Steve McDermott is a bartender who has been around the traps, it’s fair to say. He’s also pretty good at spinning a yarn or two, having worked some of London’s more exclusive venues.
These days, you’ll find McDermott running the bar at Sydney’s The Duke of Clarence, where he is using his experience of running a local boozer (he was co-owner of Brisbane’s award-winning Statler & Waldorf), with the experience he acquired working for Salvatore Calabrese, one of the godfathers of the cocktail renaissance and known to many simply as The Maestro.
Here, McDermott shares his story on how he got into the hospitality game on the Sunshine Coast of Queensland, how it took him to the heights of bartending in London, and how he treats service now at The Duke of Clarence.
As told to Sam Bygrave
I originally wanted to be a chef. I was doing well at culinary stuff at school and whatnot; I’m really impatient, and I saw that it was four years of study and I was sick of school — I wasn’t going to school for another four years. Hyatt Hotels did a program with kids who didn’t want to finish the last year of school where they offered a 12 month traineeship — I thought it was pretty good. I applied for it and ended up getting it.
I was buying cocktail books and memorising drinks like the Negroni and stuff like that, and no-one ever ordered one. I’d force these classic drinks on people, on to people who wanted Mango Daiquiris I’d go try a Manhattan and they were like, “what the fuck is this?” They’d go back up to the bar and order from someone else.
I’d been working in Ian Schrager hotels, that had sort of run its course — I’d decided to get out of working at hotels. I didn’t know what to do. A friend of mine, he’s an incredible optimist, said that Fifty had just opened and I should apply for a job. I was like, “you’re an idiot — I’ll never get a job there.”
I decided I’d try, because at least I could go for a drink. I put on my best suit, got dressed up, printed out my resume and got to Fifty St James only to find out it was a private members’ club and I wasn’t allowed to go in there. They turned me away. Luckily, I knew one of the guys working security there and I gave him my resume.
I was out, dressed up, and I’d never been to the Lanesborough, where Salvatore used to work, so I went there for a drink. One of the first cocktail books I ever bought was Classic Cocktails by Salvatore, so he was a bit of a hero of mine.
The guys there were really good, they engage the customer and get chatting. They asked me what I was up to, so I told them how my night had gone so far — which they had a bit of a laugh at. They introduced me to the gentleman sat next to me, who was also on his own having a drink, a guy by the name of Douw Steyn, who is the owner of the Saxon Hotel in South Africa — it turns out he was a member at Fifty and was really good friends with Salvatore.
We got chatting, and my wife is South African and we’d been there a few times, he didn’t look like a wealthy person and I was chatting away thinking he was a normal dude. He said, “I’m heading over there, would you like to come with me, I’m allowed to take guests there?” I thought, what a stroke of luck — I’m in the door!
I thought we were going to wave a cab, but his chauffeur and his Bentley is there, we jump in. I was a little bit surprised. We drive over to Fifty, the door’s held open for us, as soon as the guy walked in I figured out he was pretty important. The minute we walk in we’re sat down, Salvatore’s straight on to it and comes right over. Mr Steyn says, “Salvatore, I’d like you to meet a friend of mine, this is Steve.”
I said, “It’s funny, I actually tried to come in here earlier to hand in a resume,” and he had it in the drawer — so I figured if I’m ever going to have a chance I might as well put him on the spot in front of this important dude. I say, “What’s the chances of me coming to do a trial here?”
You play your best hand. I tried to keep it cool, I said I’d love to work here and have been buying your books for years — total fanboy. He gave me an email address and phone number of his manager, and told me to contact him. So I got in contact with him, and it was a no. A straight up no.
I figured out that Salvatore worked early evenings and would then take off. So I would call up the front desk and ask to speak to him. They’d put him on the phone, and I’d say, “Hi Salvatore, it’s Steve McDermott here, I’m wondering if there’s anything there — I’m happy with any position.” He said no. I hassled him for a long time. Then one time, he said, “Would you be happy with one day a week?” I said I’d take it.
I increased it to two days a week because I offered to clean the bar for him, top to bottom, and get it set up looking schmick. I then started learning all the cocktails, and eventually got an extra night per week. I was food runner two nights a week at a mate’s pub supporting myself being Salvatore’s cleaner.
I’d been there six months, and they still hadn’t changed my name to Steve on the roster — it was the previous guy’s name. It was quite cliquey there, they were all Italians working there and I didn’t speak a word of it. They were helping each other with comps and stuff, and I wouldn’t be told about anything — I was a bit of an afterthought. UK Bartender of the Year was coming up, and I wanted to enter, but they had all their competitors for the year; I just wanted to take part, and said I wanted to show my boss I was super keen and wanted to learn. So they let me into it. I was competitor number 13. I do the London heat, and I win. I was now London bartender of the year, and I was full time the next day. Within a week, the head bartender there who was a bit of a dick, and who had said he was thinking of heading home to Italy, well Salvatore helped him make that decision. I was the new head bartender.
Service was a massive one in London. The beauty of moving overseas is you’re handing this person a resume with all these places on it they’ve never heard of. They’re not going to call them. The usual thing is they give you a trial to see if you’re any good, so you’re on a bit more of a even playing field.
I learnt pretty quickly there’s a class system there — something I hadn’t been exposed to. I learned about different customs for different cultures and what’s polite to one person isn’t necessarily polite or respectful to another.
Going to somewhere like Salvatore’s, it was customer first, service second, product actually came a bit further back. So it wasn’t just we’re a bar that makes great drinks; it was about how good a host you were, your attention to detail, remembering people’s names, that sort of stuff. I learned to bartender not being able to touch ingredients with my hands, just tongs and a knife — it’s like if you imagine doing silver service behind the bar but at a high pace.
It was so busy. You’d do 10 hours of four people deep at the bar, in a suit, using tongs and absolutely going for it — it was fucking great.
When I came back, I took a year out on the Sunshine Coast and went surfing. The wife and I went to Brisbane, I started working at The Bowery, she started working at Canvas, then the opportunity came up to do my own venue; three and a half years we had that. Unfortunately it didn’t end well, we shut the doors and moved on. It was time for another change.
I like well-executed simplicity. Paying attention to those little details that make something go from good to great. There are adjustments that need to be made, we’re a different culture here; Australians don’t like to be fussed over. They like good service, they have a very high standard for food and drinks, but it’s more relaxed and less formal.
I’m trying to do introduce a few things that worked for me in five star hotels and private members’ clubs in the UK, without making the service overly stuffy or too formal.
Just exceed people’s expectations; that’s what we strive for.