I have been to several food-drink paired dinners over the last few years. It’s often a chance for a chef to work closely with wine or beer, or a sommelier or brewer to work with a chef, and it has always been a lovely experience of flavor and epicurean combinatorics. A little over a year ago, Vikre was approached with the concept of doing a local dinner pairing with Bent Paddle Brewing and Lake Ave. Each course was to feature a beer and/or a cocktail. It turned out to be an intense creative experience and challenged my ideas about what makes a good cocktail.
I met the current Chef at Lake Ave, Tony, when I was still a prep cook at Zeitgeist. I would be prepping the weekend nights while he was on the line, and handle on-the-fly requests with a healthy mix of velocity and good-natured calm. I was eventually given the opportunity to cook brunch with Tony as he helped make the menu, and I was hooked. It was my first experience being a line cook for more than emergency reasons. Brunch is probably the most engaging and difficult menu to cook well, arguably. We would trade stations on Saturday and Sunday and do all the prep together the few hours before the kitchen opened. I will never forget the days when egg yolks would break, 2, 3, 5 times in a row, and we had to do the right thing and start over. I think I learned some of the idiosyncracies of our 10 burners after a few weeks, and I wasn’t jaded enough to discard my smile during a shift. I then got a job with Tony at Lake Ave as a weekend clutch prep cook. Our Sundays consisted of a (sometimes) hungover prep morning, a wicked brunch shift, and then a quick beer and a cigarette before strolling by the lake to Lake Ave for an evening of continued fun. 12 hours+ together every Sunday, a healthy dose of classic rock playing during our shift, and we became good friends. I learned invaluable lessons about seasoning and proper plating, about embracing the weird idea and seeing if it sells, and about doing things the way the Chef wants them to be done. I worked both jobs for a while, eventually taking over Tony’s spot as head brunch cook when he became executive chef at Lake Ave, until I got burned out with 60ish hours in a kitchen over 4-5 days every week. It was a weird move to put in my 2 weeks, and I got a lot of friendly flak for going full FOH (front of house) as a bartender. My subsequent shifts behind the bar at Zeit earned me the nickname “Traitor,” but always said with a grin, or at least a cordial smirk. Anyone that has worked in a kitchen knows that any shit-giving happens with at least a modicum of friendly respect. It’s worse when you don’t have a nickname, even worse when nobody makes fun of you. Love trumps hate, right?
To this day, Tony and I talk often about upcoming culinary and cocktailian ideas, and I really value the moments where we surprise each other with a weird-sounding but well-executed and delicious idea. When talks of this dinner came up, I volunteered to craft and execute the 5 cocktails for the dinner. During our meetings with the Bent Paddle crew and Tony and the bar manager at Lake Ave, it became apparent this was going to be a truly special event. Tony got a local food truck involved, and we planned out the evening for the guests. I remember the initial ideas for food and drink sort of evolved side by side, but I ultimately had to create the cocktails to the specific courses that were offered.
Cocktails and food are sort of an odd concept. Ideally, the plate of food is its own story, a cogent and complete thought offered up within a larger concept of the progression of food and drink over the entire evening. This can be challenging to work with, because cocktails (and beer) are also their own complete story. A sip of drink or beer and a bite of food should be exceptional by themselves. The fun, the magic happens when something in the food and the drink speak to each other and open this other level of flavor. It’s like a bonus level, if you’re doing it right. Think warp whistles in Super Mario 3. Having worked with Tony before, and had many plates of his creativity over the last few years, I knew I had to come up with some spectacular drinks. Oh. They also accidentally oversold the dinner, so instead of 50 folks, we were dealing with 65-ish guests for the evening. That’s 65 drinks for each course where a cocktail was required. My bosses were also present at the dinner. Joel and Emily, lovely humans, but also people to whom I look up tremendously and whose palates it is important I don’t disappoint. No pressure.
The weeks leading up to this event were spent poring over ingredients, trying to imagine the flavors of each dish and what drinks would engage with the flavors in the food. I foisted the single-serving iterations of these drinks on my colleagues, and tried to describe the food thing that was supposed to be happening at the same time. Of the 5 drinks I came up with, 4 of them were great by themselves. The 5th was sort of a gamble. I knew it was to be paired with a seafood dish, I believe it had shrimp and some other rich, oily flavors. The drink I imagined working was a gin-mango-fresno-lime fizz, with some salt and Peychaud bitters. It was fine by itself, and I must have tasted 10 or more renditions of this combination before settling on one. I made the choice of selecting a cocktail that wasn’t extraordinary on its own, but in some way relied on the flavors and richness of the dish to complete its profile. When we tried it on its own, it was ok. It tasted like it was missing something, and I was hoping the something it was missing was the richness of its culinary companion.
This was also the first time I had to take a single recipe and multiply it by a stupid number and then make sure that batch tasted good. I batched for 70 people. A lot of funny things happen when taking a solitary drink and making it into a glorious soup of cocktail. Bitters becomes ferocious. Salt content is important. Citrus MUST be fresh (which meant that a few of the drinks I had to make the day of the event). I knew that it wasn’t wise for me to shake or stir 65 drinks at once, so I made sure that I diluted the drinks enough to account for the kind of ice at Lake Ave. I made each round of cocktail in a giant steel stock pot and poured them out into unlabeled 750mL bottles we had on hand. When all was finished, I had 3 milk crates with 12 bottles each. That’s somewhere around 900 oz of cocktail plus the 100 or so oz of punch at the distillery. Silly.
The first two courses were to be served at Vikre, pass-around snacks including a puffed gouda cheetah with a can of Pilsner (I believe every Bent Paddle dinner starts with a can of Venture Pilsner: crisp, palatable, delicious, an excellent social hour beverage). We had a punch offered for the second passed course, and then the magic happened. During the planning of the dinner, we had a local food truck, Chow Haul, get involved. The first 2 courses took place at the distillery, and then folks were to walk down the street to Lake Ave for the remainder of the dinner. On the way, they passed the food truck, where they were handed a bag of Lake Ave mini donut holes to snack on before the next course. I spent the first 2 courses at Lake Ave sweating, pacing, and preparing for the courses to come. As folks walked into the restaurant out of the rain (yeah, of course it was raining. Welcome to Duluth!), they were greeted with a toddy of sorts, a hot welcome beverage as they found their seats, finished their donut holes and chatted. Usually, for a dinner like this, it takes until course 3 or 4 before people start to get socially lubricated enough to let loose. As people walked in, it was apparent that the punch had done its work, as punches are wont to do.
The next 5-ish courses had alternating beer and cocktail pairings, with one joint dish featuring both beer and cocktail. I spent the night behind the bar, pouring and taste testing, and I could not have been more grateful to the staff at Lake Ave. I had worked with many of those folks before, but the system they had for timing the drink and food delivery was impeccable. I must give myself some credit: having each drink appropriately diluted and in bottles made our lives infinitely easier than assembling each drink on the fly. This made pouring 65+ drinks to go out simultaneously a bit easier.
Colin, one of 4 co-owners of Bent Paddle, and all the brewing staff absolutely killed it with the beer pairings, by the way. I can’t speak to them at length because that wasn’t my focus for the evening, but I have always had thoughtful and enlightening pairings when they do food and beer together.
The few hours at Lake Ave were a whilrlwind, and at some point it just became this lovely routine. Pour the trays of drinks, help pour beers, line up glassware for the next round while those drinks are going out, and repeat. There wasn’t really a respite. I did, however, make time for myself to go back and try the one drink with which I gambled. I remember vividly walking into the kitchen for a moment, wielding the drink in my hand and looking for the plate of food set to accompany said drink. I found it, in the kitchen where I used to pinbone whitefish, where I used to dice onions and slow-cook peppers, where I used to roll gnocchi (one of my most and least favorite dishes to prepare), and found this gloriously plated shrimp thing. I set my drink down, and lifted the plate to my face, breathing deep and in that breath, smiling a little bit, because I felt my gamble had paid off. The dish was excellent. The cocktail was good. But, it turned out, the combination of those two flavors was exceptional. The dry and fizzy drink added a playful pop to the richness of the dish, and the richness of the dish brought a body, a balance to the drink. It worked, thank the gods. I didn’t have time to revel in it, and the rest of the dinner went so quick, it was soon over. I got to walk over and check in with Emily and Joel about their evening. Emily, the arbiter of taste at the distillery, the woman who makes some of the most amazing expressions of spirits I have ever tasted, she was smiling, and wanted another of one of the drinks. Now, this might be a testament to the potency of the cocktails, but to me, at that point, having been entrusted with the entire Vikre brand for the evening, it was a huge sigh of relief and a shared excitement for what we had accomplished.
The dinner finished, Tony and I had been working our asses off for the entire time, and had nary spoken a word to one another. At the end of every dinner, the cooks come out and get a round of applause, and Tony is always asked to say a few words and open things up for questions. I may have forgotten the exact words, but I will never forget the sentiment. He spoke of a lowly prep cook with weird taste in music and an appetite for knowledge. He also spoke simply of the respect he had gained for my new career choice, and in the span of a couple of simple sentences, brought me back to those moments in the kitchen when we would listen to an entire recorded AC/DC concert, or I would play him some Decemberists, and then we would sit, smoking a cigarette on milk crates on Michigan Street, reflecting and making plans for the rest of our hectic Sunday. It was a moment of full-circle, almost tear-jerking reflection, and I am grateful for the entire experience, beginning to end.