When Brian Van Flandern of Bemelmans Bar in New York City encountered some chestnuts during a visit to the market recently, he could just imagine a toasty, cold weather cocktail.
Knowing the flavors and ingredients he wanted to use, but not the exact measurements, Van Flandern headed to chef James Sakatos to collaborate. Sakatos, executive chef at the The Carlyle hotel in New York City, which houses Bemelmans, helped portion the chestnut mix of butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, vanilla bean extract and chestnut paste. Van Flandern added steamed half-and-half, Planters Gold Rum Pyrat XO Reserve and ground nutmeg, and a definitively culinary cocktail was born: Hot Buttered Chestnut Rum.
Such teamwork is common for this pair, who view the bar as an extension of the kitchen and vice versa. Lately, this vision is being actively embraced at restaurants across the country. Long gone are the days when an establishment’s chef and its head bartender interacted only during the chef’s post-shift cocktail. Many chefs and bartenders now chat informally or meet more formally every day, discussing flavors and exploring synergies between restaurant and cocktail menus, kitchen and bar ingredients and preparation practices.
This movement has broad implications. Not only does bar-kitchen collaboration contribute to better bar design, save time and money and improve the quality and creativity of what goes in the glass, but it also enhances bartender education and elevates the craft of cocktail development. Mimicking their chef cohorts, bartenders now are visiting produce markets, working with fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs and juices, as well as making their own syrups, liqueurs, bitters, sodas and more.
Building Better Bars
“We would never design a restaurant kitchen without taking the menu into consideration. Why not consider the bar menu when designing the bar?” asks Alpana Singh, director of wine and spirits for Chicago-based multi-concept operator Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises (LEYE). “If you’re designing a bar that’s going to be heavy on Mojitos, you need to be sure the sink drains can handle that without getting clogged. You’ll also probably want to have space for fresh fruit at the bar,” says Singh. Although she can’t yet give details on how the drink menu will drive bar design at LEYE’s next bar, “we’re definitely paying attention to this.”
This rather enlightened approach to bar design appears to be contagious. “I participated in the design of the bar from the beginning,” says celebrity bartender and consultant Tony Abou-Ganim, who is slated to open New York City’s new Bar Milano this spring as an equity partner. “We should end up with a bar that is very functional for producing fresh, culinary-style cocktails.”
In San Francisco, Jonny Raglin of Absinthe Brasserie and Bar and Art of the Bar author Jeff Hollinger are taking that one step further, “building a bar space from scratch that combines the elements of a kitchen and a bar,” says Raglin. Employees will assume both bartender and kitchen staff roles, serving food as well as cocktails, thus merging and minimizing the differences between front and back of house. “Our hope is that our new bar will define what is possible in a cocktail kitchen: to cook with booze and mix with food,” says Raglin.
Others are doing what they can to improve bar equipment to enable a more culinary approach to drink creation. “It’s no longer about the five-inch by five-inch cutting board and steak knife borrowed from the dining room,” laughs Adam Seger. Now it’s about nice, big, kitchen-quality cutting boards and chef-quality knives, notes Seger, all of which he’s added to the bar at LEYE’s Nacional 27 in Chicago, where he serves both as bar chef and general manager.
Bridget Albert, director of mixology at Southern Wine and Spirits of Illinois, suggests installing refrigerated drawers behind the bar. More tools of the kitchen trade that are turning up behind the bar include microplanes, vegetable peelers and whisks such as those used by beverage director Timothy Lacey at the Spring Restaurant Group’s three Chicago operations: Custom House, Green Zebra and Spring. Famed bar chef Stefan Trummer at 202 in New York City uses a portable stove for making quick syrups and preparing hot, wintertime drinks. Gina Chersevani, bartender at Rasika in Washington, D.C., uses a crock pot to make her Persimply drink: persimmons simmered with vanilla bean, cinnamon, honey and water, served with Crown Royal Cask No. 16. John Kinder, bartender at mk in Chicago, would like to add an induction burner to his collection of bar tools.
Batching fresh mixes and dispensing them from large squirt bottles is Kinder’s method for keeping a nice, neat mise en place and also speeding the creation of individual drinks while maintaining consistency. In fact, most top bartenders say they work the service bar just as a chef would work a line in the kitchen. “Everything has a home and a place,” says Jason Kosmas, bartender at Employees Only in New York City.
Since room behind the bar typically is at a premium, many operators negotiate with chefs and kitchen staff for kitchen space. Alice Gaber, supervisor at Firefly in Washington, D.C., for example, prepares most of her “culinary” ingredients, such as ginger lemonade and flavored syrups, in the main kitchen.
Access to the kitchen also can be a boon for creative bartenders like Kinder at mk, who has learned about new techniques and tools while working with chef Erick Simmons. Making his Pear Fume maceration of vodka, fresh forelle pears and vanilla bean now takes only one to two hours using the sous vide system, rather than the normal two to four weeks without the equipment.
Eben Freeman, bartender at Tailor in New York City, also likes such kitchen “toys.” Working with chef Sam Mason, Freeman has ready access to cryovac and immersion circulators, gram scales sensitive to minute measurements and more gadgets. Mason’s lovage aquavit—made by cryovacing lovage and bay leaves with lemon balm, cinnamon, clove and grain alcohol—is an ingredient Freeman uses in his Mi Amor cocktail, which also involves white mezcal, reposado tequila, Lillet and lime juice.
“When the kitchen and bar work so closely together, it allows mirroring of ingredients that streamlines the ordering process,” says Toby Maloney of Alchemy Consulting, who also is co-owner and head mixologist at Chicago’s The Violet Hour. Every day, kitchen and bar staff work together at The Violet Hour squeezing five juices—lemon, lime, pineapple, orange and grapefruit—and cutting more than 30 garnish varieties. Each week, they collaborate on five house-made syrups—grenadine, simple, Demerara, honey and ginger.
More establishments also are enjoying the time and money savings made possible by tapping into front-to-back synergies. “It’s good business,” agrees Seger at Nacional 27. “When bartenders and chefs collaborate and use the same fresh produce, it means more turnover [of inventory] and fresher product bought more often. Our beverage cost has not gone up since we went to a more culinary cocktail approach because of the synergy between our bar and kitchen.”
Eggs is one good example of an ingredient where bar-kitchen partnerships can reduce cost, says Peter Vestinos, head bartender at Sepia in Chicago. “I use the egg whites and give the pastry chef the yolks so she can use them in her kitchen,” he says. The pastry chef also uses rinds from the bar’s juiced citrus to make marmalades.
Kevin Boyer, vice president of beverage at 118-unit Ruth’s Chris Steak House, says his company’s late-2007 test of a fresh bar approach has demonstrated cost savings; the program was rolled out company-wide in February.
Incorporating culinary ingredients and techniques at the bar also involves adopting culinary approaches to portioning and prep.
At 67-unit McCormick & Schmick’s, which codified classic and contemporary fresh bar recipes with the help of mixologist Ryan Magarian three years ago, extensive cost breakdowns for each ingredient, modeled after food cost analysis, help with cost containment. Working with chefs at the properties, Barr Rich, one of two national bar trainers for the Portland, Ore.-based chain, developed exact ratios for every basil leaf and grape that goes into the Basil Grape Refresher drink, for instance.
Bartender-chef collaboration has its benefits, but a word to the wise: Bartenders should do as much legwork as possible, such as researching produce and learning about flavors, before approaching chefs for their input and assistance. Always be aware that chefs in a busy kitchen have their hands full.
That said, “conversing with experienced chefs reinforces lessons about flavor combinations,” says Spring Restaurant Group’s Lacey, who has learned cooking techniques that help him at the bar. He recommends other bartenders do the same. “Learn how to use the smoker, learn how to dehydrate, learn how to make caramel,” he recommends. “Some culinary technique is important.”
While at Bouley in New York City, bar chef Trummer traveled weekly to markets with the chefs at the famed restaurant, learning about all sorts of produce. Now at 202, Trummer visits the markets daily on his own, but he knows where to go if he’s stumped. “If I find something new and interesting and have a hard time combining flavors, I often turn to the chef and ask what he would do with the product,” he says.
Tag-teaming with chefs also results in drinks that pair well with particular food items. At San Francisco’s Bong Su, consulting mixologist Shell Thomas worked with pastry chef Matthew Mina, executive chef Tammy Huyng and the Red Blossom Tea Company to create a roster of tea-based cocktails that complement the restaurant’s Vietnamese cuisine. The Pandan, for example, involves Kai Vodka, Kai Lychee Vodka, house-made mango nectar and pandan tea leaf syrup with black tapioca balls. It goes well with the restaurant’s salt and pepper calamari.
Shining a light on the bar-kitchen partnership at mk, the restaurant puts on Spirited Dinners every Thursday to showcase the collaboration between executive chef Simmons and bartender Kinder. Prior to each event, chef and bartender walk the cooler together and get to work on a three-course, three-cocktail dinner. “Then, I’ll start juicing or firing up the immersion circulator to quickly flavor a gin or rum while he’ll bring together his ingredients and do his thing,” says Kinder. Before service, the pair sits down to taste and make adjustments. Typically, the two present food and drink together, so each can discuss what’s in store for the guest.
Collaboration between Freeman and chef Mason at Tailor has resulted in cocktails with considerable sophistication. Wanting the taste of pumpernickel raisin in liquid form, for example, the duo conducted many infusion experiments until it hit upon cutting the crusts off pumpernickel raisin bread and soaking them with toasted caraway seeds in White Horse Scotch. The infusion is part of a popular cold-weather cocktail called the Pumpernickel Flip: pumpernickel raisin Scotch, White Horse Scotch, pomegranate molasses, half-and-half and an egg yolk, shaken, strained and topped with freshly grated nutmeg.
The use of gelatin as a clarifier was another idea that started with Freeman but finished with Mason; Mason thought of using liquid nitrogen to allow the alcohol to freeze. “It’s usually a two-way thing like that,” notes Freeman, referring to the drink development process at Tailor.
While there may be less opportunity for culinary and drink pros to collaborate in chain restaurants, chefs are taking a more active role in drink development in some companies. Twenty-eight-unit The Palm Restaurant engaged Willy Shine and Aisha Sharpe of Contemporary Cocktails to work with its executive chef team on a new cocktail program. Launching this month, the menu involves drinks made with fresh squeezed juices, house-made syrups of honey or simple, house-made purées such as strawberry and apricot, and more.
One happy benefit of all of this is that bartenders are taking a much more seasonal approach to cocktail menu development, just as chefs do. In his consulting work, Abou-Ganim recommends Caipiroshkas as a great foundation for a seasonal drink rotation. “Every bar in America stocks a selection of vodkas, some fresh limes, sugar to make simple syrup and a muddler. That’s all you need for the basic recipe. Once you’ve got that down, you can start bringing in seasonal fruits.”
At Firefly in D.C., bartender Garber stocks her winter larder with local pressed apple cider, maple syrup, grapefruits, blood oranges, rosemary and pomegranates. Lacey likes Meyer lemon, which he uses with vodka, egg white and creme de violette for a cocktail at Custom House. At Spring, it’s gin with Meyer lemon juice and riesling. And at Zebra, they make a non-alcohol drink with Meyer lemon juice and tonic syrup.
Vestinos prefers blood oranges at Sepia, which he uses to make bitters for a seasonal rendition of Blood and Sand that’s made with sherry vermouth, Heering Cherry Liqueur, Scotch and equal parts orange juice and blood orange bitters. Similarly, house-made blood orange bitters figure in the Light Tower, a cocktail at The Violet Hour that’s made with Death’s Door Gin, fresh pineapple juice, green Chartreuse, lime juice, orange bitters, simple syrup, egg white and Peychaud’s Bitters.
During peak produce seasons, many bartenders highlight offerings made with fresh ingredients found at farmers markets, a practice long employed by chefs. Meeting every Wednesday with Nacional 27 chef Randy Zwieban, Seger creates five Market Cocktails to complement/contrast Zwieban’s tasting menu.
Jennifer De Bolt, bartender at The Old Fashioned Tavern & Restaurant in Madison, Wis., uses items she finds at Saturday farmers markets in her Monday Market Martinis. “I’ve used everything from raspberries and musk melons to lemongrass and pumpkins,” says De Bolt.
Scott Beattie at Cyrus in Healdsburg, Calif. has taken this chef-like practice of mixology one step further by forging relationships with dozens of area farmers who provide Cyrus’ bar with fresh, seasonal ingredients that are cultivated to his specifications. Beattie’s forthcoming book, Artisanal Cocktails: Drinks Inspired by the Seasons from the Cyrus Bar, due out from 10 Speed Press this fall, reads more like a cookbook than a cocktail compendium, sharing Beattie’s tips for infusing simple syrup with spices or essential oils, pickling and other culinary methods used behind the Cyrus bar.
Tools, ingredients and techniques aren’t the only things mixologists are borrowing from the kitchen. Bartenders also are adopting the classic chef apprenticeship model in which chefs work in another’s kitchen to expand their skills, techniques and creativity. The Violet Hour in Chicago and Death & Company in New York City launched a bartender exchange last month that will allow bartenders to learn from each other and from the chefs at the properties. The program is sponsored by St-Germain Elderflower Liqueur.
Collaboration among mixologists and chefs may spark more backbar kitchens along the lines of what Raglin is planning, “where cooks and bartenders work side by side and the chef cooks with spirits and the bartender mixes with food.” Kinder at mk says he’s often envisioned a venue “where the chef and the bartender work together, where the food and the drink would have equal play.” Until then, programs such as Kinder and Simmon’s Spirited Dinners is a taste of things to come. l
Michele Grayson writes about culinary and menu trends, as well as foodservice, from Chicagoland.
The collaboration between Shine, Sharpe and The Palm culinary staff resulted in cocktails including the Screaming Mimi (top), featuring fresh strawberry purée, fresh lemon juice, Grey Goose, Cointreau and Champagne, and the Gentle Palm, made with muddled berries, Gentleman Jack, pomegranate juice and black tea.
Adam Seger, general manager and bar chef at Nacional 27 in Chicago, visits farmer’s markets and works closely with chef Randy Zwieban to create Market Cocktails that complement the Latin restaurant’s culinary offerings.
Geoff Helzer, general manager and former bar manager at The Original McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood Restaurant in Portland, Ore., applies an ingredient costing approach at the bar that mimics kitchen food cost analysis, a strategy implemented along with the fresh bar program at the 67-unit chain in 2005.
The bar at Cyrus in Healdsburg, Calif., functions more like a kitchen. Bar chef Scott Beattie uses produce grown to his specs in culinary cocktails that involve a range of preparation techniques more commonly employed by top chefs.