“bar chefs” are taking creativity to new heights, putting some in a class by themselves

What’s cooking … behind the bar: “bar chefs” are taking creativity to new heights, putting some in a class by themselves

Michael Sherer

Anyone who can draw a beer and pour a shot can be a bartender, right? That’s what the uninformed may say, but tending bar requires more skills–physical, mental and psychological–than tipping a bottle over a glass. Bartenders with the physical dexterity to flip bottles and pour an exact shot from three feet over the glass, those flair stylists, attract a certain following. Then there are those personable types who can chat it up with customers in the middle of a rush while mixing complicated cocktails from memory without skipping a beat who have earned the slightly more exalted title, mixologist.

But what about the folks who come up with the latest drink creations, start the newest cocktail craze or just take cocktail creativity to a higher level? What do you call a guy like James Moreland, who came up with a concoction of gin, home-made peach and orange bitters and gum tree syrup called the Hairy Canary when he was with Town Bar in New York? Or Arturo Sighinolfi, who makes an Asian Pear Martini for Metro Kitchen and Bar in Miami Beach using vodka, pear brandy and pureed fresh peaches? Or T.J., the bartender at Dragonfly Mandarin restaurant in Chicago, who combines fresh coconut and pineapple puree, two kinds of rum, corn syrup and tapioca balls and calls it the Pina Colada Bubble Drink?

BAR CHEFS?

Some people are calling them “bar chefs,” and they are injecting a lot of creativity and excitement into their jobs and the industry. What exactly is a bar chef, though? How does one go from being a bartender to a mixologist to a bar chef?

“It’s interesting to see this terminology being applied to our profession,” said Tony Abou-Ganim, master mixologist at the Bellagio Hotel, Las Vegas. “I don’t see the difference between a chef and a great bartender–except maybe $60,000 a year.”

It’s only been in the past 20 years that chefs have become stars in their own right. Before the rise of household names like Wolfgang Puck and Emeril Lagasse, chefs were relatively unknown. Restaurants were known for their food, not their chefs.

The cocktail craze of the past few years might be likened to the pre-celebrity chef days of “nouvelle cuisine.” Customers are so interested in experimenting and trying new flavors that bartenders are constantly throwing new things at the wall to see what sticks. Like nouvelle cuisine, however, only some of these new ideas catch on with customers. Creativity isn’t the only characteristic that turns a bartender into a bar chef.

“Some people think just because some bartender has gone to Chinatown to find an exotic ingredient to put in a drink that makes him a bar chef,” said Audrey Saunders, mixologist at Bemelman’s Bar in the Hotel Carlyle, New York. “I think finding a bartender knowledgeable enough to tell you the difference between the bourbons the bar stocks is pretty good.”

DEFINING CHARACTERISTICS

Few of the people now being referred to as bar chefs, in fact, call themselves that. They appreciate and understand the similarities, though, and share a common philosophy.

Most importantly, they believe in using the best ingredients available. Just as a good chef starts with fresh, high quality ingredients, a great bartender starts with great products. “The most important thing is to produce a drink that tastes good,” said Payman Khania, senior manager at Bistro 110 in Chicago, which means starting with quality products. “Then you want to try to make a drink that looks good, that stands out.”

“That’s been the basis of our philosophy at Bellagio since the beginning,” Abou-Ganim said. “Why not put the same care and attention into the bar as you would food? That’s why we use quality spirits, fresh juices, fresh fruit purees, well-cut garnishes and great glassware. It’s easier to craft good tasting drinks from quality ingredients. What’s the point of using a 100-percent blue agave tequila in a Margarita if you’re going to mask the flavor with an imitation-flavored sweet-and-sour mix?”

Having the right ingredients on hand takes a conmitment from managers and owners. The Bellagio, for example, stocks a number of ingredients that many bars don’t have, such as white peach puree, mango puree, and three kinds of bitters.

More bars recognize the need to have products like these on hand. In some cases, they’re difficult to find, particularly when creative bartenders go out of their way to find the unusual.

SEARCHING FOR THE BEST

“When I discover new products or ingredients, I like to use them and try them in new drinks,” said Marco Dionysos, beverage specialist at Harry Denton’s Starlight Room, San Francisco. “More obscure ingredients can be difficult to get. An orange bitters I like is only made by one company in Rochester, N.Y., which doesn’t have distribution out here.”

Abou-Ganim finally found an apple liqueur from Spain he liked that he wanted to use in several cocktails. Then he had to find a way to get it into his distributor’s warehouse.

Sometimes unusual or exotic ingredients can be found in local markets in large cities like Chicago or San Francisco. The Internet also is a good way to source products that aren’t readily available. When Bistro 110 ran a spring promotion called “April Showers Bring May Flowers,” Khania wanted to feature a special Martini for the occasion. He worked with the chef who found a boutique florist in Louisiana who produces edible flowers. The flowers ended up in both items on the food menu and the Le Fleur de Mai Martini.

A number of these new bar chefs even make their own products when they can’t find the ingredients they need or want. Dionysos, for example, makes his own ginger syrup for the Ginger Rogers, a drink he came up with when he tended bar at Absinthe in San Francisco. The bar eventually was selling 1,000 of them a month, He also makes hibiscus syrup for the Drake 75, a take off on a French 75 he created for the 75th anniversary of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel where the Starlight Room is located.

Saunders makes her own ginger beer for the Gin Mojito she created for Bemelman’s Bar. Her most unusual ingredient, she said, is a tamarind rose syrup, which she doesn’t consider that exotic.

“I think the great ingredients and products have already been produced. I don’t think it’s necessary to reach too far for ingredients. Get rid of bar guns, make sure your ingredients are fresh, understand balance–I think bartenders need to focus on that before they do a lychee nut this or a kumquat that.”

IN THE BALANCE

Balance, in fact, is what bar chefs strive for, like their counterparts in the kitchen. It’s not enough to use unusual ingredients, or even fresh products. Great bartenders know what all these ingredients taste like and have an understanding of what flavors will work well together.

“You need to know not just flavors, but balance,” Saunders said. “You need to know your ingredients, whether they’re sweet, sour, bitter, strong or weak. Forget the Lychee Martini and understand the basics. Take a classic cocktail like the Sidecar: it’s only three ingredients, but if you get the proportions wrong it’s a horrible drink.”

Chefs have an advantage, according to Saunders, because they can train in culinary schools like the Le Cordon Bleu or the Culinary Institute of America. There, they spend a large proportion of their time learning what ingredients taste like, what flavors go together and how to combine them. Bartenders have no such place to go.

“My mom always said, ‘Never trust a skinny chef,'” Abou-Ganim said. “You have to constantly taste products and know what ingredients taste like.”

“I would love to go to the Culinary Institute,” Saunders said. “It’s not practical, but maybe taking courses at a local culinary school to understand flavors and what goes with what and culinary techniques would be. If you can’t do that, read. Sit in Barnes & Noble for a couple of hours to read and study.”

Saunders said she sometimes has to rework the recipe for a new cocktail as many as 40 times before she hits on exactly the right ingredients and gets the balance of flavors right. Other times, she may get it right in as few as three tries.

Spending time with the chef in the kitchen also can be a great education, as well as a source of ideas. Khania tries to offer drinks at the bar that complement the food being featured by Bistro 110’s chefs. When the kitchen put a lavender-scented chicken dish on the special menu, for example, Khania developed a lavender Martini. For Thanksgiving, he is planning a pumpkin Martini. He also reads magazines to see what chefs are doing to get ideas of drinks to pair with food.

MORE THAN TASTE

Before even attempting to develop new recipes, according to these mixologists, bartenders have to know how to mix a good drink in the first place.

“You have to have a working understanding of the classics,” said Abou-Ganim. “It really hurts me when I walk into a bar and ask for a Negroni and the bartender says, ‘Sorry, dude, but we don’t stock that.'”

Too many people who tend bar think of it as a part-time gig or something to do while waiting for their big career break. True bar chefs consider bartending a profession and pursue careers in it accordingly.

“I don’t think most bartenders have learned the ABCs of tending bar well enough to call themselves bar chefs,” Saunders said. “You have to go back to the basics first. It’s important to get back to the classics.”

Learning how to make classic cocktails gives bartenders a good understanding of both ingredients and balance. And they can be a constant source of inspiration for new creations.

“I’ve changed about half of the cocktails on the Starlight Room menu in the eight months I’ve been here,” Dionysos said, “but they’re not all new. Some are classics I’m trying to bring back. And only a couple of the cocktails I’ve come up with are truly original. Most are variations on classic cocktails–I just tweak something here or add something there.”

ALL PRO, NO AM

Finally, people in the trade acknowledge that bartenders who aspire to this level of professionalism offer more than just an attractive, well-made, good-tasting cocktail. They offer customers an experience.

“It’s not about paying homage to some guy behind the bar,” Saunders said. “It’s about the customer experience.”

“I love to people-watch,” Khania said. “Good drinks really are an art, and I love to see the look on people’s faces when they taste a really good drink.”

“I believe in giving customers an experience,” Abou-Ganim agreed. “Like anything else, the difference between perfection and mediocrity in bartending is minimal, but it’s in attention to details. Part of the enjoyment of a cocktail is watching it being made.”

Bartenders who add their own creativity to drinks behind the bar give customers an added incentive to come in. Not only do they get a great drink and a great experience, but they’re also likely to have an opportunity to try something new.

Since Khania instituted a Martini program at Bistro 110–including quarterly Martini flights and unusual monthly specials like Pop Rocks (to be featured on Halloween), Green Mile and Winter Kiss Martinis–sales have increased by about 17%. Annual beverage sales now top $2 million. Creative new drinks make the bar more interactive, he said.

“When you’re into bartending–and you have to love it–you don’t want your clientele to have the same thing over and over,” said Shawn Ramdat, bartender at the Blue Bar in the Henley Park Hotel. Washington, D.C. “You want to be able to offer them something different. I think every bartender should be a chef at the bar and offer customers something new and creative once in a while.”

Ramdat tries to come up with a new cocktail for each seasonal menu, and may recommend several drinks he has created that aren’t on the menu, depending on his customers’ mood. His Blue Tudor–a combination of Bombay Sapphire, Cointreau, blue curacao and a splash of sweet and sour mix–is now the bar’s signature drink.

Knowing how to create new cocktails generates traffic and keeps people excited about your bar.

“I get a lot of requests for stuff that’s hot and popular,” Dinysos said, “but I prefer to get them to try something they can’t get down the street. It gets people excited.”

FOSTERING CREATIVITY

As with chefs in the kitchen, bar chefs need to stick to the recipe when it comes to classics and traditional cocktails. But most operations allow bartenders to get creative and sample a few cocktails for customers each shift.

The Bellagio sponsors its own cocktail competition to encourage its bartenders to be creative. This fall, the hotel is conducting its fifth annual competition. Past winners have gone on to compete in international bartending contests. Bartenders also are encouraged to enter contests sponsored by suppliers. Some, for example, will be traveling to France in December for a competition sponsored by Marie Brizard.

“Creativity lies within all of us,” Abou-Ganim said. “We only need passion to release it.”

Bellissimo

This long drink was the winning libation in the First Annual Bellagio Drink Contest. Created by Bellagio Barman Delos Benidict, the Bellissimo went on to win the 1999 Angostura International Drink Contest. Delos then went to Trinidad for the 175th Anniversary of Angostura to make his drink for the locals there.

1 1/4 oz Bacardi Limon

3/4 oz. Alize Red Passion

1 1/2 oz. San Pellegrino Sanbitters

3 oz. freshly squeezed orange juice

2 dashes Angostura bitters

Build in a 16-ounce ice-filled tumbler, stir gently. Garnish with orange and lemon spirals.

The Old Cuban

CHAMPAGNE MOJITO Audrey Saunders, Bemelman’s Bar, Hotel Carlyle, New York.

3/4 oz. fresh lime juice

1 oz. simple syrup (1 part sugar

to 1 part water)

2 dashes Angostura Bitters

6 mint leaves

1 1/2 oz. Bacardi 8 Year Old Rum

2 oz. Champagne

GARNISH: floating mint leaves and sugar-rolled vanilla bean (optional). In a mixing glass, add mint leaves and lime juice. Muddle well to extract mint flavor. Add the rest of the ingredients (except for the champagne), and shake well with ice. Strain into a chilled Martini glass. Top with champagne, and garnish with the sugar-rolled vanilla bean.

The Green Mile Martini

Developed by Payman Khania at Bistro 110, Chicago, this martini was featured in partnership with Chicago Gateway Green, a non-profit environmental and greening organization.

1 1/4 oz. Skyy Citrus Vodka

3/4 oz Midori

3/4 oz Mango Fruja

A splash of pineapple and sour mix

Garnish with a frozen melon ball.

Bourbon & Cranberry Cobbler

Audrey Saunders, Bemelman’s Bar, Hotel Carlyle, New York,

2 oz. of Maker’s Mark Bourbon

1/2 oz. Punt e Mes

(spicy-sweet vermouth)

1/2 oz. Apple Schnapps (Berentzens

or Schonauer Apfel, not sour green)

1 oz. fresh cranberry sauce

(see recipe below)

2-3 slices of orange

2 big dashes of Angostura bitters

1 bar spoon (1/4 oz) Al Awadi

pomegranate molasses

(available by mail order at Kalustyans, www.kalustyans.com) Measure cranberry sauce, orange slices, pomegranate syrup, and bitters into a mixing glass. Muddle well. Add bourbon, Punt e Mes, apple schnapps and ice. Shake well and strain into a chilled Martini glass.

GARNISH: An orange gooseberry (attached to skin) with the skin peeled back, or sugar-frosted red currants.

CRANBERRY SAUCE:

1 cup water

1 cup sugar

1 12-oz. bag cranberries

(Measure water and sugar into a pot. Stir to dissolve sugar and bring water to a boil. Add cranberries, and return to a boil. Simmer for 10 minutes. Let cool.)

Winter Kiss Martini

Developed by Payman Khania at Bistro 110, Chicago.

1 1/4 oz Stoli Razberi

3/4 oz Grand Marnier

3/4 oz white creme de menthe

3/4 oz cranberry juice

1 glow cube

Le Lavande (“Lavender’)

Developed by Payman Khania at Bistro 110, Chicago,–featured in June 2003, at the height of lavender season in Provence France.

3/4 oz Skyy Spice Vodka

1 1/4 oz Godiva White Chocolate

1 1/4 oz Chambord

Lightly splash with cream and rim with an infused lavender sugar rim.

Red Cross Flirtini

Developed by Payman Khania at Bistro 110, Chicago.

1 1/4 oz Vox Rasberry Vodka

3/4 oz creme de cassis

Shake with fresh raspberry puree and top with champagne.

La Fleur de Mai

Developed by Payman Khania at Bistro 110, Chicago.

1 1/4 oz Ciroc Vodka

1 1/4 oz sauternes

3/4 oz white peach puree

Garnish with an edible flower.

Le Pop Rocks Martini

Developed by Payman Khania at Bistro 110, Chicago,–will be featured in October 2003, just in time for Halloween.

3/4 ounce Skyy Berry

3/4 ounce Skyy Citrus

3/4 ounce Mango Fruja Liqueur

Splash of cranberry juice and sour mix Garnish with a “Pop Rocks” rim! (To keep the Pop Rocks from popping, Khania coats them with honey).

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