Tell us a little bit about your backgrounds – what lead to you starting a restaurant together in New York?
We had been working together with the Moo Life Group for years and become close friends and colleagues. The Moo Life Group suffered badly from Hurricane Sandy and was forced to close its flagship, The Sunburnt Cow. We were given the opportunity to take over the location on 79th St and decided to maintain an Australian theme but bring it up to a more relevant representation of what Australian hospitality is all about.
What’s the concept behind the two joined establishments?
Burke & Wills is designed as a neighborhood restaurant and bar. A place to call your local. We wanted to do great food, service and cocktails in a comfortable, cool & sophisticated environment. We try to cater to the diverse market on the Upper West Side.
The unique nature of the two-level space we have, spurned the idea of doing a ‘speakeasy’-style cocktail bar on the second floor. We decided to use the colonial cricket clubs of the late 19th and early 20th century as an inspiration. You enter through a secret door at Burke & Wills and are transported to another time and place. They are two distinct experiences under one roof and the contrast plays well against each other.
How did the concept originally come to you? What was the process of getting this idea of the ground?
It was a really collaborative process. The idea of doing a cocktail bar had always appealed to us and we had this perfect space for it. The UWS doesn’t have any legitimate cocktail bars so we felt there was a significant gap in the market. We worked with a great design team to bring the space to life and collaborated with one of the city’s best mixologists, Greg Seider to put the beverage program together.
Burke & Wills was a labor of love that we designed and built together. We really wanted to do a modern representation of Australian food, wine and hospitality with a cool ‘downtown’ feel.
The Manhattan Cricket Club pays homage to the classic cricket clubs in Australia, how has this translated into the design of the space and membership?
The design was based on what you might find in many private clubs of the colonial era. Tufted leather, dark wood paneling, pressed copper ceilings, flock wallpaper, eclectic furniture etc. It was designed as an intimate bar that transports people to another time and place for a moment. Our membership program is a perk that we hope will build a community around the bar. Members receive priority access, the ability to reserve a table, a locker where they may purchase and keep a special bottle for their consumption at the club and access to members-only events such as tasting, cocktail masterclasses, outings and presentations.
What can we expect to find on Burke & Wills' menu?
We have been inspired by the early Mediterranean influence on Australian food that came with the big influx of Greeks and Italian to Australia after World War I. We source Aussie ingredients like Kangaroo and Barramundi and have a big focus on seasonal produce and local seafood too.
What does a typical day for you look like?
I usually get to the restaurant around 11am and give the place a good looking over. I like to put my hands on everything so I really know what is going on. Then there is some obligatory paperwork to do. I place and receive orders and start planning for the night ahead. I will have a conversation with chef about menu changes, specials, etc. and see what staff I have for the evening and what I have on the books. At 5pm I run a briefing with the staff where we discuss the menu, usually taste a dish or two and a wine to keep everyone’s knowledge strong. We also talk about any service points that we want to focus on and highlight any reservations that might require extra service. From 5:30pm-1am I am on the floor of the restaurant and at the MCC making sure the evening is going smoothly and trying to make contact with as many guests as possible. This is the best part of the job. At 1am I write a report that goes to all the other managers and chef, detailing any issues from the night. After that, I usually pour myself a stiff drink.
Where in New York do you go for inspiration?
I am a huge fan of Danny Meyer and what he has done. Union Square Café is still one of my favorite restaurants because they get it right every time. I love what the guys did at Maison Premier in Brooklyn. Their attention to detail is fantastic and their drinks are amazing. The Summit Bar on Ave C is a really cool spot too.
What’s your favorite cocktail and why?
I love a classic gin martini to start off the night. Made with a nice London Dry-style gin. Right now, I love No.3 London Dry Gin. Stirred, not shaken. It’s classic and it whets the appetite.
Later on its going to be an Old Fashioned, but not the tormented way with muddled cherries and orange. We do ours with a blend of orange and aromatic bitters, agave nectar and a good Rye. I love all the Ryes from The High West Distillery. The old fashioned is a great way to tone down the harshness of Rye whisky and really bring out the flavors without adulterating too much.
What has been the biggest challenge for you since you started?
Trying to find good people to work for you is always a challenge. The hospitality industry is such a melting pot and it can be hard to find people that can dedicate themselves to the job. The other is trying to balance work and family. I have a 1-year old.
What are your future plans for Burke & Wills and the Manhattan Cricket Club? Are there any new establishments on the horizon?
Nothing new on the horizon. We are really focused on building Burke & Wills and the MCC to be the best it can be. We also offer hospitality consulting services which pop up from time to time. This is always something that has interested me. As a team, we have over 50-years of combined experience in the industry and have a very hands-on, systems-focused approach that can really help people when they are opening a place for the first time.
How can people find out more about Burke & Wills and Manhattan Cricket Club?
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[Interview: December 2014]