Between his celebrity-stacked private bookings and his consulting work for BR Guest Hospitality, Yusef Austin, otherwise known as The Cocktail Architect, is a hard one to keep up with — and always has been. After hitchhiking his way to San Francisco at age 17 for a Grateful Dead tour, modeling in Paris, and acting in New York, Austin realized that bartending was the most efficient way to make a living with his busy schedule. Today, when he’s not working on the menus for BR Guest Hospitality's restaurants including Dos Caminos, Strip House, and Blue Water Grill, he travels the world creating cocktails for the likes of Tom Ford, Neiman Marcus and Naeem Khan. Here, we chat with Austin about Oprah’s bloody mary bar, his mile high drink of choice, and the supermodel he’s shared burgers with at dawn.
BoozeMenus: Where is the last city you returned from for work, and what was the project?
Yusef Austin: Santa Barbara. I was there because Oprah threw a party for the Selma movie premiere. I designed the cocktail menu for Saturday night, and I set up a very cool bloody mary bar on Sunday at her home.
BM: How do you go about creating drinks for an event versus a drink menu for a restaurant or hospitality concept?
YA: I’m always looking for fresh, seasonal, unusual, fun, and different types of ingredients to make up an events menu. Working for a restaurant group has actually made me better at my craft. You have to work with less and make a cocktail that people are going to have to come back for over and over again, as opposed to a drink that is tasty but you might only have one of.
BM: What's the most outrageous cocktail you've ever created?
YA: I made a very unusual drink for a perfumer who worked at a big company that only produced smells, from fabric softeners to candies. We introduced a cocktail whose notes were very odd and strange. This was for a new concept of perfumes that were out of the ordinary, and it involved tequila infused with burnt oranges, homemade grenadine, orange blossom water, and celery bitters in a martini glass with frozen pomegranate seeds.
BM: What's the largest number of cocktails you've had to serve at an event, and what tip do you have for successfully serving such volumes?
YA: 1000 of each drink — and there were five different cocktails. The tip I have is to get to know your crew and to give them specific duties. Give yourself enough time before the event to prep everything, so you are not scrambling the day of the event to get everything done.
BM: How did you come up with your name: The Cocktail Architect?
YA: It was all about designing the drink. The color. The texture. The smell. The look. The garnish. The glassware. I said it one day to a friend, and they loved the name, so it just stuck.
BM: Where is the most thrilling city you've been able to bartend?
YA: Florence, Italy. It was in a villa from the 14th century. The artwork, rugs, chandeliers, staircases, the expanse of the rooms. It was so beautiful, and we started by bartending on the terrace overlooking the river. Gorgeous.
BM: Of all of the celebrities and brands that have experienced your cocktails, which one proved the most exciting for you?
YA: Naomi Campbell. She was so fun, beautiful, and down to earth. She had my cocktails throughout the night, and then we sat and talked until the sun came up. Her and I had burgers downstairs at 5:30 a.m. and drank a bottle of Dom.
BM: How often are you traveling for work, and what's your drink of choice in transit?
YA: Right now I've been traveling about once a month. I've been getting a lot of work locally. But when I do travel, I always order a gin and tonic.
BM: What is the wildest thing you've experienced when working an event?
YA: The fireworks display in Dubai for the Atlantis Hotel opening. They were actually shot from satellites in space. Colin Cowie threw one sick party!
BM: What's the last thing you've learned in your line of work?
YA: Sometimes combining strengths to make a better business is better than struggling on your own. I have recently gone into the events business with a gentleman from LA, and things seem to be rolling right along.
By Nicole Schnitzler
(Photos from left: Bar at Dos Caminos Meatpacking - courtesy of BR Guest Hospitality; Austin Flaming a Drink - courtesy of Yusef Austin; Yusef Austin - courtesy of Yusef Austin; Sexy Red Cocktail - courtesy of Yusef Austin)