A Permanent Port of Call Tending Bar
By Robert Simonson | The New York Times
Photo by Cheryl Gerber | The New York Times
NEW ORLEANS — There are as many versions of the Sazerac here as there are bars. Still, the one made by the bartender Paul Gustings stands out.
“I use much more Peychaud’s than others do,” he stated, mentioning the bright red bitters that are essential to the drink. Eleven dashes. Or 13, or 10, depending on how full the bottle is. (The dashes are smaller when it’s first opened, he explained, and larger toward the bottom.)
Mr. Gustings has his own way of doing things. An éminence grise in the New Orleans bartender community, he has put in considerable time at two of the city’s more fabled bars, Napoleon House and Tujague’s. He has also beendescribed in Esquire magazine as possibly “the crustiest bartender on earth,” a smile rarely creasing his shaggy goatee.
Lately, those who know him tell of a sunnier disposition. That may have something to do with his new showcase, at the 94-year-old Broussard’s, on Conti Street in the French Quarter. Last fall, Creole Cuisine Restaurant Concepts, which owns several local restaurants, installed him behind the bar — rechristened the Empire Bar — at the renovated Broussard’s. So far, the hire has paid off.
“We notice when Paul is behind the bar and when he’s not from the sales,” said Zeid Ammari, the chief operating officer of Creole Cuisine.
Mr. Gustings doesn’t disagree with that assessment, but isn’t content with it. “When I’m not there, they leave,” he said. “That’s what we’re working on now.”
Mr. Gustings, 58, has a back story worthy of a multicultural port town. Born in the Netherlands, at 21 he opened an atlas and flipped a coin. After two weeks in New York he eventually landed in New Orleans, via Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Canada and Belize. He worked a succession of bar jobs before being hired at the Napoleon House. His time there overlapped with his tenure at Tujague’s, where he conjured up a 43-drink cocktail list including the Vieux Carré, Aviation and other classics, and attracted a following. “By that time, I figured, this is it,” he said. “Because I really, really liked tending bar.”
Though sometimes that didn’t show. “He was one of the first people I saw with a bottle of acid phosphate on the back bar,” recalled Todd A. Price, a dining writer for The Times-Picayune, of a visit to Tujague’s. Mr. Price asked what drinks he made with it. “He said, ‘Nothing tonight!’ ”
Elizabeth York, a devoted regular, saw that brusque manner when she first met him. “It didn’t take long to find out that despite his attempts to have a gruff exterior, he’s a real softy.” She prizes his way with a Ramos Gin Fizz, but said, “I pretty much trust anything he puts in a glass.”
Broussard’s has given him free rein, and the results smack of patience and old methods. Regular offerings included a silky clarified milk punch and a deep-flavored, red-wine-based Nuremberg Punch. Each takes weeks to prepare. “His drinks have a lot of layers to them,” Mr. Price said. “They taste like they’ve been rested a while.”
Life for Mr. Gustings is as old world as his drinks. He has an apartment near Broussard’s, so he walks to work and never drives. He only recently acquired a computer; email is a new deal.
He regards his current spate of good fortune with a veteran’s measured gratitude.
“I think it’s very nice that people appreciate what I do, but I don’t want people to think that now all of a sudden I’m Mr. Gustings who doesn’t want to talk to you because I’ve been in the newspaper,” he said. “I’m still just making cocktails. I’m not putting people on the moon.”
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