, Thai - so there’s this whole tradition of contemporary East Asian restaurants, with the traditions and flavors but created using Australian produce and ingredients.
So I spoke to Jeff a lot about that. And that culture is really what informed Tuxedo. Jeff and I, when we were working together building the bar, we’d take a lot of meetings in Chinatown - I love Chinatown, I live and work in the neighborhood, but a lot of the restaurants in Chinatown are old school New York dim sum, whereas when I was traveling in places like Singapore, Hong Kong or Melbourne, there was a new generation of Chinese food that I didn’t feel was being represented in New York. So Jeff was doing a lot of work in China, and we’d speak about these restaurants we’d love in other markets, bemoaning the fact you didn’t see them in Manhattan. So we said “Let’s do it ourselves - who better than us to do it?” And that’s what it was born out of, over lunch at the Golden Unicorn in Chinatown. We were having dim sum there, and we said “let’s do something together.” We knew we wanted to do it in Chinatown because it’s such an important space historically, in the migrant experience of so many Chinese-Americans - Jeff first immigrated to this neighborhood in 1979.
For those who aren’t familiar, what is Chinese Tuxedo (the restaurant) all about?
So we took the name from the first fine dining restaurant in Chinatown. In the 19th Century, when the first Chinese population arrived, a fine dining restaurant named Chinese Tuxedo opened. In doing our research, I loved the name. It’s really trying to offer world-class Chinese and Chinese-inspired food, in-step with the current ethos of Manhattan dining. In other food categories, so often you see chefs being inventive, creative, taking risks, but for most New York diners, their association with Chinese food is take out or dim sum or perhaps very traditional elegant High Imperial Cantonese cuisine (which is also very popular in Australia, and I love). But we wanted something in step with what the contemporary diner is looking for now. So it’s everything from menus for vegetarians, those with allergies, to using top ingredients and making the cuisine a bit more avant garde. First and foremost, it must be delicious. We want people to recognize the nostalgic elements, but also be surprised and delighted by the presentation or other elements. And then we pair it with a world-class cocktail program, place it in a gorgeous dining room, top staff - that’s what we tried to bring together.
To build the space for Chinese Tuxedo, you utilized an old community opera house. What was it about that particular space that spoke to you and your team?
Well, it was funny - I first met the landlord of the space back in 2014. We didn’t open the venue until 2016, so it was after 2 years that we opened the restaurant. He and his family owned and operate a lot of inventory in the neighborhood, so they have a bunch of other spaces, more traditional restaurant spaces. He was touring me through restaurant spaces, but he mentioned that he had a space on Doyers Street. And it’s a street unlike any other in New York, but it also feels SO New York. It’s only 14 feet across, it has a number of hook bends in it. It feels super-atmospheric. There’s the first dim sum house in New York on the block, a cocktail bar of some renown - in a way, it feels like the laneways of Hong Kong, but also quintessentially New York, even though there’s no other street like it. It’s also super-important in the history of the city because it was one of the first neighborhoods to be developed in New York, just after the seaport was established. So it was very important in the history of New York and the Chinese community here, in addition to being a movie set type street. So I told him I wanted to see the site!
He said the condition of the space wasn’t great, it was a bunch of small business suites at that time, and I did a bit of research on the building, and saw it’s history - that it was the first Chinese-language theater on the East Coast of the USA. The first large Chinese populations came to the West Coast of the US, extended to the East Coast as the railroad was being built, bringing populations with it and finishing up in New York. So this new young population brought some of their cultural traditions to New York, with this theater. So we couldn’t see any of the elements of the theater, but we knew there was a larger scale. We took a bit of a gamble, that if we got the lease, demo’d everything out, took it down to its bones, we’d find interesting elements, and we’re fortunate that’s exactly what happened - we uncovered this big gorgeous room. And where we could, we’d preserve elements of its history.
The concept is also based on a real 19th century restaurant by the same name in the Chinatown neighborhood of NYC. Did you revisit any other historic elements?
So it was more as we did the demo, discovering elements of the building, we’d recondition and use whatever we could. We have a bar in our basement, and as we were doing the demo, we discovered all this timber hidden behind false walls, so we built our bar from it, our host stand from it. I also did a little bit of research, trying to find menus from restaurants of the era - unfortunately I couldn’t find any from the original Chinese Tuxedo, but I did find one from Port Arthur, the most famous restaurant of the era around the corner from us at 8 Mott Street. It was a cute idea, but in 2016, we didn’t want to draw too much inspiration from the menus of the early 20th century. We’d hoped the menus of the era might give us some inspiration, but we came up dry there!
Prior to starting Chinese Tuxedo, you were Justin Timberlake’s personal mixologist - how did you get connected with Sauza Tequila and Justin, and how awesome was that experience?
That was a fun and now feels like an alternate life or universe! As I mentioned, most of my background was in the bar world, the nightlife world, before focusing on restaurants. It took us a long time to develop Tuxedo, because we had to do a full demo, build the kitchen from scratch. It was 17 months from signing the lease to opening the doors. And so I was doing a little bit of consulting work in that period, things to pay the rent, keep body and soul together. And Sauza tequila was owned by Beam-Suntory, and I’d done some work with them over the years when I had the Liberty, so they were looking for some bartenders and spokespeople to do some work with their brands. A brand they were developing at the time was Sauza 901, a collaboration between Justin Timberlake and Beam-Suntory. So I came in, started working on that with their team. I first met Justin at an event on the west coast, and it went really well - he’s a lovely guy, we bonded over the spirit, the drinks, the golf course the event was at. And that was a couple of years. I’d do everything from recipe books to parties to events. It was definitely a side hustle, calling on my experience and time behind the bar - I unfortunately I don’t get much time behind the bar these days, but back then, in 2015-2016, we did a lot of fun events. The best side hustle you could possibly have, it felt like!
Can you share with us some of your secrets to success for outstanding food and drink pairings?
That’s a really good question, and one I haven’t had before. Personally what I try to consider is being objective and outcome focused: what are we trying to achieve, or connote? There are some very basic principles a lot of people apply, but if you get too stuck on principles, you won’t do interesting things. For example, people think “white wine with fish, red wine with red meat.” That’s a pretty basic rule or framework. And people don’t think WHY, what you’re trying to achieve. The acidity of white wine can pair beautifully with seafood, but that’s not the only thing that achieves that end. It can be apple ciders, aperitivo cocktails - there’s a lot of outcomes one could have. It’s exciting to be creative, to push the envelope.
Don’t think of pairings in terms of dish or drink but context - what time of day or year is it? I want something very different on an 85 degree sweaty July day like today than I might in the holiday season. Everything from the ingredients you include to the glassware - you want different glassware on a hot day versus Christmas Eve. So giving thought to context and what you’re trying to achieve. Less about rules. Think about principles, not rules. And be thoughtful as to what experience you’re trying to impart here.
If someone’s eating at Chinese Tuxedo for the first time - and I’m sure the menu varies - what would you suggest they order?
That’s a great question. The menu does change. We change it 3-4 times a year, depending on the produce that’s exciting to our head chef, Paul Donnelly. Broadly, and I think that’s important in any restaurant experience, I’d appeal to the team. They know it best. When I go to a restaurant, I try to engage with the server or bartender, let them know what I’m looking for. If I’m going to dinner for my birthday, or with a partner, or a celebration - we’re trying to achieve different things, and that will affect volume, richness, proteins you’re interested in. Give your server the feeling of what you’re hoping for with your dinner, and a thoughtful team member will signpost you. Our menu changes regularly, but we have a small handful of dishes that have been on the menu since Day 1. So I’d recommend a combination of legacy dishes, and a few dishes specific to that season, because that will be exciting to the chef team to prepare. Our classics, our most famous dish is our crispy eggplant, great to start with. I’m proud of our traditional preparations. We make all of our noodles in-house, so they’re all hand-rolled, hand-cut, exceptionally prepared. But I’d go in with a few things keen to have, then work with your server.
How do you stay inspired in your day-to-day?
That’s a really good question! To maintain that momentum and energy, it really - and this is a corny answer - it’s a matter of people, the people I work with and the people we service. I love when someone’s a first-time diner at the restaurant. I also love fostering relationships with regulars. I think of New York, how busy everyone is, how expensive it is, so people’s leisure time and money are precious. When I’m committing my time to something, I don’t have much of it- it doesn’t mean I want to go out for super-high-end dinners, but I’m always looking for best in category. So whether it’s my cafe where I have breakfast, or an out of town dinner, I’m looking for the best. So the opportunity to surprise and delight people who are visiting for the first time, or regulars - we have regulars who’ve gotten married in the venue and come back year after year on their anniversary, meeting their family, it’s become a part of their story. And I feel very blessed to be a part of that. So on days when I feel frustrated, I think of what it means to other people in the community - everyone from the guys working in the kitchen, to the front of house staff, to guests for whom Tuxedo is more than just dinner. I’m a fan of restaurants and great food, and if some people can feel that way about we do, then I feel very very lucky that this is my so-called “work life.”
What are some signs you look for in a promising restaurant?
That’s such a good and thoughtful question, and an interesting one for people! You can tell pretty quickly - it’s about investment, whether people give a damn. Some people will give you pointers, David Chang has a famous thing about checking the back of the toilet, if they wash the back of the toilet, you can be confident their food & beverage preparation is very high. I don’t have any hard and fast rules. I’m always looking for best in category, but I want to avoid homogeneity. So often, New York restaurants open that are objectively good - they source through the right purveyors, have good architecture. But I’m not INTERESTED in it. Just because it’s good through design or appropriate venue, doesn’t mean it’s a place I’ll love.
The places I love are places where you can feel the team is invested in what they’re offering, the experience. That can be anything from a neighborhood dumpling joint selling dumplings for a few dollars all the way to a fine dining temple. I’ve been to some fine dining temples with great service and high quality menus - but was there a reason for it? A passion for it? Find people who are committed to doing interesting things for others. A passion for food and Bev, a passion for customer service. I could tell you to look out for - in this day & age, there are places with branded bevmaps, where the brand is distilled so carefully, but does it translate to my experience in the venue? Passion is key. It’s one of the biggest challenges as an operator. We have a staff of 70 now. How do you instill that passion and interest in everyone from the Maitre’D to the food runners, the bussers - it’s absolutely about culture. It’s impossible for me to touch everyone’s day like that, to inspire them - I can’t do that for all people. So it’s trying to identify capable, invested, passionate people, and then having that culture emanate throughout the team.
For people who want to get started in the hospitality industry, where would you recommend they begin?
My number one piece of advice: just get to work. That’s it. The fortunate thing about our industry, it’s both a blessing and curse, there’s a pretty low barrier to entry. If someone wants to be a brain surgeon, there’s a long way to go before you can do that, but I’m hiring right now! I would consider what you admire, what’s a culture you want to be a part of, that fires your interest or passion - that could be the cocktail world, espresso coffee, super-haute French dining. Get yourself in the building. Identify those spaces. When I was a kid, I started picking up glasses in a bar - by accident not by design. I found a shop run by great operators who had a great culture from the top-down. The boss, the general manager, they were engaged and invested in my growth and development. So try to identify those best in category ,whatever category works for you. If you’d told me 18 years ago, when I was picking up glasses, that one day I’d be running multiple venues of my own in New York, it would have struck me as a pipe dream, so unlikely as to be impossible! It’s not been a linear journey, there’ve been some moments that were challenging, but growth is all about challenge. If you want to work in a restaurant, get to work in a restaurant.
What’s coming up next for you that you’re excited about, and how can we best stay up-to-date with you?
So I’m currently developing a new venue. It should be ready next year. My team and I are currently developing a new venue concept. We’re looking to go more Southeast Asian. Obviously there’s a lot of Chinese food in New York, and with our Chinese proposition, we brought something different to the mainstream in NYC. But I feel like Southeast Asian food, there’s a whole world of flavors in Malay cuisine, Indonesian, Thai, that I’m excited to work in with my chef team. So sometime in 2020, we’ll be bringing it to market!