Friday, October 10, 2008

Tuesdays with Eben pt. 1

or First Tuesday: Starting with the Basics

Oct. 7

I was practically vibrating with a mix of anticipation and nervousness as I walked towards Tailor. I took a deep breath to calm my nerves before entering, but since I was a couple of minutes early I sat at an empty table and looked around. I realized that I never really sat in the dining area since I always headed down to the bar downstairs. I tried to busy myself to make the nerves go away. Why was I so nervous anyway? I guess I was just having a hard time wrapping my head around what an awesome opportunity I had here and I really didn't want to disappoint Eben Freeman since he was volunteering some of his time to have me hang around and be a general nuisance...oh, and he just walked in.

"Hey, the student is early," he said

There was an event scheduled for the evening so everyone was gearing up for that in the bar area. Once Eben took care of business relating to that, I followed him down to the the bar to see what I could learn today.

"First, I'm going to give you my tenets of bartending, then we're gonna do a little bit of skill and I'm going to let you practice on your own," he said.

Instantly in my head I saw myself dropping stuff, breaking things, and hurting myself in ingenious ways in the course of doing all that.

"That makes me nervous," I said.

"I figured you'll do better without me watching over your shoulder."

As I was soon to find out from Eben, a large part about being a bartender is being confident behind the bar, and I was going to have to practice, practice and practice until I got to a point where I was comfortable with everything behind a bar to project that image of confidence.

"OK, I'm going to explain to you some basic things about bartending," Eben said slipping behind the bar.

First off, learn about spirits. The stuff that's going to go in your cocktail. Eben said this was one of the things I could easily do on my own. Either read up on different spirits and brands, go out and try some, see what other bars have in stock.

Second, keep a clean workspace. This was very important. Eben said clean up after yourself and customers, not as often as possible, but ALL the time.

"Even if you have just one person who sat at that spot, as soon as they go, clear their glass, because someone might want to sit in that spot."

A clean workspace works both ways. For the bartender, it helps with organization and smooths out service flow. You wouldn't want to finish up shaking a drink only to realize that you don't have any clean strainers or glasses to pour the drink into.

For the customer, a clean bar space conveys the message that the person serving them is a consummate professional and more importantly, it's not gross.

"I can tell you of times when I order a drink from a bar without mint and I'll find mint in it," Eben warned.

I crinkled my nose up in disgust. And speaking of clean glassware, I was even given a brief lecture on how to keep the sinks. Cold water vs. hot? Eben prefers hot. In his opinion "Hot water just cleans things better."

He's used to working with hot water, so his hands have toughened up and he has to warn people that just begin working with him that the water in the sink is indeed very hot and they might scald themselves.

Do not mix the side of your sink for soaking with the side that you dump refuse into. This can lead to the "finding mint in a drink that doesn't list mint" scenario Eben mentioned above. More importantly, no drinks with egg whites in them (or just egg whites for whatever reason) into the soaking water.

"Egg whites are used to clarify things like stock and it will do the exact same thing here," Eben explained. "You'll end up with a layer of sludge at the bottom that has everything trapped in it."

Eben said he even will go as far as rinsing a glass out before letting it do its pre-clean soaking.

Third, learn your techniques. Again Eben stressed that this was something I could practice at home. All of this, knowing spirits, keeping a clean house and knowing your tools and technique, was all about providing a confident air of professionalism to your customers and making life easier for you. I nodded. It made sense. Customers are more willing to trust someone who looked like they had their stuff down, and fumbling around frantically behind the bar is not fun at all for anybody.

Eben said, "You're trying to get to a point where you can fill the gap," by which he meant pull of a seamless effortless service, even when it gets busy.

Even if you're making one, two, or five drinks, there's no pause between them, you weave in and out. You know what things go in a glass first, what drinks can sit longer without worrying about dilution so you can mix something else. If there is someone else on shift with you, you may ask another bartender to help you out.

"So say I'm making something like the Waylon," Eben said, referring to the smoked Coke and bourbon cocktail on his menu, "I like there to be a tall head with that."

Now that cocktail would be something you need to make last, but if you have something else that needs to be topped off or is something fizzy? Ask for back up. And that other bartender should be able to work in tandem with you along with his drinks. On top of that, you're also working as a team with your servers if you have any. If one server is still explaining drinks to one table, he or she won't be available to pick up the drink you're making to send to another table, so in that case, Eben said he might hold off on filling out an order for a bit.

I was already trying to digest all of the above when Eben put a whole different spin on that I'd never even thought of. Being a well-prepared bartender could quite possibly save your life. Well, OK, I'm kind of exaggerating, but I'm not being sarcastic. I really had never thought about it this way.

"I've been to places where the bartenders are doing shots with the customers and things like that. And that is not a bad vibe, but for my safety and the safety of the customers, I need to look like I know what I'm doing."

"A place like this is nice, because you have someone out front, or other places have bouncers," he said. "But I started working at places where it was just me behind the bar. That one guy just might have one shot too many and will flip over a table or something will happen, and you're on your own. You're not paid to handle something like that, what are you going to do?"

I nodded as I listened wide-eyed to this explanation. I forgot that sometimes the bartender can be your first and last line of defense in a room full of people drinking alcohol. Sure, if you're one of those places lucky enough to have a heavy working the door, you can call them in when things get all hairy, but for the most part, you're the guy that has to spot and deal with people who could be trouble. You have to have your wits about you to a) first of all notice if there's going to be a problem b) try to ameliorate the situation as much as possible before you call in help or until the cavalry arrives. The bartender is the mood maker of the place. Once again, in the end, it's all about good service.

"When customers see you are professional...they might be in a place that they don't know or are unfamiliar with, but then they can relax when they see that you are relaxed."

And if you look and act like someone who is an authority, it's easier to deter an unfortunate situation.

First Tuesday to be continued...

Thursday, October 9, 2008 I'm on Twitter

I don't know how I feel about this. I've been staunchly un-Twitter (not anti-, just un-) for a long time even as many friends and acquaintances joined the ranks, but I finally signed up for an account.

So here. Here it is:

Follow me, I'll follow you, let's ALL enjoy some more Twitter in our lives. We can shoot each other replies that puzzle other people looking at our individual tweets and laugh at inside jokes. It'll be awesome. Besides, not having too many followers is starting to embarrass me. I haven't felt this intimidated by stats that seem to hint at my lack of popularity since died its agonizing hipster popularity contest e-death.

...damn, I just realized this is one more place of "free expression" where I need to keep my potty mouth in check because work has crept into it.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Tuesdays with Eben: Prologue

Part 1

Rewind to Tales of the Cocktail 2008. "Mr. Freeman, I have a proposition for you. Are you interested in free labor?" I cautiously put out to Eben Freeman as he was busy making cocktails for the cocktail hour hosted at the Hotel Monteleone.

Without stopping what he was doing, Eben looked up at me.

"I would like to learn about cocktails. I am willing to do any and all menial labor in order to do this," I continued and waited for what I thought was the inevitable.

For a while, I'd been on a mission to find out if I could trade in my time to learn a few things about being behind the bar. And not just theoretically, like ask a bunch of questions or read a bunch of books, but something more hands on. However, I knew this would be difficult in setting up. I was basically requesting to be a monkey wrench thrown into the machine of someone's well-oiled bar. I had little to offer besides my almost masochistic lack of qualm at being put to work, an almost annoying curiosity to see how things worked (a.k.a. "nosiness") and almost "to-the-point-of-naivete" ability of finding things infinitely cool once I knew how it worked. Besides that, I really didn't know much. I'm not saying I don't get things. I'd been reading and watching people like like a hawk, but I mean you could get me to talk your ear off on what different bartenders are doing with X, but put me behind a bar and tell me to make something and I probably would break down crying.

On the other hand, I didn't want my request to come off like I was saying just because I learned a little I can be a bartender or that once I had the skills down I'd be some kind of expert. I knew by asking around for this "favor" there'd a slight chance I'd offend some who might take it that I wanted to hop behind a bar for a little bit because it's fun. I wasn't even asking to work a shift. If I could just watch and do barback stuff, no pay, or I don't know, come in and clean toilets so I could get a little one-on-one, I'd even do that. I'd met with rejection a couple of times before, so at that point I was pretty much resigned to the fact that I was going to hear another "no."

A look of bemusement spread across Eben's face like I'd just told a really clever joke. I winced a little on the inside and braced myself.

"Let's talk when I'm back in New York," he said.

I stared blankly for a minute or two, then cried out, "Really??"

Eben nodded, "Yea."

I hopped from one foot to another clapping my hands in time to, "Real-ly? Real-ly? Real-ly??" (No, really, I did that.)

Eben laughed a little and said yes, I should talk to him. He'd be out on vacation once he got back, but after that we could work something out.

Now, fast forward to early September. On a visit to Tailor, I quickly finished up a cocktail to gird myself, I asked Eben if he remembered that I had mentioned how, you know, maybe I could, I don't know, do a little work in exchange for lessons or something...and by the way I would totally understand if he wanted to say...

"Yea," Eben said.

"...'yea?' As in, I can do this?"


I squealed and hopped back and forth from foot to foot as I again chanted, "Real-ly? Real-ly? Real-ly?"

Yes, really. So a couple of emails followed and it was decided that Tuesdays would work best. I was soon set to start the first session.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Cocktail classes for the consumer

I spent a little bit of my Sunday afternoon down at the Astor Center to check out Jonathan Pogash's "Elements of Mixology: The Cocktail Lab" class. The Astor Center hosts several food and drink related classes that allow the general public to learn and experience what they are consuming and imbibing from chefs and beverage personnel from the New York restaurant world. There are several wine courses that teach basics like the upcoming installments of the "Develop Your Nose" series. David Lombardo, wine and beverage director for Anvil NY is set to teach in a regional versus format; Spain vs. U.S.A in November and France Vs. Australia and New Zealand in December. Ethan Kelley, head spirits sommelier of the Brandy Library has a class about American whiskies. And for those who've spent plenty of time in front of the bar, but want to have a better understanding about what happens behind it, there are several classes geared towards the home bartender as well. Some of the gang from PDT are teaching a "Home Bar Basics". Michael Waterhouse of Dylan Prime is handling the cocktails end of a sweets-themed class.

It was interesting to see the classes being helmed by from those actually working day-to-day in the restaurant business. Particularly in the area of cocktails, where it probably helps to lift some of that veil of intimidation when it comes to ordering in some of the city's many well-known cocktail establishments. Obviously, having a better basic idea about what is involved in the cocktail making process helps, but so does seeing someone out and about in broad daylight who you only see in the context of standing behind a dim bar and concocting your drinks. Having them talk and explain things to you without being pressed for time because they're making five drinks while trying to serve everyone else in the bar puts the whole thing in a different light. While in a bar you might a , "So what's the different between these bitters" would snag you a quick answer, at least you wouldn't feel bad about asking any follow-up questions away from the bar and crowds of other people who just want their drink.

And Jonathan's class was just that sort of setting. Right as I was sneaking in 20 minutes late, Jonathan was in the middle of giving a brief history of cocktails to people in the class. Since this class was more about drink creation, the history served a background to cocktail families and recipes so people in the class could familiarize themselves with what kind of drinks are out there and what basic rules drink recipes follow. The tools of the trade were also explained. For the last couple of minutes, the class got broken up into teams to create and present their own creations.

It was interesting to see how much the people in the class were aware of what was going on in bars nowadays. More than half the class answered correctly about the first American cocktail being the Sazerac and during the explanation of bar tools, one attendee asked about the Boston Shaker. The ones in the class were the usual kind, with the 28 oz. tin top and mixing glass for a bottom. She wanted to know then what was the difference between the ones we had in class and the ones that were all metal. Obviously, someone was paying attention when they went out to drink because she was referring to the beveled shaker tins that some bartenders in the city prefer to use, replacing the mixing glass with a another stainless steel tin.

If anything, this was a pretty good indicator of why the bartender of today definitely needs to be on their toes. Consumers are becoming more curious and aware about what they're drinking. It's been going on for a while now, but just as there are the droves of foodies (I apologize for using this word) taking food porn pictures for Flickr and blogging diary-style about every morsel of food that passes their lips, I see plenty of "drinkies" strolling up to bars, chatting up bartenders, many times genuinely curious, and sometimes obnoxiously quizzing them. Now when you talk about beverages as a whole, this isn't anything new. Homegrown experts on beer, wine, sake, whiskey, what have you have been around plenty, but the class was a jolting reminder that mixed drinks are now also part of this foodie/drinkie world as well. People are expecting more and paying attention to what's going in the drinks, how their bartender is mixing it. They might not just want to know what, they might want to know why as well and they're probably going to come in armed with their own resource and knowledge about a subject.

Jonathan has been teaching at the Astor Center since April and says that response has been great. Every class he's taught have been sold-out and recently new dates were added due to popular demand. When I asked if there were any plans to create something more serialized, Jonathan said maybe that's something to look forward to in the future, but for now, people seem happy to come in for a single class to at least get the basics.