It Takes a Village

by The Bon Vivants

The times, they are a changing.  No longer can one open a restaurant without paying attention to the bar and its programming as it relates to the restaurant.  Someone once said, “You can judge a restaurant by its cocktails and its coffee.”  Meaning, if they got those two right, details that have long fallen through the cracks, the guest is probably going to have a great meal.  With this newly accepted reality comes the unfortunate byproduct that restaurateurs and chefs don't necessarily think “bar think.”  Rather than something that adds value and perspective to the restaurant’s final product and individuality, the bar is always spoken of as this entity that helps with the bottom line, as in “booze is pure profit.” Anyone who has tried to run a serious craft cocktail program knows how ridiculous that is.  It ends up being the same cost controlled science that wine and food costs are.  Unless of course, a well full of plastic bottles is what you’re working with.  In that case, power to you, your numbers are probably crack dealer-esque. Obstacles aside, you have to have a cohesive, integrated bar to be a restaurant of merit in this country’s current restaurant climate… and if you don't want to play ball, beer and wine is just fine. 

With that being said, we’ve arrived at the point – quality bar programming and innovative cocktails are catching fire in the back of the house.  Once there was a time when we had to beg and plead with our chefs to use a back burner during the day to make some simple syrup.  Now, most chefs are not only taking interest, they are actively supporting programs, allocating time, resources, and most importantly, knowledge to bartenders who have ideas, but maybe don't have the techniques to achieve their visions.  It takes a village.  With chefs taking interest, cocktail menus are refining themselves quickly.  A chef brings a distinct voice and set of skills that provide structure to a menu.  On a basic level, chefs have seasonality down, and a deep understanding of flavors available in the pantry.  They also have the game of odd flavor pairings that work down, which applies beautifully with cocktails and the punchy flavors that come from booze. 

Bartenders have always been the fence-straddling conduits from the back of the house to the front of the house.  The obvious connection is that we pour out their mid-shift shifties, and they feed us off menu while servers subsist on staff meal.  “Yo! Tell the bartender I need a decaf espresso!” Translation - a shot of Fernet in a espresso cup.  There are deeper connections though.  Bartenders too create flavor and execute on the spot production, which is very similar to working the line when the printer takes off.  It’s an open kitchen without the heat every night.  The more time they spend together, the better.
There is a huge upside to having a bartender in early for a prep shift in the kitchen.  The back of the house / front of the house estrangement is minimalized, and we have inter-disciplinary knowledge crossing boundaries.  We often find ourselves with a drink we've been working on that is great but needs that “je ne sais quoi,” and a quick talk with the chef and a few suggestions later we've found the thing.  Maybe it was a melon drink and chef suggested a pinch of salt, or a cognac drink, and a thyme sprig was in order. Whatever the case may be, the relationship proves helpful. 

This relationship takes some nurturing.  Chefs need to be taught how to think cocktails and cocktail flavors, and bartenders have to learn the laws of the kitchen and how to behave while prepping in the cook’s space.  Chefs usually think in subtler tones than bartenders.  Cocktails need to be a big ole' mouthful of flavor, even when they are subtle.  They are the palette-tickling opening volley into what is going to be an evening full of flavors of all varieties.  Cocktails are the glad handing maitre 'd that puts you at ease and relaxes you into what hopefully proves to be “one helluva meal.”  As far as bar folk stepping into chef's space, the usual, obvious rules apply.  Take up as little space as possible.  Never move without moving your eyes in that direction first.  Always say “Behind.”  Messy station, messy mind. Be clean while you work and leave the station cleaner than you found it.  If you use the last of something, tell someone.  Common sense stuff. One thing that we take real serious is knife skills.  Learn to properly use a knife and you have a skill for life.  Lime wheels go from monster truck to Tour-de-France, and that minor detail turns a “great” drink into a “great and elegant” drink with a quick cut.  Those techniques understood by the kitchen will enhance and refine even your simplest syrups, and their understanding of the “on the fly hospitality” we provide ultimately makes the machine more fluid and high performance. 

The back and forth, ebb and flow collaboration and exploration into what is possible is catalyzing the innovations of drinks.  Not to mention, a great deal of this talk happens post-shift in the neighborhood industry bar where the bartenders and cooks usually end up (as they are the last to leave, having a mess to clean up and greater responsibilities).  Sitting in the bar, beers and shots around, the musings and ideas ping pong through the conversation and can end in brilliance, or just a better friendship and an asinine idea.  In both cases we have a win.

We have seen a sous-vide tank behind the bar and it wasn't uncool…  It was used sensibly, and it integrated seamlessly into all the other tools we use to execute delicious drinks.  The only rules are the ones we write for ourselves.  With so much happening in the kitchens, we the bartenders would be remiss to not get in there and learn as much as possible.  We must keep pace with the evolution of food coming out of the kitchens.  From gastrique to molecular powders to new tools, all can help in the refinement of our drinks which then make a guests experience something unforgettable.  So, while drinking your next cappuccino with a heart in the foam, think back to the cocktail that started your meal and ask yourself did they care about the “cocktails and the coffee?”

Read more from Advice.