Posted on | February 1, 2011
Written by | Jack Robertiello
~ As bartenders become more enthusiastic about mastering culinary techniques, chefs themselves are taking on a larger role ~
Just three bits of recent news from high-profile restaurateurs may have finally settled whether there’s a place in the bar for the once-quirky idea of culinary cocktails:
In Chicago, chef Grant Achatz of Alinea opened cocktail bar Aviary to include both classics and gelatinous, frozen, powdered or otherwise manipulated takes on cocktails, like a gin and tonic made with tapioca malto-dextrin.
Washington, D.C. chef Jose Andres, now nearing Mario Batali-level public consciousness, has hired a corporate mixologist to oversee the cocktails at his highest profile operations.
R.J. Cooper, another D.C. chef, formerly of Vidalia, will soon open Rogue 24, exclusively offering 24-course tasting menus paired with beverages, primarily cocktails.
As the cocktail revolution continues its apparently inexorable move through the restaurant world, most of the attention gets paid these days to the pre-Prohibition revivalists, the return of obscure ingredients and the search for lost recipes. At the same time, though, there’s a growing number of professional bartenders, mainly those involved in the fine dining scene, who have increasingly found the space between kitchen and bar to be porous. In some cases, it doesn’t exist at all.
Savory Cocktails have certainly become mainstays at the bar. In New York City, the Hurricane Club unrolled an ambitious Tiki-driven menu of tropical-themed drinks, created by James Beard award-winning pastry chef Richard Leach, who has tasked his kitchen staff to produce grenadine, syrups and other ingredients as a regular part of their routine.
There are many branches of the contemporary cocktail craze—speakeasy classics, punch service, locavorian libations, molecular mixology—but culinary cocktails may be the most intriguing, as talented bartenders develop drinks to complement or even integrate the food menu. The drinks are more likely to include ingredients that demand classic kitchen techniques—poaching, roasting, infusing, reducing—and to have a savory component. Yogurt, root vegetables, squash and savory herbs like fennel and hyssop play a big part. Bartenders including Jackson Cannon of Boston’s Eastern Standard;Todd Thrasher of PX and Gina Chersevani of PS7 in the Washington, D.C. area; and Vincenzo Marianella of LA’s Copa d’Oro are just a few of the practitioners of a movement merging food and cocktails.
“The cocktail revival is at stage three; we’re connected with our kitchens and it is understood as an extension and reflection of another line in the restaurant,” says Cannon. “I look at culinary cocktails in two ways: either they require foodstuff ingredients not commonly found on the bar, or a technique more prevalent in the kitchen.” A good example might be fresh tomatoes, he says. To extract tomato water for a drink, simple squeezing or pressing at the bar isn’t sufficient or practical. Dripping out the essential water or other methods requires a kitchen and culinary skills.
Adam Seger, now cocktail consultant for Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises in Chicago (Nacional 27, Osteria Via Stato and others), says that especially at chef-driven restaurants, the kitchen and the bar are melding: “I’m seeing more and more chefs getting involved with their cocktail lists, which opens up everything from pastry mise en place to synergies on the daily kitchen prep list.” At a recent charity event for which he designed a cocktail, he was surprised when the chef wanted a taste before it was served. “I was impressed that we’ve come that far,” he notes.
Even the supplier side is aware of the trend: Achatz recently completed a five-city tour showcasing the qualities of vodka with food for Absolut, pairing a drink of apple spheres floating in Absolut Kurant, Absolut Citron and pommeau de Normandie with an autumn lobster stew, among other dishes. At the end of 2010, Tabasco hired NYC bartender Jim Kearns to use varieties of the hot sauce in three cocktails, including the spicy “Cinna-Blast” (bourbon, St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram, Buffalo Trace White Dog, cinnamon bark syrup, Tabasco Green Jalapeño Pepper sauce). Flor de Caña last fall invited three bartenders to celebrate National Sandwich Day with cocktails including the BLT, PB&J and Cheeseburger.
Fat washing, used to infuse the flavors of cured meat into spirits, has been an attention getter for a few years, though the idea of speakeasy bartenders undertaking potentially hazardous experiments has limited the appeal. Still, Seger and others have been able to establish drinks like his “Baconcello” (Granny Smith and bacon-infused vodka with maple syrup and fresh lemon) and “Ham and Cheese”(Iberico ham-infused Spanish brandy, lime juice and honey syrup, garnished with a Manchego cheese wheel).
Market-driven bars are an important component in the trend. At places like Copa D’Oro, customers are invited to choose from an array of fresh ingredients on the bar in which to build a customized drink. Owner Marianella has also established an extensive, regularly changing drink menu, and is working on what he calls gastro-cocktails, using truffled onion jam, yogurt, Cremona mustard and mozzarella burrata cream among other ingredients.
Conspicuous at Copa among the fresh fruits is a rainbow of herbs and vegetables: basil, thyme, rosemary, sage, parsley, habanero peppers, wasabi, ginger, bell peppers, cucumbers, carrots. Pick your spirit by price, select a few fresh ingredients and Copa D’oro’s bartenders make the ‘bespoke drink’ á la minute.
“It’s the most popular part of our menu,” says Marianella, and many of the drinks are being made with the most savory of ingredients available. He developed his culinary curiosity at the Palace restaurant in Los Angeles, where he’d hang around the kitchen observing the chef. One of his popular cocktails, the “Sour Kraut,” came about when, responding to a request for something different, he spotted orange marmalade and Dijon mustard on the shelf and took the leap.
Seger (who has created his own bitter apértif, called Hum) says many bartenders are establishing their own gardens to select from in season; on the Nacional 27 roof last summer he grew kaffir lime, seven types of basil, five types of mint, heirloom cucumbers, rosemary, lemon thyme, hyssop and more. “I’ve found that when you have fresh herbs on the bar like Thai basil or rosemary, people have this uncanny interest in them; when you’re making a drink that’s finished with slapping a sprig of herbs, the ‘wow’ factor gets great mileage from guests,” he notes.
Who orders these drinks? According to Seger, “The people who take the bait the quickest on a section of drinks like that are the cocktail aficionados who end up enjoying them less than people outside the revivalist drinking establishment.” His “Salsify Gimlet,” for instance, is “a pretty radical drink, but its audience is probably those who haven’t already examined the balance of Chartreuse and Punt e Mes in a Greenpoint.”
Given that pastry and bar are the closest in terms of culinary styles, it was fitting that The Hurricane Club owners sought out the long-time pastry chef at New York’s Park Avenue Café.
“The Hurricane Club has lots of tropical fruit and spices—ginger, allspice, coconut and papaya, all ingredients that pastry chefs work with all the time—it wasn’t that far-fetched for me,” says Leach. Balanced finished products are just as important in pastry as in mixology, he says, and he’s surprised bar-kitchen collaboration has taken so long to emerge. “It shouldn’t be anything new but surprisingly, it is. Even with infusions, it’s odd to me that people weren’t doing it long before. Infusing a flavor into ingredients is done in the kitchen all the time—it’s very basic and it’s surpising that the bars haven’t picked up on this long ago.”
With a big space to fill and serve—The Hurricane Club’s six bartenders serve up to 500 customers nightly from a menu of 35 drinks—there’s lots of prep coming from the kitchen; fresh sugarcane juice, housemade grenadine, orgeat and other ingredients.
As seasonality plays a bigger part on food and drink menus, bartenders have to adapt from the easy, summer fruits to those demanding more processing, like quince, persimmon and squash. Last fall, Cannon slow-poached quince in sugar, salt, bay leaf, black peppercorn and green cardamom before pureeing the flesh and adding gin, lemon juice and Champagne. “It’s a fairly straightforward drink but to get there, the quince needs attention first,” he says. Some cocktails benefit from the awareness of ingredients; Cannon serves his Bloody Caesar with fresh-muddled clams, just as Walter Chell first served them in 1969.
TAKING THE NOD
For some bartenders, the overtly culinary cocktails don’t hold appeal, though techniques do. “The word ‘culinary’ is something we shy away from,” says head bartender Al Sotock of Philadelphia’s pre-Prohibition style Franklin Investment and Mortgage. While he doesn’t squeeze carrot juice at the bar, syrups and other preservation methods from the early 20th century are important in recreating pre-Prohibition drinks. And he makes ingredients like a tomato and sage-infused vermouth to get around a no-vodka or olive brine policy to still provide for those seeking a savory, Dirty Vodka martini-like drink.
“You don’t have to be making rosewater-kumquat syrups to know culinary techniques and apply them to what you do,” says Sotock. “Even the way lemon juice degrades, that’s food science and that’s applicable to every level of bartending.” And he points out that many bartenders, intrigued with food scientist Harold McGee’s work, keep a copy of his landmark On Food and Cooking near by.
Much of the recent culinary trend has been driven by tasting menus. At Washington, D.C’s Vidalia earlier this year, Cooper served smoked conger eel with seaweed gelee and grapefruit aioli to follow a solidified piña colada palate cleanser, and paired it with sommelier Ed Jenks’ “Green Oaxacan” (mezcal, simple syrup and pressed honeydew melon).
Chersevani and chef Peter Smith at PS 7 routinely team up for a seven-course cocktail tasting menu. She credits her work with Smith as guiding her evolution, and PS7’s frequently changing bar menu shows it—late last year, she served such drinks as “Old Time Beets” (Bluecoat gin, beets, vanilla reduction and orange bitters) and “Gnome’s Water” (Hendrick’s gin, cucumber water, lemon and lavender syrup).
The growth of tasting menus, the desire of chefs to get more involved at the bar and the demand for those that already exist convince her that the next wave of bar chefs will be exactly that: people graduating from culinary school who prepare dishes and drinks behind the bar. “I think the twist in the bar chef is that they are becoming chefs, and now chefs are coming out from behind the scenes and really getting involved,” she says.
Of course, in some ways that’s already happened: while Cannon got the beverage program at Island Creek Oyster Bar next door up and running last fall, he turned the reins at Eastern Standard over to bar manager Kevin Martin, a Culinary Institute of America honors grad.
In Chicago, the local chapter of the United States Bartenders’ Guild has already addressed the changing landscape: their second group of about 20 bartenders finished an advanced cooking course at a culinary school, learning better knife skills and other basics. “The training is bearing fruit and you can see it affecting cocktail lists around town, more seasonality and better mise en place on the bar and on cocktail lists.”
Bar design limits how far into the culinary American bartenders can go, but on a recent trip to Russia, Seger encountered the City Space bar, where the set-up included numerous refrigerated drawers and well-designed cutting areas. Given that kind of stage, who knows what these liquid culinarians could come up with?