“Use your imagination,” says Igor Hadzimajlovic, as he walks me through the future site of Employees Only (EO) in Lan Kwai Fong. It’s a flurry of hardhats, concrete and sawing wood, but he’s gesturing here and there, pointing out where the banquettes will wrap around the room, the main bar, and the positions of the ‘20s and ‘30s era artpieces. “We’ll also have three bathrooms, which is like my dream come true,” he jokes. “We’re simple people,” quips Owen Gibler, dryly.
Hadzimajlovic and Gibler are here to launch the Hong Kong outpost of the New York original, which only just opened in Singapore last year, and there’s a lot of work to be done before its opening—targeted for June. Observing the early evening cluster of delivery vans and rubbish trolleys trundling by the sloping road, which will soon turn into a raucous thoroughfare of cheap fluorescent shots and loosened-tie debauchery, I have to say that I’m a little surprised by the choice of location. “We’re looking to be a bit of a diamond in the rough,” grins Gibler. “There’s a lot of rough. But it’ll make us shine brighter; we’ll bring a bit of class and polish to it.”
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Since EO isn’t anywhere near ready, we chat over pints of Anchor Steam in a nearby bar, where the Coldplay is annoyingly loud and Hadzimajlovic gets recognised by staff. At breakneck speed, the duo talk me through their vision for EO, why some bars have lost the ‘fun’, and the one thing you should always refrain from asking a bartender.
Hong Kong Tatler Dining (HKTD): What’s the first thing you look for when you scan a bar menu?
Owen Gibler (OG): This sounds dumb, but readability and simplicity—something that is straightforward. Some places can over-intellectualise their drinks list. Or get you lost and you realise you’ve been reading for five minutes and you don’t even know what you’re doing.
Igor Hadzimajlovic (IH): If a menu is like a booklet, I usually don’t go past page two. It’s an overkill.
HKTD: How has bartending evolved since you both started in the industry?
IH: There was an era, around the mid-oughts, where bartending and cocktail bars tended to be a little more cerebral and serious. The booklets, the large paragraphs about things people didn’t care about. I respect and appreciate it but they turned the bar into a fine dining scene. And for me, the bar is the opposite of a fine dining environment. I think it took a while but the cards have turned and bars are becoming more like what they used to be.
OG: The word he’s looking for is ‘fun’.
HKTD: Why do people get it so wrong then?
OG: There’s a circular reinforcement of attempting to outdo something that has already been outdone. Because there’s a lot of money and energy and press behind competitions and trade operations that mean you can’t put out another daiquiri. You can’t be on the cover of Tatler by saying ‘I just made a daiquiri’. People, in order to try and chase this press or to get respect from each other, they feel like they’ve got to create the next new weird something—to the point where it’s almost odd. You get dining_stories like ‘I can only make this special syrup by collecting this flower on the eastern side of a mountain at midnight’. It’s a gigantic ‘what are you talking about?’
HKTD: How do you think the perception of your profession has changed?
IH: People finally look at it as a profession. When I started bartending, usually the third or fourth question when I’m interacting with a customer is ‘yeah but what is it you really want to do?’. I really did want to do something else back then though [laughs]. I was into film back then, I wanted to edit. It didn’t work out.
OG: For any bartender over 30, that wasn’t their original game plan. In Singapore, me and Steve [Schneider] were among some of the oldest bartenders in the city. Kids now—they purposefully go into this and say ‘this is going to be my life’s work’, which is exciting and bizarre and new.
HKTD: What can people do to be a good bar guest?
IH: Say please and thank you to begin with. Ask how their day is. It goes a long way. Try not to snap your fingers to get attention.
OG: Follow your gut. Read through the menu and have what you actually think you’re going to like. If you hate bananas but you think, ‘oh but I’ve heard so much about this banana drink maybe it’s going to change the way I think about them’…Don’t do that. Just believe in yourself.
IH: Ideally, try not to order something that’s not on the menu, without even looking at the menu. This is getting more and more noticeable throughout the years. You give someone a menu, they won’t even look at it before asking ‘can I get something not on the menu?’
HKTD: It's funny that everybody wants something new and bespoke these days.
OG: Here’s the thing—the things on the menu, we’ve practiced them. They are a compiled list of suggestions that we have put together on purpose. And I’ve made each of these drinks hundreds of times. If you want an [off menu] cocktail and you think that my first time making it is going to be better than the thing I’ve practiced hundreds of times, then sure, I’ll roll the dice with you. Believe me though—I’m not secretly holding four better drinks in my pocket that I’m not writing down for some reason.
IH: They usually want the drink named after them.
OG: I have lied to several people in a row and named several things after them, and it’s the same drink. I’ll tell you. It’s always a gimlet. It was a gimlet the whole time. We make a killer gimlet.
HKTD: What goals do you have by bringing EO over to Hong Kong?
IH: Hopefully we’ll be able to recreate what we have special in New York and Singapore, which is a casual yet professional environment where you can have a good time and a nice bite. And let loose.
OG: We’re not reinventing the wheel for cocktails. We’re not rewriting how things are put together. I hate the word because it’s been bandied about, but it’s about hospitality. The energy and the presentation and the feel of a room and a space is crucial. I don’t think the purpose of the bar is to try and reinvent any wheels. We’re just the most fun and exciting place that you’ve never been. We’re just working on that.
Employees Only, 16 Lan Kwai Fong, Central, Hong Kong
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