Sunday, July 20, 2008

Tales of the Cocktail 2008: "I love it that we have the country's best pastry chef cutting fruit"

or Apprentices, the people responsible for you having your drinks at Tales

[Note to Don Lee: Thanks for acting as copy editor/fact checker on this entry.]

Thursday night, Muriel's was the setting of "Desmond Payne's Ruby Jubilee" to honor Desmond Payne, Beefeater's master distiller.

While the party went on in the second level of Muriel's, I found myself outside on the balcony suffused with the sound of muffled revelry leaking out into the evening. Drinks sweated profusely in the thick sticky night as I sat in a group that included John Deragon, Don Lee and Daniel Eun of PDT, both Ebens Klemm (B.R. Guest) and Freeman (Tailor), Ryan Fitzgerald of Beretta in San Francisco and Dave Arnold, director of culinary technology at The French Culinary Institute. The group grew and contracted throughout the evening as other bartenders came and left.

I was discussing with Mr. Lee about not wanting to appear like a self-important writer who wrote about bartending because they couldn't. Not that I was being all presumptuous that I could actually bartend, but I really wanted to be serious about the bar trade so as not to waste the time of bartenders I talked to. And I wanted a bit of better understanding about what I was writing. I felt like I lacked in the experience department and was toying with the idea of how to get that.

"You know, like something like street cred," I said, not realizing that I'd inadvertently created a running joke that'd follow me the next couple of days.

"You want bartender street cred? You come juice some lemons and limes in the juice line in the kitchen," Don said. "If you're looking for stories that's the untold story of Tales right there. I've got a pirate-like crew of people working several hours a day."

Don and John were helping Phil Ward (Death and Co.) in a ragtag group of bartender "apprentices". It was kind of an interesting title choice once you saw the caliber of bartenders in the kitchen. They were responsible for batching and creating pretty much all the cocktails served at Tales related events. And if they weren't in the kitchen, they were in the seminar rooms or behind a bar at some event mixing and shaking.

My ears pricked at this suggestion. As informative the seminars had been, to be honest, I could only sit through so many of them and was starting to get a bit of first-timer burnout. At the same time I felt obligated to attend as much as possible to cram knowledge into my head, but it came at a cost. My butt was starting to get tired from sitting and my hands were itching from hearing about all the techniques and recipes.

"Really? I can do that?" I asked.

"Hey John, Sonya's gonna come down to the kitchen tomorrow to get some 'street cred' with us," Don said, the scare quotes practically etching themselves into the almost solid, humid air.

But then I remembered a press event I RSVP'ed to go to the next morning. Could I come in to help an hour in the morning?

"No." John and Don both said.

"You're either in it all the way or you're not," Don said. "The juice line doesn't work that way."

"Oh, come on," I protested. "It's not like I don't want to help. I just have a prearranged engagement tomorrow morning."

"That's called wussing out."

"No, that's called being responsible," I said.

My protestations were soon lost when Dave Arnold said he'd jump in the line and the conversation devolved into an impromptu event to set up a juice-a-thon between Ryan Fitzgerald and himself. Rules were written, and abandoned in the same breath and much smack was talked until Leo DeGroff made an appearance and showed interest in the wager. Apparently Leo's juicing skills is the stuff of legend and something meant to be discussed only in hushed tones of reverence. Ryan, the group's favorite, was quickly displaced by the Prince of Cocktail.

All Friday morning I found myself preoccupied with whether or not the showdown had happened between Ryan and Dave as I sat through a seminar on bitters after a media breakfast held at Brennan's. I wanted to go peek in to see what happened, but feared that I was banned from the kitchen thanks to my wussing out.

After the seminar I ran into LaTanya White, owner of the cocktail catering company 71 Proof in Tallahassee, Fla., as well as one of the apprentices. She said that it should be fine if I go down to the kitchen and helped now. With almost three hours free until I had to be at another seminar, I let Don know I was present to help. Alex Day pointed me to a box of latex gloves. I pulled a pair on and got to juicing. I was going to prove that I could do it and I wasn't just some soft doughy writer sitting in front of a computer who...

"Just wait one goddamn second," I thought an hour and a half later when I realized I had been juicing what seemed like a never ending flow of limes.

OK, maybe, just maaaaaaaayybe Don did Tom Sawyer me into helping out by insinuating both my mettle as journalist and a basic human being weren't up to snuff if I did not participate, but the man had a point about this being hard work. If you didn't see it just walking into hectic kitchen, you certainly knew it after changing gloves for the third time because the juices would penetrate through the latex and make your fingers sting and feeling the your shoulder muscles stiffen from using a a manual juicer, or, as I saw with Alex, having an electric juicer snip at your fingers if you weren't paying attention.

I wasn't the only one pressed (ha!) into service. Dave Arnold, who to his credit did show up at 8 a.m. to help juice, returned to juice some more. Even Jean-Georges pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini, who was attending Tales, popped into the kitchen to see how things were going and offer some morale. But that was his mistake because he also got pointed to the box of latex gloves by Alex. Johnny tried to laugh it off, but you don't joke about the juice line. So he too pulled on a pair and joined Joaquin Simo at his side to help cut limes in half to be juiced.

"I love it that we have the country's best pastry chef cutting fruit," Joaquin later commented.

And if for whatever reason you decide that your life is not complete unless you see someone halve lemons and limes at inhuman speeds, call up Johnny Iuzzini. That man goes through a crate of limes kind of...lime cutting machine that cuts super fast.

Don pressed upon me several times that he was not joking about the group being like a pirate crew, and as I stood there listening to the orgeat syrup-like musical stylings of Curtis Mayfield coming out of on iPod dock, taking swigs out of a communal bottle of Rittenhouse and taking in the frequently salty banter of a group of hard working and harder playing bartenders, Don's comparison was ringing pretty true.

(A scene from the kitchen: Photo of Ryan in his "I Hate Cocktails" shirt taken by Camper. Not pictured? The back of the shirt. I'll just leave it at saying that several times on Friday when I'd unwittingly look in Ryan's direction when he had his back to me I'd burst out laughing. Maxwell Britten also gets honorable mention for his "Brown and stirred, bitches" shirt.)

So at 7:55 a.m. on Saturday I was back in the kitchen asking what I could help with. Don said it was a bit easier that morning and I made some lemon twists and orange zest and skipped off to another seminar.

It's kind of hard to see the scale how much these guys did even when you're in the thick of it producing gallons of juice or cutting 350 lemon twists because it becomes repetitive and downright inevitable in some ways. However, once out of the kitchen and throughout the day, I'd spot a lemon twist or an orange twist floating in a cocktail that looked oddly familiar or see how many times lemon and lime juice would come up in a recipe presented during a seminar as people sipped the samples, and speaking of which, how about all the math Don and John were doing to make enough cocktails for a 100 people with a recipe made to serve one? It was pretty insane to realize just how much work these guys were doing.

Don caught me in the hallway of the Hotel Monteleone a little later in the day and said that there was a last minute juicing emergency and I should get in the kitchen if I wanted to help.

Thomas Waugh (Alembic) and Joaquin were busy trying to get wheels and wedges out of limes so they weren't ready for juicing so I got to helping with some lemons.

Death and Co. owner Dave Kaplan made the same mistake Johnny did the day before and got put on the juice line for a while.

Eben Freeman came down to help and was soon organizing people and delegating tasks. Seeing me slooooooooowwwwwly cutting lemon twists (in my defense, I did just learn how to do it that morning) he told me to grab a free juicer to help with the limes while he got on the lemons to get the amount of twists needed and was soon getting them ready to be juiced.

All of the sudden it was like the juicing All Stars. Leo DeGroff showed up and proceeded to own everyone in the kitchen as he deftly manhandled an electric juicer and some unfortunate limes with a two-handed technique that I'm pretty sure broke several rules of physics.

"I give up. There's no way I'm keeping up with that," Daniel Eun said and relinquished his manual juicer and moved over to the lemons side. He wasn't an apprentice and was at Tales to hang out, but he also had been helping out in the kitchen whenever possible.

"Holy crap," I thought as I stared slack-jawed with a look that bordered on abject terror.

"I feel pretty damn useless next to you," I told Leo and was about to give up and go help where my help was actually needed, but he picked up a hand press and showed me.

"Just do it like this," he said and then proceeded to squeeze out a shot of juice that splashed me like I was in the splash zone at SeaWorld. Easy enough for him to say, he's been doing this since he was, like, 16 or something. He handily filled up the 1/3 full container to the brim in a matter of minutes before leaving.

For a few minutes I found myself juicing limes next to Gary Regan and it turned into a Christmas miracle. We thought we needed three more gallons of lime juice, but with the intervention of Saint Gary, when Eben decided to double-check we found out we just needed to top off the one container we were working on. There was more to be done, but at least a majority of the juicing was over with, so I went ahead to go get ready for the Tales of the Cocktail Spirit Awards.

"Thanks for the help," Phil Ward told me on Sunday before the start of a punch seminar he was chairing with Allen Katz and Dave Wondrich.

"No, thank you. It was a learning experience," I returned, and I meant it. Zesting an orange? I mean, I know how to grate, but I don't really do it all the time or anything like that. But thanks to talking to bartenders for so long, I now knew about pith. How else would I have found out that a dampened paper napkin lining the bottom of a container for twists, as well as covering them with another dampened paper napkin would keep them from drying out unless Dave Arnold told me? Sounds like common sense, but I never had to store 200 lemon twists and I don't know if I ever will. Using a peeler to get lemon twists was infinitely easier after Ryan fixed something as simple as where was placing my forefinger. And how would I have picked up the handy tip of soaking some cool limes that had been sitting in a walkthrough in warm water before juicing unless I'd watched Eben Freeman do exactly that?

That's pretty much what I wanted. I wasn't looking for some kind of macho respect when I said street cred, I just wanted to learn how things were done in the day-by-day. I could ask all the questions I had when I visited bars or read all the books I wanted, but what I wanted to know was what was habit to these guys.

"It's stuff like this that's what street cred's about," Don told me one evening. "It's not about who's got the best technique or who's making the best recipes. It's who's staying late to work on the garnishes or staying late to clean up."

So anyways, much kudos to the apprentice program guys. I know I didn't get to meet all of you, but great working with you (and please let me know if I've missed anybody in this list or got anything):

John Paul Deragon
Don Lee
Armando Archundia (the dude came all the way from Switzerland)
Joaquin Simo
Maxwell Britten
Alex Day
Jacquelyn Leon
Rhiannon Enlil
Catherine Fellet
LaTanya White
Ryan Fitzgerald
Chris Hannah
Thomas Waugh
Jim Kearns
Josephine Packard
Kimberly Patton-Bragg
Peter Vestinos

P.S. Thomas Waugh spilled about a pint of lime juice on me. Don and John, you derided me for not having capped him back with my juicer, but I just want you all to know, that's all part of my strategy. Oh, I'm going to get him all right. One of these days. He just doesn't know when or where.