When The Drawing Room bartender Charles Joly finished work early one recent Saturday night, he didn’t rush home; he hung out in the kitchen. “I worked the cold-side for a couple of hours with my chef,” says Joly. “I love to learn the prep and see how everything goes together,” he confides. On the flip side, The Drawing Room executive chef Nick Lacasse is excited about working with spirits, and delving into “the world of possibilities behind the bar.” Skills sharing and collaboration between the two lead to all sorts of synergies in the cocktail glass and in the business.
“It gives us a stronger, more-unified program overall,” says Joly. “Continuity between food and beverage is much more streamlined when [chef and bartender] work together. Flavors make more sense and pairings are easier to create.” Greater give-and-take also benefits day-to-day operations, staff morale and unity and ultimately the guest’s drinking and dining experience. Joly and Lacasse worked together on a technique for clarifying juiced rhubarb, creating a consommé of sorts, which was slated to have debuted in early spring debut. And during the fall and winter, they perfected a spiced quince compote for a cocktail that will be called “Foods Beginning with ‘Q.’ “
They are hardly alone in stepping up the interaction between the kitchen and the bar. Greater chef involvement, communication and collaboration with the bar and synergies between the two are on the rise. The change is having a positive ripple effect across the country, says Justin Large, chef at Big Star. “It used to be, there was no unifying aegis. You’d walk into a bar, sit down and there’d be this really talented bartender doing one thing, then you’d walk into the dining room and there’d be a star chef doing something else. It was like an All-Star sports team that had never played together.”
Chef Craft Awakening
“A lot of chefs were awakened to the possibilities of collaborating on cocktails by all that’s been happening with craft cocktails in the last two years,” says Jason Boso, executive chef and proprietor of the Dallas-based, seven-unit Twisted Root Burger Company and two-unit Cowboy Chow, an on-the-range style homage to Texas cowboy fare. “Lately, the bar has really developed into an opportunity to differentiate yourself and add culinary interest.” Recent drink examples from Boso? The Cowboy Coffee at Cowboy Chow, is a mix of coffee-bean-and-Godiva-white-chocolate-infused Old Grandad Bourbon, with cream soda, priced $7.
As with chef Boso, the revitalization of craft cocktails at bars around the country has encouraged chefs to think more about creation of cocktails. Meanwhile, mixologists are picking up skills once confined to the kitchen and talking with their chefs about how best to use them.
“That’s been my experience,” says Large. “There were so many things I cooked, but never thought of in terms of a cocktail—savory elements, etc.” To immerse himself in the possibilities, Large started to sit on his operation’s cocktail training programs, a process that deepened his knowledge of spirits, but also got him thinking more about “booze with food, instead of just wine with food.”
Similarly, chef and owner Kelly Liken of the eponymous Kelly Liken, a fresh-seasonal restaurant in Vail, CO, says her long-time passion for creating cocktails to match her seasonal-ingredient cuisine at her place, came with a several-year spirits learning curve. “I didn’t have the same depth of flavor memory or knowledge with spirits that I had with food items,” says Liken, “That took time to develop.” Some of her culinary cocktail successes include the Beeting Heart—made of beet puree, fennel syrup, orange juice and Cap Rock Gin ($14)—which Liken pairs with her jicama blood orange slaw. And, the Cilantro Margarita ($13), a fresh, herbaceous twist on the classic Margarita that goes well with Liken’s Ancho Chile-Braised Short Rib, priced at $39.
For Jill Barron, chef at vegetarian MANA Food Bar in Chicago, an early challenge was, “Learning about how a food ingredient is going to hold up in liquid form. When I first started, we were doing a fresh green grape juice, which was a beautiful green when first made, but would oxidize too quickly into a brown ugly mass.”
Pushing Through the Push-Back
Another challenge for Liken and others is that initially, bartenders were more passionate about great customer service than they were about the craft of the cocktail. “We went through that hurdle,” says Ryan Valentine, director of beverage for Columbus-based Cameron Mitchell, which operates 30 restaurants. “It does take more dedication to make craft cocktails. But once you get used to that—once bartenders see the value, see how this adds more theatre to what their doing and they get a better reaction on the quality of the drink from the guest—then the pushback stops.”
Smaller operations say cultivating collaboration is about dialogue. “We have fostered more interaction between the kitchen and the bar,” says Greg Cannon, executive chef at Blokes & Birds, a gastropub in Chicago. “A lot of the kitchen prep is now for the bar—orders for produce ingredients intended for the bar are now a page long and there’s just a synergy there between food, desserts and cocktail beverages that didn’t exist at restaurants years ago.”
The same is true for Dennis Marron, executive chef at two Kimpton restaurants: Jackson 20—in the 241-room Hotel Monaco Alexandria—and the Grille at Morrison House, in the 45-room Morrison House Hotel. Both are located in Alexandria, VA. Sometimes he collaborates on items like syrups. Marron’s Fig Manhattan ($14) was a drink borne out of teamwork. “We had an abundance of fresh figs I made into syrup at the end of the summer.”
Greater chef and bartender collaboration is also speeding cocktails’ migration to the dining room. The more chefs dialogue with their bartenders about seasonal ingredients, the more cocktails have a fresh, complementary or contrasting seasonal ingredient approach that works well with what’s happening on the menu.
At Lafitte Restaurant in San Francisco, seasonal and simple are both crucial to collaborative efforts between chef Russell Jackson and bar manager Kenneth Gray. The two will “work to get the balance right without a huge number of ingredients, utilizing as much of each as we can,” says Jackson.
A few examples of simple sophistication in a seasonal cocktail at Lafitte: The Mohawk ($12) and Life and Death in the Afternoon ($7 and $12). The Mohawk includes tobacco syrup made from dried tobacco leaves from one of Lafitte’s farmers. Also in the mix? Rye whiskey, Bonal Gentiane-Quina Aperitif wine and a dash of bitters. Death in the Afternoon—and its non-alcoholic twin Life in the Afternoon—are both made with fennel. Death also includes Leopold Absinthe and Vivid Bliss sparkling wine while Life includes lime juice.
In the Chicago area, Sarah Stegner, chef and co-owner of Prairie Grass Cafe in Northbrook and Prairie Fire in Chicago, collaborates with mixologist Dan Sviland. “We often talk about what’s in season and how to incorporate it into the bar menu.” They paired tangerine juice with vanilla-infused vodka to make the Dreamsicle Martini ($11).
Spirits with Dinner
While few operations actually print spirit and food pairing suggestions on daily menus, many say cocktail pairings happen naturally at dinner. “Cocktails are no longer just a pre-course, now you can have them as part of a thoughtful, well-matched meal,” says Alex Reznik, executive chef at La Seine in Beverly Hills. At La Seine, that might mean an appetizer of Sweetbread Nuggets with Fig Marmalade and a Spiced Ketchup, alongside the Clover Boukha ($12), a cocktail of Karlsson’s Gold vodka, plum-infused fig brandy, fresh vanilla and a grind of pink peppercorns.
“Cocktails can pair with food as well as wines,” concludes Cameron Mitchell’s Valentine.
Many restaurants are already hosting events that pair spirits with food. Joly and Lacasse do “At the Bar” pairing dinners at The Drawing Room. And at Sable Kitchen & Bar in Chicago, head bartender Mike Ryan and executive chef Heather Terhune hosted a “Whiskeys vs. Wines” dinner, pitting spirits pairings from Ryan with wine pairings from Emily Wines—master sommelier for the San Francisco-based Kimpton Hotels. Guests were given score sheets to tally the results. In the end? “We tied—really!” laughs Ryan. Even though the event was just “for fun,” Ryan says the dinner spurred a lot of great conversations of the potential for doing more with pairing spirits with food.
Prairie Fire hosts a Tuesday night guest bartender series. Each of the events culminates in a specialty cocktail and a matching appetizer. “The guest throws out what they like, we confer, and Dan’s finesse and understanding of spirits is what pulls it all together,” says Stegner. Thus far, more than six of the guest-bartender cocktails Stegner and Sviland have collaborated on have done so well they’ve moved to core, seasonal menus. One of those, the Apothecary ($9), is a mix of Carpano Antica vermouth, lime juice, North Shore No. 11 gin, orange bitters and Triple Sec.
Caveats and Hurdles
Moving forward, there are some challenges to contend with. Leading guests through a progression of spirited pairings, “You really have to do it in a way that they’re not smashed at the end,” says Lafitte’s Jackson. Smaller pours and/or lighter cocktails can help. Adam Seger, who blazed bar-chef trails at Nacional 27 and now works to promote his own Hum Botanical Spirit, says whenever he crafts cocktails for a spirited dinner, he keeps alcohol content similar to a glass of wine. “Anything over 15 percent alcohol would be too dominant,” he says. Kelly Liken also keeps pours to three ounces, and Charles Joly says for his “At the Bar” events he “half-sizes all drinks.” Joly says it’s also important to use appropriate spirits for each course. “You’re not going to start someone out with a bold, high-proof cocktail as an amuse: you need to ease guests in just as a chef wouldn’t serve a large heavy dish as an amuse.”
Bar design also still lags behind the kitchen. “The bar is always the last thought, even though it’s the first thing people see,” says Bridget Albert, Southern Wine & Spirits Illinois’ master mixologist. “Because bars are not designed by bartenders, they’re not as functional as they could be. There are so many speed bumps behind the bar.”
“Take knives for example,” says Blokes & Birds Cannon. “With a knife service, the bar is always the afterthought. They end up outfitting you with $2 pieces of steel that are about as effective as prison shanks.” To fix that situation, Cannon recently upgraded his bar to include serrated, offset knives.
But the biggest challenge is skill-based: getting bartenders up to speed on the cooking and knife skills necessary for executing culinary cocktails and educating chefs about spirits. “As a chef, you taste all the time. Not all bartenders realize that every lemon, every orange is going to taste a little different and you have to adjust for that. I think what people don’t realize is mixology is like baking; exact measurements are crucial,” says Reznik.
Others talk about outstanding advanced programs which includes master knife-skills, preserves-making and meat-smoking classes with chef-instructors at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, Chicago.
Giving a national perspective on this, David Nepove, national president of the U.S. Bartenders Guild and a career bartender, says he sees a lot more focus on culinary-skill type seminars and classes included at meetings of the Guild’s 21 chapters. “The spirit-focused seminars are still central and crucial, but there’s a lot more interest in pickling, syrups, farm-to-glass and related skills.”
It’s also true that most chefs are not well educated about spirits. “That’s where the chasm is,” says Cameron Mitchell’s Valentine. While independent chefs interviewed for this story said they are doing their best to learn more about spirits both for cooking and cocktail creation, some chain-restaurant chefs say that at least from the idea-generation side of things, spirits and food are often still kept separate.
“There is absolutely no crossing over of chefs and mixologists here at The Cheesecake Factory,” said Bob Okura, vice president of culinary development and corporate executive chef for the Calabasas Hills, CA-based chain. “Everything that is developed for the bar and beverage and dessert pages of our menu are managed separately, with the only connection being an occasional question like “Do you think this is too sweet?” Sums Cameron Mitchell’s Valentine, “Frankly, our chefs have way too much to do to learn everything there is to know about spirits. “That’s why this has to be a collaborative effort between the professional mixologists we bring in, our chefs and our bartenders.”