Welcome to Lifers, a feature in which Eater interviews the men and women who have worked in the restaurant and bar industry for the better part of their lives, sharing their stories and more.
Paul Gustings has probably forgotten more about bartending than the vast majority of those looking to follow in his footsteps will ever know. A longtime local bartender - he put in 20 years at the Napoleon House, and 15 at Tujague's before heading over to the Empire Bar at Broussard's last year - his longevity, knowledge, technical skill, passion, and general grumpiness has endeared him to national audiences of the New York Times, Esquire Magazine, Garden & Gun, and others.
He's been dubbed the "crustiest bartender in America," but what's perceived as "crusty" or "grumpy" is actually humble and grateful, but not about to take any undeserved crap from anyone. Period. Pro tip: Gustings hates being late ("I'll show up 20 minutes early if I'm meeting someone") and can't stand it when other people are late. Read on to find out about his favorite thing to do when he goes out for a drink, what he does when he has a work-related nightmare, and his cocktail naming process.
How did you get into the bar scene?
I had to pay the rent. People have been asking me that for 30 years, and it's always the same answer. Basically, I worked in a kitchen, made terrible money, watched the bartender there, and thought, "I can do that." And then I did that.
What do you like about your profession?
I love my job. Why? I think it's because of the people. A different variety of people walk through the door every day. I mean, sometimes I'm not the friendliest person, though. Just because you walk through the door, doesn't make you my best friend. But it's different every day and I like that.
Also, it's nice to be appreciated and recognized for what you do, but it comes down to that I'm just a bartender. I'm just tending bar, I'm not saving lives. I didn't invent something that, like, helped put a man on the moon.
How has being in the bar industry affected your life?
I love it when I go somewhere and no one knows me. People who know who I am, they treat me a certain way, but I just want to sit at the bar and drink my drink just like everybody else
What's your take on the craft cocktail scene in New Orleans?
I made my first Blue Moon cocktail here in 1986. The cocktail scene has been happening for longer than people realize. I think it's great that people want to bring back these classic cocktails. But...a friend of mine was talking about doing a seminar about extinct cocktails, and asked what I thought. I said, "Honestly? If they're extinct, they probably suck."
If you go to a bar, and there's three bartenders and three customers there to gaze admiringly at them doing their work, and it takes ten minutes to be acknowledged - then I'm not interested. You go to a bar to have fun. If your idea of fun is gazing admiringly at bartenders, I have no problem with that. But, it's not for me. There are a lot of people who are doing things just to do them, like making their own grenadine or orgeat or bitters. I don't do that. Why not? I can get it at the store!
Look at it from a historical perspective. What did 95% of bars in 1890 serve? A shot and a beer. What do 95% of bars serve most of today? A shot and a beer. I can still make a Bud Light, for chrissake. But we have craft beer, craft cocktails, craft this, craft that. That said, I'm glad we're back to good quality cocktails, and away from that sugary stuff from the 70s and 80s.
What was the transition from Tujague's to Broussard's like?
Well, I was fired from Tujague's in 2012 after 15 years behind the bar there. I was unemployed for six months after that - I couldn't get a job because I knew too much. At Broussard's, it's getting steadily busier, we have a good happy hour, and more people know where I am. It took a little while for that info to get to my old regulars. I'm very happy here - the owners here are good people, they let me do pretty much what I want to - to a point. They're very supportive, which is nice. When I try to order a $15,000 bottle of cognac though, that'll stop (laughs).
How do you feel about the media attention you get?
Like I said, it's really nice to be appreciated and respected for what you do. I've been written up a bunch of times over the years, been honored for making a good Sazerac. But, that's not why I do what I do.
What's the must-try drink at Broussard's right now?
We have different sections of the menu - the first is New Orleans classics. You have to put those on your menu, you know, or people think you don't know how to make them. We also have a variety of punches, takes on classic drinks, and then drinks I've made up. There's one on there now they named the El Libertador, with rum, lemon juice, angostura bitters, acid phosphate, and simple syrup. I make lots of drinks that aren't on the menu, though. I suck at coming up with drink names - I'm really bad at it. Someone else has to do that.
What are your hopes for the future?
I want to keep doing what I'm doing, I definitely want to stay here. I wouldn't mind doing some consulting work though. Who knows? I'd love to open my own bar, but if that doesn't happen, it doesn't happen. I'm really happy here [at Broussard's] - even if I did have my own place, It's still come work shifts here. It's a great place to work - everyone is very positive here, no discontent among the staff at all.
Looking back, how would you say the journey to this point has been overall?
I've always liked my job. I worked at Napoleon House for 20 years, Tujague's for 15 years... I used to work at a biker bar, you know - I had a real fun time doing that. Basically, I don't expect anything when I go to work. I take it all as it comes, no expectations. If I have a nightmare about where I work, I'll quit. And I've done that. That's just the way I am.
I'm a bartender. People come in to have a good time, and as long as no one does so at anyone else's expense - including mine - we'll just see how it all goes.