Around the Kitchen Table with Dushan Zaric
Award-winning bartender and co-founder of Employees Only, Dushan Zaric shares his recipe for a memorable night out and the cocktail trend he rates right now.
There are bars and then there’s Employees Only. From the moment the original opened in downtown New York in 2004, it’s been a hit with its target audience: hospitality insiders looking for a late-night place to eat and drink after finishing their shift. Not to mention anyone else who appreciates excellent craft cocktails, a simple but meticulously executed food menu that can be ordered until late, and a cool, in-the-know crowd.
By 2018, Employees Only had opened in Singapore, Hong Kong, Miami and Los Angeles. It was Sydney’s turn – and the speakeasy-style CBD bar has been a must-visit ever since. That’s if you can find it. As with all Employees Only outposts, there’s no nameplate save a neon sign promising a psychic. For Zaric and his partners, the intrigue is all part of the experience that adds up to a memorable night out.
Employees Only opened in 2011 and Sydney followed in 2018. What was the gap you were looking to fill internationally?
A lot of the bars that were prominent at that time were focusing on a very meticulous approach to cocktailing, providing an experience where it was all about the drink and taking their time to make the drink. They had rules in the bar such as you can't wear hats, can’t talk to ladies unless they approach you, cannot do this, cannot do that. We only had three rules: you can't be violent, can't be abusive and no credit.
For us, it was all about the guests and their experience. We understood – because we all worked from the ground up – that hospitality is about a human experience. We facilitate an emotional experience, a human experience and this is why people come back. One of our partners, Henry [LaFargue], would always say that we're in the business of selling possibilities.
That's what a great night out is, isn’t it? There’s a feeling anything can happen.
Yeah, I really do believe that. I believe that in a vibrant bar scene there's an energy exchange, people communicate mostly non-verbally. There’s no dating app that can take away from an in-person experience of somebody's energy. This is why bars and restaurants are so significant for our culture because without them, we wouldn't have that opportunity to have one drink, relax a little bit and then start looking around and maybe swipe left or right in your mind.
Another thing that was important for us is to keep insisting that cocktails are a part of a gastronomical experience. There is a place for a pre-dinner drink and an aperitif and then with dinner of course you want to have wine, but after dinner there's a completely different world that opens up with after-dinner drinks and fancy cocktails. We insisted on providing that experience, so we make sure that every Employees Only has a significant kitchen, because we believe people have the best experience when they can pair drinks and food together.
How would you describe the food menu in Sydney?
It’s farm-to-table with high-quality ingredients and food that encourages sharing. We always like to have some locally appropriate dishes wherever we open, so if we're in Asia, there will be a few Asian dishes. Other than that, it's kind of the new American bistro concept where you have some appetisers that are easy to share, and then you have salads, main courses and desserts. It’s very straightforward but it's all delicious.
What about the cocktail menu? How do you approach it?
My job in the company is to run all the bar programs, but I’m very liberal with giving the local bar teams the opportunity to come to me first with their suggestions because it's their bar, they work there, and I want them to feel empowered and feel free to express themselves. I only intervene if something really doesn't taste good or doesn't make sense.
You would have seen many cocktail trends come and go. Which trends are you enjoying at the moment?
Thinking outside of the box is important for any creative process. For example, if you are using milk to do a milk wash and clarify a cocktail, what about using feta cheese brine instead of milk and introducing a savoury element? It still has lactose and will react with acid and create the curds that will clarify the cocktail, but it'll give it a little bit of different accentuating flavour and mouth feel. I want to encourage things like that.
If you really want to play, then play with your full lungs and your full heart open, don't just try to reinvent the wheel again and again.