Friday, March 14, 2008

Bartender exchange program

Exchange programs aren't just for students trying to expand their horizons. Joaquin Simo, bartender at Death and Company, spent a couple of days in February working shifts at the Chicago bar Violet Hour. In his stead, The Violet Hour's Kirk Estopinal manned the bar at Death & Company.

Doing an exchange isn't necessarily a publicity ploy, but more of an effort to widen experience and actually go see what else is going on out there in the cocktail world.

"In New York you get a lot of customers from other cities, and they say what’s going on in other cocktail lounges," Joaquin said.

But it's one thing to hear about what's going on elsewhere, and entirely another to go take a look in person. It's also a bit of a cultural exchange. Joaquin said he brought along some infusions and bottles of cocktail ingredients hard to find in Chicago, while Kirk brought some of his in gifts in the form of bitters from Chicago for Death and Company to play with.

As much as it is about exchange and taking part in something different from the usual local bartending scene, it also provides a chance for customers of the establishment to try something out of the ordinary.

As Joaquin put it, it "it's not interesting" for someone to come in to Death and Company and just recreate the same menu you can always get at Death and Co. So while in a way it's a chance for bartenders to check out and take in new things, it's also a little bit about showing off their stuff.

"If someone’s in town for three days...they bring their own bitters and syrups and we give them a shot for what they’re doing. We chat and learn about each other...but we're always making sure customers are being served."

For example, Joaquin said that while he was at Violet Hour, there were guests who came in wanting drinks they'd had at Death and Company while they'd visited New York.

So, how'd the exchange go?

"It was a very different experience than working in New York," Joaquin said. "[Violet Hour] has a really good group. There’s not a lot of places like Violet Hour in Chicago and it's a lot of the restaurants picking up the slack for things like cocktail pairings and infusions."

"I think the reaction to it, it went over really well...Part of the joy of it was being able to sit and chat with customers. I know our customers enjoyed have Kirk and Tom; they're both very versatile personable guys. They also brought a lot of bitters and syrups we haven’t played with and opened up our eyes...It's always fun to learn. You never really stop learning."

Joaquin said called it "a fabulous experience," but I was curious if there were any challenges of working in a new and unfamiliar space.

He answered that the only real challenge he had to deal with was the common challenge of the cocktail bar, and that would be the unadventurous customer.

"It's just trying to talk people out of that, and try to have something to broaden their horizons."

He admits having to be sneaky about it, such as sneaking in a citrus or botanical vodka into a drink or suggesting something like a Southside that has gin in it.

"You might say, 'I didn't think I liked gin,' and that's my job to teach you that you do."

In fact, Joaquin found people in Chicago to be very receptive and they liked the drinks that he made for them. He created some infusions and used the harder to find in Chicago items in his drinks and he found that people were very open-minded.

Currently Death and Company's head bartender Phil Ward is at San Francisco's Alembic, while Alembic's Thomas Waugh is in New York. Joaquin mentioned that Charles Vexenat from the Lonsdale in London will also make his way to Death and Company probably sometime in April.

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