Monday, October 13, 2008

Tuesdays with Eben pt. 2.5

or A slight detour about service style

This was harder than I thought it'd be. Not that I never had thoughts of, "Wow, it must be a really hard job to stand behind a bar several hours a night and serve people," but I was beginning to FEEL that I would pretty much suck at being a bartender.

I don't think I'd been behind the bar even close to an hour, and I was already tired. I wish I was joking, but my arms were tired from practicing with the jigger and the bottle of water. And I don't mean the bottle was heavier than I thought it would be, I mean actual muscle fatigue from tilting to pour. Like I'd been doing curls at the gym or something. Also, my lower back was starting to stiffen up just from standing behind the bar and trying to work on it.

"Are you kidding me," I asked myself. "Are you tired from just PRACTICE?"

First off, let me remind you there was no one there. I wasn't serving anybody, yet somehow I was pretty flustered and nervous. I'd hesitantly reach for a jigger and shakily pick up a bottle and pour. Eben was going back and forth getting the place ready for an event, but when he saw me nervously pouring he came over to tell me that I needed to pour with more confidence. I was grasping the body of the bottle like it was going to turn and bite me, My lack of confidence was definitely affecting my pour. The slow tilt of the bottle was making the speed pour top gurgle and sputter water out in a very undignified way. Eben would grab the bottle about the neck and confidently tipped it forward, and water poured out in a smooth, unending stream.

While we're on the topic of bottle handling, a slight detour. So while I was being taught the basics of pouring and stirring, Eben also took time to talk to me about the style of service he learned about in Japan. It was all kinds of neat to hear him talk about this because I could appreciate the adherence to rules in service, and it meshed well with what I was being told about present a professional front.

First off, right hand is for pouring, but your left side is where you shake. So Eben explained when you reach for a bottle, you'd always grab it from behind you with your right hand from your right side. If the particular bottle you wanted is behind you or to the left, you stepped over so that you could grab the bottle with your right hand.

While this may seem like an oddly unnecessary bit of flourish, I thought about it for a bit and here's what I came up with. To pull this off it meant that you had more than a passing familiarity with the bar's stock and where everything was. And you weren't turning around all the time, so your back wouldn't be to the patrons. It made for less of a messy and hectic look to your bar service. Probably not doable for everyone everywhere, take out of it what you will.

Also, a bottle's label always faced out to the customer. As you picked it up off the shelf, carried it, poured it, the front label faced out. There was even a way of cracking a bottle open to achieve this. Eben showed me how you'd pull the bottle in (still in your right hand as how you picked it up from behind you) close against your body. When you twisted it the top open with your left hand, the bottle would stay put in your hand in the correct position.

You could also set the bottle down on the bar for the customer to look at (again label facing out), if it wasn't too busy or if you work at the type of place where you can leave out a bottle of liquor without worry. Eben said that as a bartender you often get patrons who want more info about what they're drinking. By giving them the bottle, it might answer any of the initial obvious questions they have about ingredients or flavors, and gives them a chance to educate themselves and figure out what they like. An added bonus is other patrons seeing the bottle might get curious about what the other person is drinking and can ask for what that guy is having with that stuff in it.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Tuesdays with Eben pt. 2

or First Tuesday: Jiggering and Stirring

Before we go on, I totally forgot to mention in my previous post another one of Eben Freeman's tenets of bartending, which is: Don't be afraid to push the envelope a little. Of course this makes sense coming from Eben. Crazy cocktails aside however, basics were still basics. And when we got down to brass tacks, he wasn't kidding about teaching me those basics.

So how do you start off making cocktails? By pouring in the ingredients. Eben found an empty creme de violette bottle and filled it with water. Slapping a speed pour top on it, he was ready. Eben showed me how to hold a jigger between your index finger and middle finger (fig. 2). It was all about being more ergonomic and the economy of movement. By holding the jigger that way, rather than instinctively picking it up in your thumb and index finger (fit. 1), when it came to pouring the contents out, it was a flick of the wrist forward (fig. 2), rather than turning in your entire forearm (fig. 1).

"This will feel a unnatural at first, but once you get used to it you'll realize how much more ergonomic it is," Eben said as he showed me the difference between the two movements.

As you measure out things with your jigger, Eben told me to hold my hand on level with the lip of your mixing glass. To steady yourself, I could back my little finger against the glass. The reason for this is, that while this means holding the jigger further away from your body, it made for a quicker and more graceful pour into the glass rather than measuring and then carrying the jigger over, wobbly meniscus and all, to your mixing glass.

Eben explained that once you get used to this, it becomes part of filling the gap that he mentioned earlier. The better you get, you start to get into the mindset of planning ahead. Rather than using one and tossing it in the sink, you can think about what measurements are needed for what drinks so that you can reuse a jigger. You can also think about what to put in or measure first (if not dictated by the recipe) to best utilize the jigger and not create waste by understanding, which ingredients are viscous and what's not.

"Now you'll see some people who do this," Eben said pouring into a jigger, but not exactly filling it to the top. Instead, he stopped short and poured the contents of the jigger into the glass as his right hand continued the pour.

He said that while some think that the continued "finishing" pour makes up for the missing amount, it wasn't proper jiggering and he was uncomfortable with that. He illustrated this by doing the pour again in a 2 oz. jigger. Stopping again just short of the lip as before, he then poured the water into a 1 1/2 oz. jigger. It was a little under a perfect fit.

Holding the jigger up for me to see he said, "You're losing almost a little over a half an ounce there."

Now that we learned how to measure our liquids, it was time to learn how to stir it.

"Do you have chopsticks at home?" Eben asked as he looked around the bar.

I nodded, slightly puzzled, but nonetheless chirped, "I like using them to beat eggs. They work great for scrambling them too."

Finding a box of cobbler straws he pulled two out and handed me one, "In Japan they practice this using chopsticks."

He held the straw in his thumb and index finger, then tucked the rest of the straw between his middle and ring finger; the middle finger went in front and his ring finger behind (fig. 1). Then he held the straw in the middle of an empty mixing glass and moved the straw back and forth hitting front and back of the glass with a lilting "ting."

"Push it back with your middle finger and forward with your ring finger," Eben said.

My eyes glued on his right hand, I painstakingly and clumsily copied what he was doing.

"They're going to want to move in the same direction at first," he said, as he corrected me several times.

The reason for this exercise was to get my fingers used to the stirring technique that would keep the back of a bar spoon glued to the sides of a mixing glass to create a silent vortex to chill a cocktail. Stirring was supposed to be smooth, different from shaking.

"The reason you shake a cocktail is to put air in it. It changes the molecules," Eben said, but stirring it doesn't incorporate air into the cocktail and provides a different mouth feel on the tongue, which is why proper stirring is about smoothly mixing your ingredients and chilling it with as little agitation as possible.

I nodded as I continued to "ting, ting, ting" the glass with my straw.

Eben showed me the stirring motion with his straw and I tried to do the same. He quickly pointed out how even though I was moving the straw round and round in the glass, he could tell the straw wasn't always touching the glass. Where there were gaps, the glass would lightly "ting" in whenever the straw would lose and regain contact.

Once your fingers get limber enough from the straw/chopstick exercise, you are able to push the bar spoon forwards and backwards in an unbroken circular motion along the edge of the mixing glass. Silently moving the ice, and not in a willy-nilly ice clinking and clanking everywhere kind of way and definitely not stabbing at your glass with the idea that all that frantic movement and chipping of ice will get your drink colder. Though, Eben added, I would eventually have to learn how to move my spoon up and down to make sure all of the liquid was getting equal contact with the ice.

He filled both of our glasses with ice and water and showed me how the stir looked. I was handed a bar spoon and tried my best to stir. I was getting the basic idea of the motion, but my stirring was a jerky swoosh around one side of the glass as I noisily pushed the ice around and after a bit of a stall and stammer as I tried to get my rebelling fingers to listen to my brain, another swoosh around the other.

While mixing glasses tend to be sturdy enough that you don't need to hold them, if you ever find yourself having to steady your glass, Eben warned that I shouldn't grasp the glass like I would if I was to take a drink from it. The warmth from my hand would transfer to the glass and drink. The way to do do it, was to instead gently hold the base with your thumb and index finger.

Eben said the straw/chopstick exercises would help me to stir in a less awkward manner. Of course I wanted to jump ahead and just start stirring away with the ice in the glass, but Eben said that I needed to practice this first exercise before I could get to the point of stirring with a bar spoon properly.

I was then left to my own devices behind the bar to practice pouring and get my fingers to obey. Eben said he'd come check on me and then we could start with shaking. He didn't want to throw everything at me at once.

First Tuesday to be continued...