Posted on | February 25, 2016
Written by | Alia Akkam
Based in Columbus, Ohio, Cameron Mitchell Restaurant Group flaunts a portfolio spanning a dozen distinct concepts—from local hits like Marcella’s and the Guild House to the national upscale steak and seafood chain Ocean Prime. Ryan Valentine serves as Beverage Director of the entire group.
Beverage Media Group: Overseeing the drink lists of so many diverse restaurants must certainly be challenging.
Ryan Valentine: There is a lot of work and it makes things hectic, but also fun. I think I’d be bored otherwise. Each concept is unique, so at Marcella’s we might play with more Italian elements, like Prosecco or grappa. We make a vodka martini with fresh strawberries and balsamic. The Guild House is posh, so the cocktails take on a spa feel, with fresh juices and crushed ice. There, we’ll pair tequila with cinnamon, apricot liqueur, Ancho Reyes and peach bitters. To complement the food at Ocean Prime, there’s a focus on using fine spirits and making balanced cocktails like a punch with 8-year-old rum. Our drinks are meant to capture the vibe of each place.
BMG: Ocean Prime is a multi-restaurant operation. Is there one trend you’re noticing that is consistent across all locales?
RV: The Berries & Bubbles (Belvedere Citrus, marinated berries, housemade sour, Domaine Chandon brut) has been an unbelievable success. So has the Gimlet with Bombay Sapphire and muddled fresh cucumber. Ever since we opened, it’s never dipped below the second best-selling cocktail. For a gin drink, that’s amazing. It shows that our customers are savvy and love experimenting. We’ve been working hard on our menus for 10 years, using fresh ingredients when a lot of people weren’t, especially in the Midwest where we started. Now we have the curiosity to match.
BMG: With the beverage program such an integral part of the Cameron Mitchell restaurant culture, staff training must be a priority. What is your approach?
RV: Our mission is unintimidating education. We practice in role-play situations to make sure our staff members know how to introduce cocktails and talk about them and the ingredients they contain intelligently. They must be able to make it sound like it’s going to taste. For example, by using a local bourbon and Nocino, we found a different way to bring a classic like the Manhattan to life. It’s another reason why our staff need to know the products they use. They have to tell guests what Nocino [Italian liqueur made from unripe walnuts] is and how it makes the drink distinctive.
BMG: Education is clearly one of your cornerstones for good hospitality. What else is a priority?
RV: Often, you will go somewhere and notice an arrogant bartender acting as though you should be so lucky he or she made this drink for you. That style doesn’t work for us. We are hospitality-driven and want to make sure that we are creating an experience for our guests. Having an impressive cocktail menu doesn’t matter if we can’t make it an evening they enjoy and want to have again.
BMG: What’s around the bend that you are looking forward to?
RV: We just opened the Avenue Steak Tavern in Columbus. It’s a throwback, something you would have walked into in New York in the 1920s or ’30s with classic cocktails like the Sazerac and Margarita served in beautiful glassware. Five of the drinks are named for the New York boroughs. The Manhattan and Brooklyn are familiar, but it will be nice to see how the public reacts to those they might not know of like the Queens and Staten Island Ferry.