Meet Justin Timberlake's Mixologist, Eddy Buckingham.
Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing & Communications Specialist, Advance.
Being Justin Timberlake’s personal mixologist is not the worst title to have on your resume. Eddy Buckingham – the owner of that very title – is an Australian living in New York, one who is about to open Chinese Tuxedo, a modern Asian fusion restaurant in Chinatown, Manhattan and The Good Sort, a vegan Australian Espresso and Chinese Tea Bar. No mean feat.
After working in the industry for 12 years, and living in New York for the past seven, Eddy has picked up a thing or two about the hospitality industry, particularly the influence Australians have had on culinary culture in New York City – one of the hardest locations succeed in the world.
Eddy spoke to Advance about the differences between Australia and the US for the hospitality industry, his biggest challenge with opening Chinese Tuxedo and his advice for young Australians wanting to come over to pursue similar careers.
Why do you think Australian hospitality professionals fit so well in New York?
Generally, I think Aussies are well very positioned to start a hospitality venture in NYC. We’re held in high esteem and have a substantial, well-regarded community in New York. That’s something that gives us a bit of a head start. The typical Australian hospitality culture offers a point of difference and expectation of the New York dining/hospitality experience. Without stereotyping too much – and I mean this very positively – Australians are all very laid back, very friendly – and culturally, in America – that can offer a point of difference. Australians also cultivate a very exceptional food and beverage culture – it’s definitely a uniquely opportune time right now to be in food and beverage in New York.
Why New York? Why not anywhere else in America?
A sophisticated food and beverage culture is definitely growing elsewhere in the USA – for example there’s some really good stuff happening on the West Coast right now with a lot of Aussies kicking ass in LA.
The thing about New York – in our field it’s not just the centre of the USA; it’s the centre of the world. There’s obviously a substantial draw for Australians to move here – there’s a bigger, more established community here than in other cities – I’ve been here seven years and in that time seen some significant growth of Australians making the move.
How different is the hospitality scene now than when you first moved here?
There were a few places open when I came here – but the growth has been really substantial.
It’s become a more accessible destination for a lot of people – which is the best possible thing that can happen for the wider Australian community here in New York.
Business wise, what’s the main differentiation between Australia and New York for the hospitality industry?
It’s really hard to describe New York in one fell swoop. First and foremost, the economics of the city are vastly different to Australia. Anyone coming over here, on an operational level, definitely needs to understand the difference in basic industry principles. For example, commercial real estate here, as a general rule, is much more expensive, and the laws and conventions around commercial leasing are a lot different to Australia. There are flip sides to that also. Labour costs here are far less, as are product costs. Ultimately, the principles remain the same – purchase the product, repurpose it, and sell it at a premium. That’s the core business principle – that doesn’t change. But the pressures, challenges, and the standard expectations you apply can be very different.
Do you think it’s an additional challenge to success in New York? Or hospitality is hospitality anywhere?
Hospitality is hospitality anywhere, and if you’re good at it, you’re well situated. It’s a tough industry – it’s very demanding with a lot of moving parts – particularly in New York where you have such an informed and demanding clientele. There are additional elements in New York that may make it harder to succeed – for example an exceptional décor is paramount to be successful. Your vendor relationships matter. There are a lot of moving parts, it’s like conducting an orchestra – getting everything integrated and working towards a common goal. But – having said that – if you come with that generosity of spirit that’s fundamental to succeeding in hospitality: welcoming people, making them feel good, comfortable etc., then you’re going to enjoy success.
Is the marketplace in New York far more crowded than Australia?
Yes and no. It is definitely more crowded, but I also think it represents more opportunity, by virtue of density and critical mass. When my former business partner and I developed The Liberty we were looking at a block that had six bars on it – I had a lot of Australian friends ask me if that was a smart move as it’s a saturated market – but by some brand differentiation and by trying to identify a demographic that is underserved in that saturated market – I could carve some market share.
I’m opening a Chinese restaurant, Chinese Tuxedo, in the heart of Chinatown, Manhattan, and there are probably about one hundred Chinese restaurants in a short walk from my space. A lot of business school or economic principles will tell you that it’s not a smart play to open a restaurant in such a dense area – but I can’t think of a block in the entire planet I’d rather open Chinese Tuxedo than Doyers Street, Chinatown, of Manhattan NYC. People are open to new things and are open to ambitious projects here. They’re inclined to give things a chance and respond positively. For someone that’s in the industry of conceiving and creating new culinary enterprises – there’s nowhere I’d rather be in New York.
There’s obviously a very well known Australian culinary culture here. Will you take advantage of that groundswell, or will you differentiate yourself and not be “labelled” as an Australian institution?
I’m very proud of my Australian heritage – I love the culture I come from and my working community – the head chef for Chinese Tuxedo I’m bringing over from Australia where he’s spent the bulk of his career. My front of house manager is an Australian/US citizen – so I definitely don’t reject the “Australianism,” I celebrate and engage it – but it’s not in my plans for it to be identified as an Australian restaurant. I would like our identity to be a New York restaurant. It represents a uniquely New York story.
Is the quality of food here very different to Australia?
Definitely. The baseline quality of food is better in Australia – but we can get some pretty quality stuff here – you just have to pay for it!
What’s been the biggest challenge in opening Chinese Tuxedo?
Local politics. I originally picked up a site on the corner of Bowery and Spring St, which fell through due to community opposition. On Doyers St we’re not opening with a full liquor license – we only have a beer and wine license. We have one am trading seven days a week, which is okay, but not ideal. I think that our location lends itself to late night dining. It’s a shame – we were misrepresented as a nightlife destination, not a food destination. Dealing with government agencies, department of buildings, the department of health, the FDNY – it’s all part of opening a space. Creating relationships and partnering with the right people is the key to overcome this. It’s certainly not easy here – in fact I’d say it’s quite tough. But the “land of opportunity” cliché is there for a reason.
What advice would you give to young Australians wanting to move over to the US and work in hospitality?
I’d say to get a plane ticket and to get over here! It’s not something you can do from overseas – you need to be here to experience it, know it, and spend time on the ground and foster those relationships. It’s imperative to gain an understanding of how the economics work. You can’t understand them on a strictly intellectual level. Just get here, get a job and hit the ground running. The good news is, there’s more and more operators here as the network grows which means more opportunity – you just can’t show up thinking you know it or get it, because you don’t. You’ll get chewed up and spat out pretty quickly! The game is different.
The Australian community here is great. I remember when I got here, a lot of people paid it forward to me and helped me out. We’re all expats – everyone remembers moving over here and looking for that initial job.
Do you have any restaurateur idols, in New York or around the world?
Danny Meyer and Keith McNally are the key influencers of New York hospitality. They probably operate the most perfectly realised venues in New York.
What are your thoughts on McNally abolishing tipping?
That’s definitely a very interesting trend right now in the industry. I wish that tipping culture didn’t exist – it creates a huge disparity between front of house and back of house staff – and I applaud those who are trying to shift it – it’s a good thing. However it’s a challenging time right now. I looked at it, I considered it – but someone like Danny Meyers can call the shots and mess with the status quo because he’s an industry heavyweight – as a start-up small business operator I’m in a position in my career where I think that would present real risk in terms of my labour modelling and hiring, and also guest expectations. I love the idea of being a trailblazer and doing the right thing – but Meyer comes from a very empowered position.