Behind The Bar ~ PUBLIC

Before PUBLIC head bartender Brett Hughes stepped foot behind a traditional bar, he was behind a sushi bar. He had spent two days as a dishwasher at a Japanese restaurant when he was asked by the owner to start training on the line because, as he put it, Hughes had a “good eye for people.” As a result, the experience he garnered there began to inform his bartending trajectory. “The time that I worked there really shaped what I do now creatively,” he says. “Whether that’s making specials or meeting people who are passionate about cooking and hospitality.” Upon his move to NYC he landed a job at Saxon + Parole. “I immediately started saying yes to things that needed to be done,” he says. He eventually began running the drinks program at Madam Geneva, and nowadays he can be found at PUBLIC, a Michelin-starred restaurant spinning out Australian fare in Nolita. Here, Hughes discusses the ingredient he’s loving now, the art of nicknaming coworkers, and the industry’s finest, in his opinion.

BoozeMenus: Which cocktail was the most fun to create?

Brett Hughes: Creating cocktails is always the fun part.  Recently, the making of the PUBLIC gin and tonic was super fun.  The team from Bombay Sapphire came by and basically gave me a huge array of botanical extracts to choose from and create a tonic concentrate. It will be on the menu very soon.

BM: Which was the most challenging?

BH: So much thought for me is put into each cocktail, and I think that makes them all challenging.  I guess the most challenging aspect of creating cocktails is when you have a particular taste in mind but can’t really translate it into what you want. 

BM: What ingredient or spirit lately has been a surprising addition or feature to your cocktails?

BH: Turmeric! I've been playing around with it in different applications of how it could be used in drinks.

BM: The majority of the drinks on the menu are in the $15 price range, save a few that jump to $24 or $28. How are these ones different?

BH: It was just something we did for the holidays when we were using really fancy and pricey ingredients that are super delicious in a couple of the drinks.  It's a big part of my job, but I don't like thinking about cost or price when I'm behind the bar.  I concentrate on making something delicious.

BM: Have you acquired any nicknames over the years? Or handed any out?

BH: I now call our somm "Odie" from Garfield because when he wants something or needs to get by you, he says, "Arf Arf Arf."

BM: You play a lot with seasonality in your drinks. With spring (sort of) on the horizon, what adjustments might you make to the list?

BH: Spring is pretty amazing as far as the bar goes because we can get the best fruit, herb or vegetable at its prime and incorporate it. Berry shrub in a swizzle will be a new creation I think, and maybe the addition of some herb in there.  Or a tarragon egg white cocktail.  A chef friend of mine told me once she likes tarragon with eggs, and I got to work. That and so much more.  We're looking into a lot of herbalist things. And flowers!

BM: Where to for last call, and what are you ordering?

BH: After getting done at PUBLIC it's usually a drop by Mother's Ruin to see Scott James for quick shot and beer, and most importantly a hug.  He usually jumps on the bar or comes around and picks me up.

BM: Who's someone in this industry that continues to inspire you?

BH: First of all, my bar brothers: Masa Urushido, Maxime Belfand, Ignacio Jimenez, and Eben Freeman.  Creatively, these guys are my sounding board for ideas, and we always seem to come up with something cool. Ignacio (Nacho) and Masa, in a different sense, for teaching me about the overall sense of hospitality and, of course, silly, sometimes outrageous, and stupid fun!  Naren Young for teaching me so much in my start in NYC and for what he's moved on to create.

BM: What’s the best cocktail and food pairing you’ve tried there recently?

BH: The gin martini and steak tartare.  But that's kind of always my favorite food paring.  This is something that I think about all the time, of course.

BM: If you had to be dubbed a collector of anything, what would it be?

BH: Matchbooks from restaurants and bars — because when I look at them, it reminds me of when I went there. 


By Nicole Schnitzler

(Photos from left: Fig Sour; Interior by Michael Weber; Brett Hughes)