Refills are blasphemy and killer conversations can change the world: Gibran Baydoun, Maestro of 1880 members club, tells us what it really means to be hospitable.
If you’re into the Singapore food and bar scene, chances are you’ve encountered Gibran Baydoun: you’ve had a flawless dining experience under his watch, jostled for late night bites beside him at a hot new restaurant, or partied in his presence. Haven’t brushed shoulders yet? Just look for the sharpest suit in the room. And the killer vintage brooch.
Hailing from the Momofuku team and having traded the NYC F&B scene for SG, his particular talent is making sure you have a helluva time, and feel right at home when you’re in his space. His playground? The spectacular 1880 members’ club. His role? Maestro.
The club is both a space and a concept, where everything is next level. Note the epic specimen of quartz that acts as the reception desk (it’s one of three in the world – the others belong to Robert Downey Jr) and the sound-proofed booths (for phone calls or otherwise) that could be straight from the set of a Bond film. This is a place you enter and exit via a kaleidoscope. No kidding.
It’s an exceptional setting, and when it launched, 1880 set out with a lofty, but meaningful mindset: that conversations can change the world. More than a year in, the club is emerging as a place of purpose: known for its intriguing talks, cultural program and what Gibran calls “legendary creative experiences”. Spanning a series of drinks and an OTT party or two, we found out what the most hospitable man you’ll ever meet is all about…
So tell us, why ‘Maestro’?
Like a conductor of a symphony, my role isn’t about playing the instruments myself, but more so about making sure the infinite number of moving parts that make 1880 hum are all working together and performing their best in their own unique ways.
What brought you to this moment?
My passion has always been politics and social justice – when I was in high school I worked for the mayor of Las Vegas and I did lots of volunteering. I always thought I’d leave college and head down that path. What I really want to do is affect change. Hospitality was my bread and butter – and three days after college graduation a great company called Hillstone took a chance on me and made me manager of one of their restaurants. I realised that this career allowed me from such a young age to feel as if I was doing something in the world. This scene allows me to affect change in a daily, hourly basis. It allows me to change someone’s day, life and experience.
What’s the essence of hospitality to you?
I’m a simple, old-fashioned restaurant guy: if you make enough people happy over and over, and do what feels real and do what feels right, we’ll all be okay. I don’t like to overthink it. Be consistent. Smile. Being generous is what it’s all about.
What’s the most generous thing somebody’s done for you?
As a kid we didn’t have much, but I grew up in Las Vegas and had the pleasure of going to the Bellagio when it first opened. I was 10, and walked into Tiffany’s and right up to this giant diamond ring. I remember saying, “Wow – I’m never going to be able to afford a ring like that.” And the man behind the counter pulled out a calculator and asked me, “How old are you, and how old do you want to be when you get married?” He wrote down on Tiffany stationary how much I’d have to save every month to buy this ring, and it was a completely manageable number. He folded the paper with his card, put it in an envelope and said, “When you’re ready, come back and see me.”
I still have that envelope because that was my first memory of how pure hospitality should feel, and it’s affected me ever since. He gave me his time, his eye contact and he treated me like I was the most important customer in the world even though I wasn’t a customer by any means. I’ll be coming back for that ring one day.
What’s the magic you’re bringing here?
Consistency and being proactive. My thing is that nobody should have to ask for a refill. That’s complete blasphemy.
In the US, you really rely on the server or bartender to be knowledgeable and take control of your experience. It’s the flipside here. Generally, we in Asia are all about what the guest wants. I’m about giving guests what they need and what they didn’t know they wanted. I want them to trust me, and if I get it wrong, I’ll fix it.
This is what I call ‘intentional hospitality’ – when you’re practising hospitality on purpose. It’s about placing a drink on the left side of the table because we noticed a guest is left-handed. It’s about the lighting on the table that makes that drink look amazing. These are the decisions we make by the minute to say: “I’ve got it; I’m taking care of you; I’m going to make this day and this moment perfect.”
We have a unique opportunity here where people like us can have incredible conversations. And sadly, you can’t have a great conversation with an empty drink. If you have to spend time getting a server’s attention, you’re missing out on this moment, which is so important.
Tell us about the 1880 tribe – who’s in this community?
People like us. People who believe that a conversation can change the world. It sounds cheesy, but it’s the truth. It’s for people looking to engage with other people in a real way. We have amazing talks and programming. We had the US ambassador debating about the relevance of the States today; International Women’s Day is a big deal here. But my favourite moments are the impromptu connections that really evolve: a start-up and VC meet here at the bar and start working together. A new mom and a member who’s been in Singapore for 10 years meet here and start hanging out. Those are the really cool moments.
These unexpected things happen all the time here, and it happens when you have the right people in the room. ‘Right’ doesn’t mean wealth or status – it means where you’re mind is at.
What makes you feel at home in Singapore?
It’s being at a bar and having a drink at a place that feels like you could be anywhere in the world. Singapore has incredible bars. For me there’s something about having a great stirred-down drink like an amazing Manhattan that brings up a memory of having the same drink one winter in Colorado, or having that same drink at PDT in New York or at the Four Seasons after work…
Your off duty drink?
Right now it’s Ramona – it’s a wine cooler, created by this incredible, dope chick and sommelier from New York called Jordan Salcito. She basically spent her whole life in the fancy wine world and decided to make wine coolers great again – and name the drink after her alter ego. It’s delicious. I could have two or three a day by the pool.
Wildest night you’ve had in this city?
No comment. But I will say there are some really good people in Singapore. I’ve never lived in a community that’s welcomed me with such open arms. A few nights ago I stayed here until 3am after meeting some guys at our bar, and our conversation went from cryptocurrency to Korea, to where to buy the best men’s shoes in Singapore over many, many negronis… I think I made friends for life that night.
We need to talk about your wardrobe. And the story behind the brooches…
I saw this windowpane suit in an ad for Hugo Boss, saved up to get it and when I finally went to MBS to buy it I realised I’d left my credit card at my desk. When I came back the next day, it was gone and I never thought I’d see it again. The amazing team, six months later, found it somewhere in the world in my size. It’s one of my favourites and I almost always wear it with a brooch. I collect vintage brooches – it’s my little touch of whimsy. [We hear it’s also a nod to former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who famously wore pins to convey a message.] We take our suits so seriously, so I wear mine with a turtleneck and a brooch for something out of the ordinary. It isn’t what people are expecting and honestly, I don’t think I’ve worn a tie in a long, long time.
Has my style changed since moving here? In short, it hasn’t: I think I’m the only one wearing cashmere turtlenecks in Singapore! People ask me if I’m dying in the heat and I quote my grandmother, who always said: “It’s better to look good than to feel good.” I still don’t own a pair of shorts or a pair of sandals.
Let us in on some of your after-work eats…
Don’t let the fancy brooch fool you: I can get down with a burger, nuggets and Coke Zero. I’m a fat boy at heart. I love Burger Joint, which reminds me of home, but what I do miss is a great hotdog. I’m working with the chef and we’re on a mission to create Singapore’s best hotdog. I’m talking a proper foot-long with all the fixings. [Ed’s note: 1880 did indeed create a damn good hotdog. Look into that membership.]
It’s over a year in, and clearly this is more than a slick space to connect with like-minded people. How has 1880 evolved?
What I like about 1880 is that our members have their minds in the right places. They’re open to new ideas, they’re open to talking about it, and they want to have a good time. We’ve gotten to know who’s part of our family, and who’s committed. Now we’re about harnessing all of that energy and intellect. Our 188ONE Foundation is the start, but we want to see just what we can do.
For me, there’s no better feeling than feeling exactly like where you’re supposed to be. I get goosebumps coming in here.