Words by: Ian Cameron
Go to the website www.tailornyc.com and you'll find details of an amazing bar and restaurant. Check out the menus and you'll find dishes that 'blur the line between dinner and dessert' and cocktails that offer 'unexpected twists on classic libations created by Eben Freeman', the latter referring to solid Cuba Libres, Ramos Gin Fizzes and White Russians, absinthe gummi bears, mushroom margaritas, and mixers such as bell pepper lemonade and smoked Coke. If you're interested in hearing more, you'll probably click to see the venue's blog - to see more pictures, find out the latest news. But that's where your heart will sink. The last blog entry was Wednesday, July 15, 2009. While its website might live on, Tailor is dead. 525 Broome Street is now occupied by Julie Reiner's new tropical lounge Lani Kai. So what happened to Tailor? Where did this pioneer of molecular mixology go? And what did he inspire in the bartending community?
The answers to these questions are, according to Eben: that it wasn't a financial success even if it was an operational one; he's been doing some international consultancy and now works at a fine dining restaurant group in his native New York; and that he actually inspired very little. That last answer is revealing in how Eben is simultaneously downbeat about his own lauded capabilities and yet exasperated that no-one else has apparently picked up the baton he ran with.
He attributes his success - well, he probably wouldn't call it success, but at least his reputation - not to his own innate creativity but to his collaborations and not a bit of luck. "Tailor was really meant to showcase Sam Mason as a chef. Fat washing or absinthe gummi bears wouldn't have happened without him"; or "I think that things just fell into place"; then there's "I don't think anyone could enjoy the success and notoriety I enjoyed because of that combination [of events, context and people]".
Part of that combination was the state of the New York scene in the years preceding the opening of Tailor, when Eben was cutting his molecular cloth at the WD50 restaurant with Wylie Dufresne, and before that, the Louis Palladin restaurant where he met Sam Mason. "I think we were ahead of anything. In New York everyone was focused on classic cocktails, in rediscovering old books. So when people came in and saw our list they went crazy.
"In retrospect mushroom margaritas and gummi bears were ideas that took people by surprise and I happened to have good enough media skills to capitalize on the attention. Journalists are always looking for an angle and I came to represent the new angle. I like to think we shook up the community and inspired people."
Just as he attracted fans for the difference he brought to the scene in 2003 with WD50 and in 2007 with Tailor, Eben says he was not taken seriously by the bartending establishment who saw his world of liquid nitrogen, gelatine, fat-washing and caviars; of pumpernickel and raisin Scotch, cedar-soaked bourbon, miso and butterscotch bourbon; of cryovacs, and cooking things sous vide, as anathema.
"People saw it as a lark. Established mixologists didn't pay any attention and didn't examine what I did. There are people who wanted to simplify what I did as a joke. They didn't invite me into their community: they looked at me and what I did and concluded I had no foundation in classic mixology but now people are talking about Jerry Thomas and suddenly they are recognising what I did has a place. For a long time people didn't take me seriously as a bartender. I think that was their mistake."
Then just as you think he's about to acknowledge the pioneering role he has played - which has earned him comparisons as the Heston Blumenthal of the drinks world - he's back down on himself again, and on the industry. "I have a low opinion of myself in general. I say if I'm a success it's a sign of the fact our industry is bankrupt. I've managed to make a success but I think bartenders are not paid a commensurate rate for the imagination, talent and intellectual property they are bringing into the market. I've got to travel the world, been in the press in six continents, but I'm hardly a millionaire."
He's gloriously candid in explaining what drove him out from behind the bar and into exploring what the kitchen might bring to the bar. Not for him a profound quest to push at the boundaries for drinks' own sake, rather that his interest in molecular technique "came out of a boredom".
"Bartending has never been enough. I've always been interested in design and service and that led me to the kitchen. Now I could design a bar, train the staff, choose the spirits, I know my way through the tasting menu and the sakes, the wines, I can host and I can fix the toilet."
His abilities in progressive cocktails (he uses the term interchangeably with 'molecular mixology') would probably have been nothing if it wasn't for a profound interest in how things work. "My whole point about molecular mixology technique is you need to learn as much as you can. I might have an idea about flavours but it's with my equipment knowledge and ideas that I can make it work. Working with interesting people is better than financial gain and especially so if you can learn their technique: if you have an idea of flavour and knowledge about equipment you can probably figure it out."
It's this ability to deconstruct and rebuild things that led to many of his most famous creations. Smoked coke, for example, which he served with bourbon in the Waylon cocktail. "Smoked coke came out of understanding how the soda [gun] system worked. Sam would smoke ice cream and knowing how he did that I figured I could take the syrup out, smoke it and put it back. Knowing how to use the equipment is key to making that transition to the kitchen and the culture of the chef. If you don't know how to use a cryovac machine that costs $25,000 and you break it, you're done in that area."
He says he's never been "that person" who goes through 12 or 13 or several hundreds of iterations of a drink before putting it on the menu. Rather than over-analyse why it works and whether it would be better tweaked this way or that, better to start serving it. "Everyone thinks I am a scientist, but I was an awful student, and when it came to chemistry that's when things fell apart. I was a little bit 'last minute' about everything but succeeded by just seeming to have more interesting ideas than other people."
Eben's greatest exasperation becomes evident when he talks about Tailor's legacy - or lack of one. Despite its creative success, he says no bar or bartender has since attempted to pick up where he and Sam left off. "It breaks my heart that Tailor closed. We had put our hearts and souls into it, and now experimental dining and drinking doesn't exist in New York. I thought someone would take it on, so I'm a little disappointed."
Actually, you sense he's being rather more circumspect and gracious than he actually feels. "I see people in different countries who are literally doing exactly my recipes without crediting me or acknowledging it's been done before. I really expected people to run with it. I'm still confidant the next person is out there.
"I never wanted to be the poster boy for progressive cocktails - I've always seen myself as lazy: I just happened upon the concept, created the vocabulary and shared the ideas and thought that that they would figure out what to do next rather than simply repeat it. I would welcome a person who takes an academic approach to what I do."
Unfortunately, that 'next person' has not emerged from working with Eben at Tailor, though he is tentatively enthusiastic about emerging domestic talent and some players on the international bar scene - Tony Conigliaro gets a look in, as does Paul Tvaroh of Shoreditch's Lounge Bohemia. He's not the first to say it but he laments the development of the parasitic trend where bartenders seek to tick that box on their CV to show they've worked in a big-name bar, for a big-name bartender, only to move on to the corporate world of brand ambassadorships. Such is life, whatever industry you work in, but he's understandably miffed when they didn't even put in the hours.
"Lots of people seem to like to claim they worked for me. There are a lot of people interested in telling people they worked there but it was me staying late and coming in early to do the infusions. I honestly don't blame people for not wanting to put in the time - but the reality is there are so many quality jobs and as long as you get attached to a Death & Co. or a PDT you're going to be fine."
His heart seems to have been mended through a spell in international consultancy in Australia, Hong Kong, Jakarta and Bangkok, and he's enjoying the challenge he now faces as director of Bar Operations & Innovation for Altamarea Group, which runs five fine dining restaurants in New York. It's the good kind of challenge: putting fine dining bars on the map, so that their bars are as much on the bartending tourist trail as the Deaths and PDTs of this world.
For Eben this is a wholly new chapter, with the drinks at Ai Fiori on Fifth Avenue; Morini on Lafayette Street and Marea on Central Park South, and two restaurants in New Jersey all notably liquid in nature: simpler drinks, more classic in style. The cocktails might not be as crazy as at Tailor, but you can recognise some Eben-style touches.
"I now consider myself more of a curator than a creator," he says. "It is not a conscious decision to stray from 'Molecular', I am just doing what I have always done: following the chef's lead and making it work at the bar. Progress will never go away and I am always working on something. I did brown butter rum, orange foam and a number of infusions and force carbonated drinks at Ai Fiori when we opened so, the language has not been lost."
He says his recent consultancies abroad have inspired him to "teach and share and lead". "I'm responsible for building teams and inspiring my head bartenders, helping them to understand my palate and the Italian/French vocabulary we are working with. They can contribute their own drinks to the menu and share ownership with the other bartenders on staff. Most of the drinks on our restaurant menus belong to the staff who have trained under me and represent my ideas about flavour and balance, and I'm proud of that fact."
That Italian/French vocabulary reflects a focus on Italian amaros ("they're all the rage") and vermouths - a sign of a move to lower strength cocktails. He's currently experimenting with sun-dried tomato vermouth. "I tried a simple infusion but there was too much salt in the tomatoes, so I experimented with different brands and then I asked the kitchen to oven-dry some tomatoes, then I'll rehydrate them with a cryovac and cook them sous vide." All in a day's work eh? He makes it sound simple - perhaps that's the sign of a real master at work.
"Fine dining has always been my central interest so I've gravitated to an environment where I'm constantly learning new things along the way. I like to think I'm a more rounded individual. It's very difficult to find people who are interested in the fine dining angle. They're either interested in clubs or hardcore cocktail bars. I want to teach people that cocktails are part of what we do even in fine dining. I've found people who are interested but as far as coming in early to do the infusions..."
Eben admits that culturally it also remains an ongoing struggle in the city to find restaurateurs willing to invest in their bar programmes. "They never work it into their business plans, they'll build a bar with a pillar right through a one-station station bar." He sees a silver lining in the recession. "People are reluctant to spend money on tasting menus. I think beverage benefits from that: rather than spend masses on a meal at the Fat Duck or wherever, people are more comfortable paying $30 for a drink or two rather than an entrée. A lot of people that came to WD50 came just for cocktails and desserts."
So does he get his drinks right every time? His former mentor Wylie Dufresne was, he says, "very upset" when one night he tried to make a drink with tuna fish brine, though he adds "there are plenty of people putting anchovies into their olive brine before they make Dirty Martinis."
No one likes a conceited big-head, but Eben's just the other way round - a self-effacing, modest (overly so) innovator, definitely the type of bartender the world needs more of than showboating look-at-me types. Here at diffordsguide we're comfortable with labelling him a pioneer.