Fifteen years ago, Jamie Mulholland hopped on a sailboat departing St. Martin, where he’d been working as a bartender and dreaming about what he would say during his Academy Award acceptance speech. The rogue yacht let him off at a dock in Connecticut. Special delivery! He was 25, armed with a backpack, a few nights’ worth of tips in his pocket, a South African accent and a head full of vague notions about breaking through in independent film or modeling, whatever.
Several months later, he was waiting tables at French Roast on West 11th Street.
Since then, Mr. Mulholland has come a long way. He’s the founder and president of the Cain Leisure company, which operates four successful nightclubs: Cain Luxé, on West 27th; GoldBar on Broome; Cain at the Cove, on Paradise Island in the Bahamas; and his latest venture, the Surf Lodge, a nightclub and hotel that opened last year to a mix of fanfare and controversy on the relatively undeveloped shores of Montauk.
“So you’ve never been wakeboarding before, mate?” Mr. Mulholland asked me as we boarded a speedboat in Sag Harbor on a recent Sunday morning. He leaned back against the boat’s railing, allowing the sun to hit him full in the face.
Not long after the madman process of opening Surf Lodge in a mere seven weeks, Mr. Mulholland and his pals discovered wakeboarding: essentially, waterskiing on a snowboard. The Lodge’s hunky celebrity chef, Sam Talbot, whom they hired to make the fish tacos and jump-start the buzz, had fallen in love with the sport.
“My brew, you’re gonna love it,” Mr. Mulholland said. Other “brews” on board were his new COO, Frank Heidinger; Eric Han, a banker friend of his; and the guide/instructor Sammy Cooke, an Aussie who spends his summer in Long Island. (The question of what defining cultural differences exist between an Australian and South African dropped like an anchor between the two men, but Sammy confirmed for me that the saying the word “brew” is a telltale sign that the “mate” is from South Africa.)
Upon first arriving in Manhattan, Jamie made his way to the nearest pay phone and dialed a friendly barfly he’d met in St. Martin, a chef, who’d invited him to crash on his couch if he ever made it stateside. “He said, ‘Sure. Come over,’” Mr. Mulholland said. “I used to wake up in the morning in his little study; I used to sleep on the couch there, with him whacking away on the typewriter. He was working on a book at that time.” The chef was Anthony Bourdain. His all-night whacking would result in Kitchen Confidential, a national best seller. “I would walk from Tony’s place, which was at 115th and Riverside Drive, down to Houston and then come up the opposite side, looking for jobs at different bars,” Mr. Mulholland said. No dice. He didn’t have his papers.
Mr. Bourdain got him a few hours here and there de-shelling crab at the Supper Club. After three months, Mr. Mulholland moved on to the couch of another St. Martin pal’s house, in Jersey. He lived there for six months or so, doing odd jobs like building docks and selling silver jewelry at flea markets, till he’d saved enough cash to take another stab at Manhattan.
He moved into the old Hotel 17, a hostel on East 17th Street. The rooms were tiny and it was a hive of transvestites. Mr. Mulholland, who grew up in a very conservative suburb of Cape Town and went to an all-boys boarding school, would triple-padlock the door of the shared bathroom on the rare occasions that he used it. “I remember seeing Amanda Lepore; she used to live right next door to me. I used to see her every morning,” he said. “It was very strange.”
WHAT WITH THE tiring job hunt, the weird but nice trannies and his fruitless ventures to open-call casting auditions, Mr. Mulholland said he almost lost his marbles. “I was literally down to nothing. I didn’t have money for the subway or anything. I remember Tony used to have a packet of grits in his cupboard and that’s all he had and I’d make myself grits and stuff because I didn’t have money for food.”
Then the French Roast manager gave him a break. Mr. Mulholland picked up every spare shift he could get. One time he worked 24 hours straight.
Robert De Niro used to come in. “You’d see him,” Mr. Mulholland said, “this established actor sitting in the restaurant, and then you’d go back and try to work just hard. That’s the thing that would drive you, like, ‘Well, he’s done it.’”
Jamie’s father, Gordon, had been a big-time soap star in South Africa. Over the phone from London, where he now lives with one of his other sons (there are three), Gordon, now 83, told me that Jamie never quite caught the acting bug. “He was a sweet, gentle boy,” he said. “He played rugby and cricket for the top schools.”
He remembered a time he took Jamie to the cinema:“We were seeing a newsreel from overseas, and there was a spot on Japanese parliament, and somebody said something in the parliament and they started attacking each other, literally, punching and that sort of thing—and he thought he’d be the commentator. A packed audience in the cinema, and here’s this little boy of about 6 or 7 started shouting, ‘Come on, South Africans, come on, South Africans!’ There wasn’t a South African involved, but from that day he learned how to entertain people.”
Back on the boat, Mr. Mulholland insisted all his guests go before him. “Mate, are you sure you’ve never done this before?” he asked me, as the boat circled back to get me after another awesome wipeout. “Brew, you’re a natural.”
It was his business partner Mr. Heidinger’s first time braving the wakeboard as well. “You almost had it, brew,” Mr. Mulholland cheered. And then once his mate had had enough frustration for the day: “Those bindings are too small for you, brew.”
Mr. Heidinger met Mr. Mulholland in the early 2000s, when the latter was bartending at Lotus, a club in the meatpacking district. Two major developments had happened in Mr. Mulholland’s life in the interim between French Roast and Lotus. First and foremost, a Ford model named JoJo Loe sidled up to the bar.
“It was instant. We have spent every day together since then,” he said. They are now married, with a 2-year-old son named Ocean. “This woman grounded me and she gave me faith to follow what I wanted to do, as women do. It’s tough when you don’t have love in your life and you’re busting your ass; it’s a horrible place to be. She gave me support, a belief in my abilities.”
HE HAD LEFT French Roast and had started a catering company when childhood friend Brandon Kerzner, son of billionaire gambling tycoon Saul Kerzner, came to Manhattan. Brandon had a piece of Lotus and asked Jamie if he’d like a job as a bartender.
A couple years later, his skills with the movers and shakers caught the attention of the folks at PM Lounge, who hired him to manage the bar and their VIP list.
“I was sort of cultivating my client base and looking at spaces at the same time,” Mr. Mulholland said. “I just said to myself, ‘How much more experience do you need?’
In the mornings, he’d work on his business plan; each afternoon he’d carve out half an hour to go look at another space. He found a space on 27th Street. The only other thing on the entire block was Bungalow 8. “It was just perfect. I walked outside and I remember thinking, ‘Jesus, that’s a lot of money. Sixteen thousand a month.”
He had no credit history. But his old pal Kenny Goldie, a VIP from the old days with a very rich father, and Mr. Kerzner were in. Mr. Mulholland hired Jayma Cardoso, a voluptuous and business-savvy Brazilian cocktail waitress at Lotus, as operations manager.
Cain opened in October 2004, and the bottles haven’t stopped popping. “Less than a week after we opened, Mariah Carey had her Halloween party there,” Mr. Mulholland said. “And Puff Daddy rolled up in his Rolls and he stood on the roof in his Roman Emperor’s outfit, screaming at the crowd outside and came in with his entourage. Jayma and I were looking at each other, going, ‘Wow.’”
He said he is working on three more venues, two of which will be in New York and are expected to open by fall of next year. The third is in Dubai and will be a similar setup to Cain at the Cove, which is owned by Papa Kerzner and operated by Mr. Mulholland’s team. GoldBar, which opened on Broome Street in 2007, is an unmitigated success. Lenny Kravitz wrote a song about it on his new album. Surf Lodge’s business is up 15 percent since last year, Mr. Mulholland said, and has earned criticism for ruining quiet Montauk. But he said it’s a mellow scene.
“I remember looking outside, and at one table there was Steven Spielberg and [Jerry] Seinfeld. The table next to them was a local fisherman with his wife. It’s that diversity that makes Surf Lodge so special. It’s not about putting on these bullshit airs. It’s real, man. It’s just got this incredibly friendly and relaxed vibe to it. If anything, I think it embraces what Montauk is about.”
Recently, the baskets that dangle over Surf Lodge’s patio blew off in the wind. As soon as Mr. Mulholland put foot to ladder, the cops were there. A neighbor had called then to report signs of new construction.
“At that moment,” he said, “I thought that no matter what we do, there’s always going to be that one person who wants to bitch and complain. Maybe they’re not happy with their own life or whatever it is.”
Surf Lodge usually closes after Labor Day, but Mr. Mulholland is keeping it open until the end of the month to accommodate a couple of weddings and a Victoria’s Secret shoot. Which means another couple of sessions with Sammy the wakeboard hombre.
When it finally came time for the host to strap in, he zipped along admirably, did a few rail slides on the lip of the wake-way, then attempted a flip in midair and landed on his head. It was an epic wipeout. Ten minutes after that, he tried the same crazy idea. It worked.
“I’m still learning,” Mr. Mulholland said. “Every day.”