The cocktail craze is in full swing across the country. It seems that even small, home-spun restaurants are offering a cocktail menu of some sort, even if it’s just a bunch of classic drinks. Chances are that you have spent considerable time and energy putting together a great combination of originals and classics to offer to your guests.
But have you talked to your chef? I know, you made the switch to fresh juices a while ago, and you’re buying your citrus through the restaurant’s head purchaser, or maybe even a sous chef. But have you talked to your chef?
He or she is a potential treasure trove of information regarding flavor, seasonality, cost effectiveness and utilization of product. There’s a good chance that your chef would not only be interested in helping you create a better cocktail list—there might even be a way to pair some cocktails with items from the dinner menu.
One area in which additional food knowledge could add to the quality and excitement of your cocktails is being aware of the seasonality of fresh ingredients. The world’s top chefs would never think of serving fresh strawberries in the dead of winter, when citrus fruits are at their peak. Fruits and vegetables taste best during their natural seasons. Peaches in summer, apples in fall and strawberries for a short period in spring will have the most flavor and ripeness, though many varieties of fruit can be frozen for use during other times.
If you don’t have the time or space to freeze local fruit, there are many high-quality fruit purées available on the market. I have used pineapple, various berries, passion fruit and mango in cocktails and sodas, all of which turned out great. And the chef can advise you on herbs and spices too, enriching your knowledge of flavor affinities.
If you have a great relationship with your chef, and he or she has expressed interest in helping with your drink program, ask if they’ll be willing to do some actual food preparation for your cocktails. This can be simple stuff, like making fresh ginger juice with a pulverizing juicer (the kind used for vegetable juices) or even actual cooking.
Chef Waldy Malouf had several cocktails at Beacon in New York that used ingredients that had been cooked on a wood-fired grill or roasted in a wood oven. Caramelization and charring can add complexity to a fruit or vegetable’s natural flavor.
Beacon’s Wood-Oven Roasted Bloody Mary was a year-round favorite. “We cut the tomatoes in half and roast them in the oven until slightly charred, then purée them with some tomato juice to loosen the mixture enough to allow it to be strained,” says Malouf.
Other flavor-added ingredients from the kitchen could include roasted apples, grilled pineapple or peaches, cranberry relish—even some bacon from the butcher’s station to make fat-washed whiskey.
CHILL WITH FLAVOR
The last area where you can be largely on your own is the use of flavored ice. Of the 35 or so ice preparations used at The Aviary in Chicago, cocktail sous-chef Micah Melton says that about “80% of them add flavor to a drink rather than dilute it.”
It’s easy. Take a flavored liquid and freeze it in an ice tray. Silicone ice molds in a myriad of shapes and sized are also available now.
At our restaurant, we served a passion fruit soda with thyme ice spheres. I had recently tasted a dish with those two flavors and realized that the combination had an incredible synergy. This shows why, although you can make flavored ice on your own, a chef’s involvement can take you to new and exciting worlds of flavor. ·
John Fischer is an associate professor at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, and a former wine director at several New York restaurants.