world class part 1

I have been silent lately, and for that I apologize but I offer no excuse. I am still recovering. I fucking did it. Things still feel a bit unreal right now. I was one of three competitors from the Midwest to advance to national finals for the World Class bartending competition. It was insane. Long, weird road to Kansas City, and I was fully expecting not to win. In fact, I was quite certain one of my other friends and fine competitors had it in the bag.

I was in Minneapolis a few months ago, and my friend Dustin (who has appeared in these posts a few times. He’s a badass) pushed me to apply for this World Class thing. I had watched several years of the global competition series online, and sort of brushed it off as a “well, that will be fun, but no chance in hell I’ll make it in.” But I looked at the application online, printed off the stuff, and set about fulfilling the essay/menu requirements.

My first task was to design a five-drink menu that represented my ideal cocktail list. I was in the middle of working on a new seven-drink menu for Vikre, so no big deal. The more the merrier, as they say. I got to practice stuff at Zeitgeist, and try to come up with these drinks. I used Miles Davis’s Kind Of Blue as the framework. The album has five tracks, and I needed five drinks. It was clever. Blue in Green was a whiskey highball with green spirulina soda and some pea flower ice (blue ice in a green drink. Get it?) All Blues was some blue curacao, green chartreuse, lime juice and vodka. It was a piercing blue, one of the prettiest cocktails I’ve made. Flamenco Sketches was a Don Julio Manhattan with Cocchi and Bittercube’s Corazon bitters. So What was a Tanqueray-Aperol-orange juice mint thingy. Freddie Freeloader was the drink I described in detail for the competition. Zacapa 23 rum, muddled celery, velvet falernum, lime juice and salt: rich, savory, with some fun vegetal bitterness. I played with the drink until I determined the best combination of those flavor elements. Zacapa is a hell of a rum to play with. I also spent more money at the liquor store in the months before this competition than I ever have before.

The essays were intense. Questions were:

  1. What steps did you take to get to your current position? What is fulfilling about it? What have you done today that will make you a better bartender than you were yesterday?
  2. You have a guest at your bar that is having a bad experience, either with a drink, their reservation, food or service. How would you win them back and make them a regular guest at your bar?
  3. Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of your current bar team. On what key areas of development should your team focus to improve its overall performance? How could you facilitate those improvements?

On top of those, I had to explain the menu choices I made and talk about why it represents my ideal list. I learned so much from thinking about these questions, and I will be revisiting them occasionally as I grow in this profession. I typed up long, witty and genuine responses to all of the questions, and went into the application to submit a day or so before the deadline. Turns out, there was a 250-word limit for each of the questions, and my shortest answer was well over 800 words. Chop chop chop! I had to cut all of my jokes, sadly.

The wait was a few weeks, after which I received an email telling me I didn’t make it but that I was an alternate. The first announcement of the regional finalists did not include my name, but did include a roster of amazing folks at bars all over the Midwest, with strong representation from the Chicago area. Good for them! I had already gained so much from just applying for the competition. I missed a phone call a few days later, and got a text from an unknown number saying she had urgent USBG business to discuss. I called her back and I was informed that someone was unable to compete. She was wondering if I wanted to go to World Class. I absolutely did, and I was sent the toolkit with the regional challenges and rules for competition. It was shocking, to say the least. I wasn’t expecting to advance at all, but I was and remain so grateful for the opportunity. I told folks and mostly the response was “oh, that’s cool! What’s World Class?” A few dear friends of mine had also followed the global competition and sort of understood what was at stake eventually.

The challenges were also intense, of course. I asked folks at Zeitgeist if I could come behind the bar and practice Sunday evenings while I developed these drinks. Challenge one was called Sense and Nonsense. I had to make two variations of the same classic cocktail, enhancing or diminishing a sense other than taste in the presentation of each drink. Challenge two was Before and After. I had to design an aperitif and a digestif to accompany any menu of any bar or restaurant, real or imaginary. The last challenge was a speed round, four classic drinks in six minutes. I could only prepare three of the recipes ahead of time, the fourth, from a list of 25, was to be given out at the beginning of my prep time for that round.

It’s difficult to describe the work that went into preparing for these challenges. Most of them started in a small notebook as a series of stream-of-consciousness scribbles. They evolved into actual cocktails, but more so turned into these stories I wanted to tell. What I settled on was a set of three presentations that spoke from my personal and professional history, in and out of the bar, but more on that later.

My girlfriend left for a European vacation a week and a half before I was scheduled to fly to Kansas City. It was just me and the cat at home. I wrote out lists, made ingredients, designed presentation props, tweaked recipes, gathered glassware, bought luggage, bottled and sealed my house-made components, and generally collected myself for this adventure. I was nervous, but as I boarded the plane, there was an odd sense of calm. I had done the work. For better or worse, it was really too late to worry about it. Believe me, I had spent enough time fretting over these presentations.

I got to Kansas City and grabbed my luggage, covered in “Fragile” stickers, and hoped nothing had broken in transit. At this point I had no idea what to do. I think I knew the name of my hotel, but not how far away it was. I called one of the numbers on the contact info sheet, and reached Amy, who it turns out was the woman that called me about advancing to regionals in the first place. She was a few gates down in an uber, and picked me up twenty seconds later to go to the hotel. We chatted a bit, and arrived at an amazing hotel in downtown KC. I checked in and was handed a bottle of gin from Tom’s Town Distillery, just a few blocks away. I put my stuff in my room and unpacked my suitcases nervously. Nothing broke! All of my housemade ingredients survived the flight, all of the glassware was intact and nothing even leaked. My room was a mess, bottles and tools strewn about. I went back downstairs and remained mostly on the periphery of the growing mass of barfolk from around the region. The conference was broader than the World Class competition, and brought leadership and members from guild chapters all over. I introduced myself to a few folks and made some initial friendships, and then we walked en masse to our first dinner of the week. Maker’s Mark and the Rieger hosted a beefsteak dinner with cocktail and whisky components. At our places were aprons and a paper hat. There was no silverware to be found. This was a truly family-style meal, giant plates of shrimp, marrow, vegetables and the eponymous beefsteak making their way around the table. I sat across from Andrew Meltzer, who was to be one of my judges during the competition, and Egor, a fellow competitor. I should note here that I intentionally didn’t research any of my judges. I wanted to be able to serve two strangers at my bar for each of the challenges, something I’ve done every day behind the stick for four years. I didn’t know Andrew was a judge. He was just a jovial and sassy dinner companion. One of the competitors, Jason, was a human I had been looking forward to meet. We were Facebook friends, and for some reason, I just knew we would vibe. He sat across the room, but on the way to his seat, pointed at me and smiled, and thus began a friendship that endures beyond those few days.

After the dinner, we were split into teams and unleashed on a bar-crawl/scavenger hunt spanning ten different locations across downtown. Some of them were bars, with sponsored beverages at those locations. Our team hustled to get to the first four locations, and then saw other teams in cabs, and decided to go to the bars only. We abandoned the stressful quest for good company, good conversation and some stupid delicious drinks. There was a speakeasy-style place in the basement of a hotel lobby, accessed only by going to the desk person and asking to have a conversation with “The Boss”. The hospitality was overwhelming. I made some dear friends in my team, and we made our way to the last bar, the meeting place for the end of the night.

After a few minutes, the whole MSP crew rolled in (minus Rob Jones. Oyster incident…) and hugs were liberally exchanged. It was fucking amazing to see those humans, familiar faces and supportive friends. We drank, we told stories, and then I walked back to the hotel. As I headed back downtown, it started to rain lightly, adding that wet pavement smell to a gorgeous night. I got back to the room and watched something dumb on Netflix. By watched, I mean I put it on but sat with my thoughts in a crisp and cozy hotel bed. I had a gorgeous view of the city from my window, and smiled in anticipation of the next few days. I had met a few of the competitors and congratulated them over the course of the day, and I found out that we had to move hotels the next day, a few blocks down the road to the President, a gorgeous old building. I woke up early to repack all my shit and check out. I skipped out on the conference activities to go over flashcards with Jason, cementing those 25 classic drinks for the speed round. We had lunch at Extra Virgin, an amazing Mediterranean style place. Jason and I were planning trips to the grocery store, a hardware store and laying out the schedule for the afternoon. There was an awesome market a few blocks from our new hotel where we acquired some of the last touches for our drinks.

I went back to the hotel, and met some of the other competitors at the hotel bar to hang out and talk shop. I’ve never been surrounded by folks who nerd out as hard or harder than I do about drinks. It was so humanizing to be able to exchange stories about shitty customers, amazing drinks, bad drinks and obscure spirits. Going into this competition, I had this notion that it was going to be competitive, and that I was best served by keeping my planned presentations a secret. This was absolutely not the case. We all started talking about how we interpreted these challenges, and it was so inspiring to hear from these talented minds. I think that sort of dissolved any hesitations I had about folks. Ice was thoroughly broken. It makes sense, though. At that point, it was far too late for any of us to take someone’s idea and incorporate it into our spiel. We went outside to go to dinner, with a few Diageo and USBG gals, and our limousine pulled up. We got a stretch Hummer limo for the evening. #worldclass. Fitting 12 dudes into that limo was hilarious. At this point, we were all laughing and exchanging witticisms. By witticisms, I mostly mean dirty jokes. The competitor dinner was a lovely affair at the Belfry, and the owner and her badass daughter (had to have been twelve years old) took such wonderful care of us. We mingled with reps from Diageo and folks that worked for the organization. Mostly we told stories about ourselves and got to know one another over a few drinks and some silly good food. It was relaxing to spend time with everyone. We were all on the same page. We had prepared and practiced and tasted and worked our asses off to get here. This was a unique mental and emotional space we could share and enjoy with each other. At the end of the meal we received our folders which told us who we were grouped with and what order we would be going about our challenges throughout the next day. We walked across the street for after dinner cocktails and more carousing. After an hour or so, we got back in the limo and were dropped off at the hotel. I walked into the room and on the bed was a lovely gift package. A few Tshirts, some Bulleit swag, and a letter. The letter was from Andrew, last year’s US bartender of the year. In it, he encouraged us to value the connections we were making with fellow bartenders. It was oddly emotional. I definitely did not expect to cry. His last bits of advice read: “Remember to smile, be yourself, and taste your cocktails.” I had sat across the table from this man, eating bone marrow with my fingers, licking said fingers and wiping excess grease on an apron. It meant the world to hear his voice say those words as I read that letter.

Then the real work began.

Jason and I planned to meet in the lobby and go over cocktail flashcards and run through our ideas. I went down a bit early and asked the bartender if she had any coffee. She brewed us a fresh pot. Pam, I think was her name. She saved my life and I owe much of any resulting success from those cups of coffee from 1-6 am. Jason and I attached specific labels to each ingredient in the cocktail recipes to make the speed round go easier. We quizzed each other on brand knowledge (Don Julio was a tequila made by his sons to honor his sixtieth birthday, a man who had been distilling since he was seventeen. I know that now.) We smoked too many cigarettes. We took a break to our rooms sometime roundabout 3 or 4 in the morning, I think. I set up my suitcase full of essential items for the competition, planned out my speed round accounting for the tiny rail during that challenge, started going through my stories again for the other two challenges and timing myself. I had tried to script these stories, but I discovered that I sound more like myself when I had only an outline and filled it in with only mildly rehearsed words. These were my stories. I knew them, I lived them. They meant something to me. I think it was 5 am when I texted Jason to see if he was awake still. “Duh, dude.” We smoked some more cigarettes and he listened to my presentation. He brought me to his room and ran me through his insanely gorgeous Japanese tea ceremony he was presenting for one of the challenges. We tried some of our housemade stuff, and smoked more cigarettes. Seriously, I could not have done any of this competition without that human.

I went back to my room and just sat in this dark space looking out on the city. All my stuff was packed and ready to go to the competition venue. I read and re-read that letter from Andrew. It already felt so surreal. Not like I had won already, but like I didn’t care if I won or lost. I couldn’t think of any one of those dudes I wanted to lose. My voice was already getting a little hoarse from laughing, and cigarettes, probably, but mostly laughing.

[Note. I am at a bar writing this, and it’s so hard to describe that space. I am tearing up a bit just thinking about that feeling.]

I sat in bed, mind churning, embracing that hollow feeling that comes with too much caffeine and being alert at an hour when most of the world is asleep. A giant billboard of the “Can you hear me now?” guy (now working for Sprint, it seems) and the inconsistent headlights of cars on the highway below were the last sights I took in before closing the blinds. I lay down, and set my alarm for 6:30 am. It was 6 am. I had the weirdest sleep for that half hour. It was like I remembered being asleep. I woke up and texted Jason, who hadn’t slept at all. We were going to meet in the lobby at 7 to go grab some snacks and things.

I woke up with the biggest shit-eating grin on my face. I was so excited to do this. I wasn’t sure if I was prepared, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to freak out about it at that point. I showered, the last few minutes I left it on full cold, just for kicks. I already had a song stuck in my head. I think it started with “Voodoo Chile” by Stevie Ray Vaughan, but at some point during my shower, it changed to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now”. I realized how appropriate that was and just kept it going. I had that song stuck in my head for three goddamn hours. It was amazing. I danced on the sidewalk as we went to grab some snacks. Jason had headphones in, and was in his own zone. I think I was beginning to amuse myself. I have never had a feeling like that before. It was almost mischievous. I wanted to cause trouble, in a weird way. It was like after that first shot of rye whiskey on your night off when you’re going out with no plans and meet up with friends and get crazy eyes and bar hop and make new friends and jump in the lake naked at 4 am and you’re still the last one to go to sleep. That’s what I woke up with.

Jason and I bought like seven clif bars, a handful of Red Bulls, and some Gatorade and went back to the hotel to meet our limo. All of the competitors were outside, and this time we got to ride with just the twelve of us. I could see everyone in a different zone, some with headphones and music, some trading clever chit chat, some singing songs or texting. This was my new, weird family, in a sense. We were all about to go through a long, strenuous day of competition and come out having strengthened bonds we’d already begun to form.

making friends

I have been a member of the Minneapolis chapter of the USBG (U.S. Bartender’s Guild) for about eight months now. For many reasons, I hadn’t attended any of the guild events in the twin cities until last month. I rode down with our brand manager to attend the meeting and spend the evening with a few folks. I had no idea what to expect.

We showed up at Hola Arepa a bit early and watched everyone arrive over the next twenty minutes, grab coffee or punch, and mingle. I was struck by how many hugs were passed around, and how many smiles and handshakes were offered to us, unfamiliar faces to most of the guild. We went from being the awkward first few folks to making acquaintances and connections with everyone in our vicinity quite quickly. The sense of camaraderie was palpable. These bartenders aren’t in competition with each other. They are friends, and most have worked with or for each other at some point. It is a group of craftspeople at various points in their careers. There were smiles all around, some playful banter, and a lot of learning about each other’s jobs.

I said hello and hugged a few of the friends I’ve made, and the meeting began. It was some old and new business, some charity talk, some upcoming events, and then a presentation by Baker’s bourbon. At the end of the presentation, a round of Arepas was delivered, these ridiculous corn sandwiches with pork and pickled onions and magic. Punch was a bourbon Campari thing, the Baker’s Dozen, very tasty. It felt like we were taken in by a family for a day and I felt so welcomed by all involved. It was good to meet and share stories with some people I have known of in this industry for some time.

We met up with a Copper & Kings rep, Patrick, had some amazing tacos and cocktails at the new place called Mercado, and talked shop. There were a few other industry folks there, just chilling on a Monday afternoon, studying or getting some computer work done. Food and drink were excellent.

We proceeded to the cleverly-hidden Volstead’s Emporium. To get in, we strolled down an alley and past some dumpsters, and after a few raps on the door, the metal slat opened and someone peeked out. The door guy let us in, sent us downstairs and into a luxurious, dimly lit bar. We snagged three of the five seats at the bar and met some real lovely dudes behind the stick. We chatted about some real nerdy stuff, as I’m wont to do: industry trends, weird cocktails we’d seen, and one of the tenders poured a small sample of a lamb-distilled mezcal. Some mezcals, called Pechuga, are distilled with raw poultry suspended above the pot to add a sort of savory, round richness. This mescal used lamb instead. Super weird, real delicious. We parked and just ate and drank and made conversation with new friends and our rep buddy and his fiancé. It was very inspiring to see the sort of engagement these bartenders have with their craft. They made us a lovely Martinez with our Voyageur Aquavit. We closed out and the bartenders sent us with their greetings to Dustin, a dear friend who works with a few bars in Minneapolis, who we were to meet at Restaurant Alma.

We got to Alma and sat at the bar, presented with a three-column menu and a fixed price. Cocktails were ridiculous, intentional and clearly well-crafted. Turns out, the manager on duty that night was an old elementary school friend of mine. Our plan was to have a drink and share three courses between the two of us. Dustin arrived, and we decided to add another three courses. It was supposed to be like two dinners shared. What ensued was a dining experience so outstanding and lovely it made me laugh on more than one occasion, earning some weird looks from some of the service staff.

Dustin helped design some of the cocktails on the menu, and he knew a bunch of the service staff. I think our connections and the slow-ish pace of the evening prompted some fun from the kitchen and our bartender/server. We were handled by a lovely, professional gal named Scarlett and the new guy who was training. He did most of the talking, and was just charming as hell. It was never merely “what can I do for you?”. It was “how are you feeling tonight, what kind of direction do you want to travel with this experience?”. We listened to him describe the few dishes he had tried, and he described them with such alacrity and poetry that it was difficult to choose anything but his recommendations. We picked our 6 things, and sipped our drinks. The kitchen sent out an amuse bouche salad for each of us. The service staff chose a wine and we each got a solid few ounces. Each course that followed contained one extra dish, so we each had a plate in front of us. We went at it like friends, just passing the plates around to try everything. Each plate of each course also came with another well-curated wine pairing. The server brought us each three glasses every time food was brought out and walked us through the pairings. Bonkers. The food was extraordinary on its own, but the wines just made it explode. When the second course of three was brought out and it happened again, three more amazing wines paired to our food, I think that’s when I started laughing. The entrée course was accompanied again by an extra dish from the kitchen. We were thinking about closing our tabs, as dessert only seemed likely when we were contending with just two dishes per course. Our server suppressed any hope of leaving immediately by bringing us each a small dollop of sorbet, instructing us to cleanse our palates and prepare for the dessert course. Because there was a dessert course. There was some crazy ricotta dish, nice and savory, and then a sweet thing that escapes my memory, I believe it had some orange marmalade and a cake-y thing. And another wine, a magical Moscato d’Asti. The attention and service we received were seriously insane. A wee cup of espresso made its way out for each of us after our marvelous desserts.

I can’t even.

The shared snack we sought evolved into hours of food and wine and laughter, and I can imagine no more fitting an end to our evening than that tiny cup of espresso and sharing smiles and handshakes with our service team.

There is a fun rapport that develops between bartenders/servers and regular guests. There is another, similar type of rapport that develops if a guest is a fellow industry employee. It’s not like we try to impress when we are working, really. I guess that is a part of it, but it’s more like we acknowledge and respect the contribution each other makes to the whole industry. When we walked into those bars and made industry-specific conversation, the atmosphere changed. We skip a certain amount of small-talk and we proceed to genuine chat about drinks and food, about our tattoos or jewelry selection, about our weird nerdy passions in and out of the industry.

At every turn, we were greeted as if we were family. The Alma dinner was a romantic gesture on behalf of the bar and kitchen staff, a sort of “you are welcome here, and we hope you are not only having a good time, but that you leave here in better spirits than when you arrived; here is a token of appreciation for no other reason than you’re a part of our community.” The romance is what keeps me in the industry, those moments of transcendence when providing or receiving such service.

Bartending has been elevated these past decades from its post-prohibition position as a menial, transitional or dead-end job to a craft, a career worthy of some respect. There is a myriad of skills required to truly transport a guest from the world outside our doors to a place of comfort and community. Even more recently, the craft cocktail service has moved from a pretentious knowledge gap back to genuine hospitality. I read a sign every day I walk to work, outside an old church close to downtown Duluth. It paraphrases a quote from Henri J. M. Nouwen, “Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.” Nouwen was a Dutch priest and theologian, and was writing about spirituality, but it gets at the kernel of magic revealed by truly exceptional service. It doesn’t matter as much anymore that your bartender knows the seven potential origins of the Martini, or has sampled age-old bottles of Chartreuse and considers the modern iteration sub-par. We go back to bars that treat us well, where we have developed friendships and had a great time. The kind of treatment  we received isn’t only available to industry folks. It’s offered to friends, and any guest can become a friend.

For me, the most significant part of the trip wasn’t the extraordinary food or superb drinks. I loved watching and being included in the big family of bar and service folks. I think the biggest strength of a tightly-knit industry like hospitality is the sense that, no matter if our establishments are competitors, we are all on the same team. We all work and play together, eventually.

Wait. In the words of the Arthur theme song:

Everyday when you’re walking down the street, everybody that you meet

Has an original point of view

And I say HEY! hey! what a wonderful kind of day!

Where you can learn to work and play

And get along with each other

 

You should reasonably have that song stuck in your head if you watched PBS in the 90’s at all. I’m not sorry. Cheers!

 

 

PS: Stay tuned for photo updates.

PSS: Photo updates are live!

Photo Credit: Caitlin Nielson, Vikre Distillery

cocktails and food

 

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.

the customer is sometimes right but never in charge

Note: 

This was a blog post I originally began writing almost a year ago, and after the first draft was revised and sent to folks for approval, I never made the necessary tweaks to make it publishable. It will probably sound different. I have more thoughts on some of this that will probably surface in the days to come.

Beverages consumed during the several days of writing this:

Day 1:

Vikre Aquavit: 1 oz

Coffee: 3 cups

 

Day 2:

Bent Paddle Bent Hop: 1 can, served in a coffee mug

Bombay Sapphire: 1oz, over time

Batavia Arrack: several contemplative sips

(There was a competition, I made something weird and needed to try the constituents)

G&T: Vikre Spruce, this time.

Coffee: 2 cups

A random birthday shot/board meeting (“a board meeting” is a liquid boost to morale we occasionally and responsibly enjoy behind the stick)

 

Day 3:

Coffee: 4 cups.

G&T: shaken and up, with Vikre Juniper

Some weird thing with mango and lime…

Another board meeting. Tonic and lingonberry something.

Another board meeting… Some coworkers and dear friends showed up. Have to be hospitable, right?

Our board meeting. The one you and I drink together. Yes, you. See below

 

Day4: (Today)

Coffee: lots. Like 6+ cups.

 

Our Board Meeting: G&T, served up

 

Here’s a little something you can try, perhaps while reading this (trust me, I am easier to tolerate after a drink or two…)

2oz Gin (Vikre Spruce is real fun)

3/4oz tonic syrup (Blue Henn is tasty and from Saint Paul)

1/2oz Lime Juice (more or less depending on how much you love those little green fruits)

Shake vigorously, strain and serve in a cocktail glass.

The shaking action invigorates the ingredients and aerates. Just a fun take on a classic.

Cheers, folks!

 

“The Customer is always right.” (Or are they? -cue dramatic music-)

We’ve been told this adage countless times in every form of service job. I feel like it’s sort of dated, though,

Behind this tenet lies the assumption that providing good service means acquiescing to all the whims of a customer. While superficially this seems true, there’s a next degree of service, not simply providing, but educating, challenging and engaging as well. Call it a bonus level.

First, every customer is unique. Everyone has their own palate and previous experiences, their own expectations of what their time with us should approximate. Meeting folks and accommodating these individual tastes makes our job fun.

At a conventional bar, a customer often has an idea in mind of something simple they want, or something classic. Manhattans. Margaritas. Jack Daniels and Cola. Bloody Mary. In the cocktail room, we craft every ingredient for our 8ish cocktails from scratch. This makes catering to a more general or classic drink preference difficult. There is still something for just about everyone on our menu, but it sometimes takes a conversation and some careful navigating to discover which cocktail would be the best fit.

When we get folks who come in and ask for a domestic light beer or a Jameson and soda, or anything we are otherwise unable to provide, it’s occasionally a pleasure to say a kind of “no” because we have such a story about who we are and how/why we craft drinks. Every “no” presents an opportunity for a “yes,” and the goal is to make an informed drink that will fit the customer. If someone comes in and looks at our menu and is intimidated, or doesn’t feel confident even formulating a question about the drinks or the space, they will often just order a gin and tonic (not a boring option, the house tonic syrup is pretty damn good) or ask what the most popular drink is. Usually the right response is to engage a bit more. I always turn that question around and ask, “what do you like to drink?”. A lot of times we get folks who think they don’t like gin, or who purport to like “everything”. Upon further investigation, I often discover they have some pretty clear distastes of certain flavors or kinds of drinks. Every bit of knowledge about the guest is valuable, and helps me perform my duties better. If they set the menu down, look a little confused or overwhelmed, and recognize and order a G&T as a familiar choice, it can be fun to check in with their palate and perhaps push them in a different direction after talking about some of the available choices. And worse case, they don’t like it, I make something else. Actually, worst case is some unmentioned allergy and subsequent reaction… But let’s skip that one.

It has been fun changing gears over the last few years. I used to work at bars with a formidable array of spirits, wine and beer. The decisions about how best to appease a particular guest were aided by a broader selection of ingredients. With a limited menu of specifically crafted ingredients, it becomes difficult to appease everyone. The conversations I have with customers now encompass broader flavor preferences or mood-specific questions. Do you want something refreshing or rich? Do you like sweet or tart? Oh, you like beer? What kind of beer? Hoppy beer? What about hoppy beer, like bitter or floral?

I can never convince a guest that they want something entirely different from their actual request. What I can do is determine if I can offer something similar, at least in some part, to make their experience with us an agreeable one.

My favorite customers tend to be guests who have been with us before, with whom I have developed some sense of trust, and whose palate I understand, at least nominally. Emily Vikre’s mom (love you, Lisa!) comes in quite regularly, and she rarely has to look at a menu. I know which drinks she should avoid, even if they sound fun, and which drinks she will gush over to the other customers at the bar. We have another couple who comes in, and he always orders our Really Old Fashioned and she gets whatever’s clever. She doesn’t like sweet things, but drinks just about everything else, with a tendency toward tart and bitter. I love serving regulars, because there are two conversations that happen. One, whatever you were talking about last, catching up on how work has been, how the marathon went. The other conversation is contained in their drinks. “What did you like last time? Remember that sip I gave you before you left? That will be on our next menu.” We pick up sort of where we left off.

When purchasing any sort of craft or service, like a tattoo or a haircut, it’s generally the case that the provider is adept and knowledgeable in their chosen profession. The same goes for food and drink. So be bold! Try something new. Read the menu and don’t shy away from flavor combinations or ingredients that puzzle you. Chances are they puzzled us too until we tried many iterations. Place at least a portion of your evening in the skilled hands of your bartender. You won’t often regret that decision.

 

Sometimes, though, they’re just wrong

There is a short list of things that irreversibly change the phrase from “the customer is always (or perhaps sometimes) right” to “the customer is definitely wrong”. The list includes:

  • Being obviously intoxicated and getting cut off and being dramatic about it
  • Making the space and atmosphere uncomfortable for any of our other guests
  • Breaking rules like no drinking on the sidewalk or no smoking indoors
  • Fiddling with valves and levers attached to large and important (and usually dangerous) pieces of equipment
  • Violence
  • Racist or sexist comments (see the whole atmosphere thing)
  • Unnecessary Man-Buns

Ok, so maybe not man-buns. But you catch the drift? It’s my job and joy to make your experience with us a positive one. That said, respect our relationship.

 

how I became a sailor

I grew up in Duluth, and after quitting college the first time, I moved back. This was 7 years ago now? Yeah, sounds right. So I was working a couple of jobs, climbing and getting crazy like I did in the intemperance of my youth. Friend of mine asked if I wanted to go sailing in town and got me on a boat for one of the Wednesday night races. I’d never been sailing before, it was me and these two lovely older gentlemen who were kind enough to take me aboard. I raced once, and then the next week, and then got too “busy” to commit for the rest of the season. I was probably on the water a total of 5 hours. Enough to learn port from starboard.

Later that summer, Duluth hosted a Tall Ship festival for the Great Lakes Challenge. Bounty, Pride II, Roseway, Sullivan. Beautiful ships. I remember seeing Roseway’s tanbark sails set on the Lake, a rich crimson in the sunset, and I decided that was the ship I wanted to work on, somehow. I walked around during the festival and watched the bustle of line-handling and swarthy, salty sailor-folk barking orders and responding in kind. I don’t know, it captured me in some small way. Probably in a larger way than I knew at the time. I went aboard Pride and conveyed a greeting from one of my college friends. I think the guy I spoke to would later become a shipmate. The ships were formidable in their impact, both economically on the city (we all got caught with our pants down when 120,000 people showed up to eat and drink for the week…) but also their tall, swaying elegance had an inexplicable draw for me. I asked some of the sailors I met how to get started, and at this point, many of these boats were crewed by seasoned professionals. The answers I received were a bit vague, I was just some whippersnapper with stars in his eyes asking the questions I would later hear with some frequency.

I didn’t know shit about what that would entail, but I sent an inquisitive email to the folks that operated Roseway. I also did a little bit of internet research about other ships in the industry. I learned that “deckhand” was the title of most of the sailors I met. In my head, I had no marketable skills, and deckhand was out of my reach. So, I imagined myself as a ship’s cook, instead. I had recently purchased my own knife, at that point still working for sandwich-bar so it was some shitty vegetable cleaver, but still. It was mine, and I was just getting a feel for flavors and technique. That was my supposed entry to the world of Tall Ships.

A friend of mine from college called at the end of the summer. Must have been middle of August. We caught up, and then she said “Hey, I’m sailing on this tall ship and we really need crew.” I remember saying “Don’t tell me that…” and she repeated, “Hey, I’m working on this tall ship and we REALLY need crew!” So I said yeah. It was probably more of a hell yeah. Somehow in the ensuing conversation I got it out of her that the ship cooked food for crew and passengers, and that I would have shifts in the galley. So, I thought, at last I’m going to be a ship’s cook, working with a diesel stove (yeah, that’s a thing). I got off the phone, bought a 1-way plane ticket to Connecticut, and gave my 2-weeks the next day. In retrospect, my friend must have said some convincing words to Cap, as he didn’t know what I looked like and I didn’t submit a resume. Again, what I told my friends is that I was going to be a goddamn cook on a goddamn pirate ship. I was excited. I had a big going away thing, drank a million things, packed some clothes and some poetry and my knife into a duffel and got a ride to the college campus to wait for my bus to the Minneapolis airport.

Alright. So I get to Connecticut, I get on a train and meet my friend in Mystic. I bought a rig knife, because I was told I needed it, no idea what for. We met up with some of her friends, toured a blacksmith shop, and then later got a ride to New London sometime around midnight. I had my duffel, and walked down the dock to the ship where the guy on watch said hello and then we all turned in. I slept on deck so as not to disturb the crew in the fo’c’s’le. Yeah. Sailors like to abbreviate everything. Forecastle becomes fo’c’s’le. Pronounced folk-suhl. My first impression of the ship was a slight fear of somehow waking up the Captain that night when I arrived, a weird sense of how large or small the ship actually was, and the smell of bay-water. The sway of the deck was soothing but very noticeable to me at that point, and I didn’t sleep much that first night. I mostly stayed up smiling and looking at the stars, trying to calm my nerves. I had yet to meet the rest of the crew.

The next morning, I awoke, put away the deckmat, moved my duffel to the fo’c’s’le, and sheepishly approached the quarterdeck (the slightly raised deck where the wheel is at the aft end of the ship) where Cap was smoking a cigar and drinking coffee out of a copperish and well-worn mug. He ashed into a little red coffee can. He was listening to the robotic voice that recited the regional marine weather forecast on channel 2. Always this image. Cap, cigar in hand, wind-swept hair, beard that hid facial expression and amplified the smiles he offered, looking at the sky in all directions, feeling the air, and listening to the forecast. There was a very palpable density of thought and consideration, born of years living on the water and being responsible for the lives of crew and vessel. Every morning, the same distant, thoughtful gaze, the same mug of coffee, and the same Grenadier cigar pricked with a brass nail he kept in the Nav box for that exclusive purpose.

I approached this figure, introduced myself, I thanked him for the opportunity, and then we scheduled my drug test and some shopping for foul-weather gear. Hurricane Earl was expected to make landfall overnight. I went with another crewmate into town, and came back to the ship to assist in the battening down of the hatches, literally. I learned many kinds of knots that afternoon/evening, and learned the parts of the ship based on what we needed to tie down so shit didn’t blow away. It rained mightily, and she blew stink (translation: it was really windy), and we woke up, untied things and got ready to take passengers out.

My first moment underway was with 30 knot winds, under limited sail with 30+ passengers aboard, and we regularly hit hull speed. I had to learn quickly and learn the right way to do things, otherwise I would have hurt myself or someone else. No pressure. In retrospect, I was a good hire.

Turns out, I wasn’t a cook. I was a deckhand. Yay me! Galley shifts meant I had to do dishes and help the cook, but I was responsible for the sailing of the ship. Underqualified, perhaps, but I thrive in the moments where what is expected from me requires me to step up and learn skills and attitudes I don’t yet possess.

The remainder of the season was pivotal in my life. I learned things about sarcasm, engines, sail theory, and working with a team of talented humans. SO many ridiculous stories. Meeting new folks, parties, crashing parties, every day brought another set of adventures and responsibilities. A part of my duties as a deckhand were telling the story of the ship, the captain, my own story, and just relaying the mythology and history of sailing vessels like this one. I returned for the spring season and made some more friends that I value to this day, regardless of how much we stay in touch (Andrew, brother dearest…). I could fill many pages with some of these stories, and perhaps I will soon. But for now, that’s how it happened.

I later bought a small sailboat, and am still figuring out how to keep sailing a part of my life.

I don’t know. It’s easier these days to get started in sailing tall ships. I would encourage anyone who has a few months to give to the profession to reach out, find some options. I’m available for any of those questions, and I still have some connections in the industry.

Fair winds.

 

service dreams and ginspiration

So truth is a narrative, right? Especially when telling stories. And all narratives are inherently fiction. I like the dialogue between fact and story, and it’s been a real trip trying to deconstruct memory and reconfigure it into a coherent tale. That’s probably what I’ll be doing the next few posts.

I have been thinking a lot about what constitutes good service in a restaurant or bar, or even anywhere for that matter. Good service is exceeding the expectations a customer has for their experience. Excellent service transports you away from the world outside and leaves you in your own, to do with what you will. Every moment from when you walk into a place to that last step out is a curated experience. It’s astonishing when it all works and you can just sort of submit to the experience.

~

I had a birthday recently. It was a Sunday. I decided several months ago that my birthday would include going to a Vikings game with some friends and ex-coworkers. This also meant that I got to spend a weekend in Minneapolis. My lady friend and I went down on Saturday, and I had a few lists of things I wanted to do before and after the game. My absolute list, a bonus list, and then a cherry on top.

Almost 2 years ago, now, I had the opportunity to make a drink for the Bombay Sapphire Most Imaginative Bartender competition. I had just left my other bar gigs and gone full-time at Vikre. 2 revered and incredibly talented bartenders from the cities (Nick Kosevich and Rob Jones) came up to judge several cocktails around Duluth. I remember being nervous as hell, but I really liked the cocktail I made. It was muddled chives, a few drops of smoked balsamic vinegar, Kalamata olive oil, lemon juice, honey syrup, a little salt, and the Sapphire. I made the drink, they tried it, and it was weird and savory but fun. They gave me some amazing constructive feedback, we shook hands, they made a point of inviting me to visit them in Minneapolis, I met a third guy (Dustin) who was there recording the proceedings, and then they left. This was one of the first instances when I really felt like a part of a greater Minnesotan bartending culture. It was kind of them to come up and tour some Duluth establishments and get us involved. They remain friends of mine, and I make it a point to visit as often as possible.

I didn’t win. But I gained some insight into a broader culture in MN that is valuable for Duluth. The last few years, some folks from different establishments in the metro area have come up and I have had the pleasure of making their drinks and chatting about the industry. I’ve learned a lot in our brief interactions and had a lot of fun at work, and then after work with some of these folks. It’s inspiring to talk about cocktail ideas and share stories with folks who run some of the most impressive bar programs in Minnesota, if not the Midwest. It’s also humbling as fuck. Constant inspiration.

So when we were planning the weekend, I made sure that Hi-Lo Diner, Lawless Distilling, and Spoon and Stable were on the list. The bonus list was Esker Grove, the new place in the Walker Art center, and Young Joni. Bars run by Jon and Adam, respectively. Those two dudes came up and did a tiki-takeover at Vikre and I got to be the bar-back. It was lovely, and I learned so much. I think the biggest take-away was that we are all just bartenders. We make drinks. We allow folks to have a good time. Hanging out after the event with the contingency from the cities was a blast. Anyway. The cherry on top was visiting an old friend who used to cook brunch when I was bartending. He now cooks at a breakfast joint and I hadn’t seen him in a while.

First stop after making it into the city was Hi-Lo. I was hoping to catch my buddy Sim, but he wasn’t in until later so we just had food and my first birthday shot. We checked into the air b&b and uber’d (ubered? Nah. Life needs more apostrophes.) back to Hi-Lo. We sat at the bar, ordered a few drinks, and then Sim came up and we talked about carbonation for tap cocktails. Nerdnerdnerdnerd… It was great to finally be served at his bar after the handful of times I’ve made him some drinks. Was a lovely start.

We went to Lawless distilling after that. Walked into this dimly lit bar to see a friend of mine, and were greeted by a kind gentleman at the bar, with the windows into the distillery a few feet away. My friend Jeff then knocked on the window and came out and shared a hug. We were served shots of their “pink gin” followed by some hot toddies served in vials heated by a rotisserie. SO ridiculous. Then the tap drinks. Then the weird cinnamon-cedar-campfire hot buttered rum. Then my friend Dustin showed up and we talked about cocktails as a visceral experience and discussed the sensory details that accompany your glass. We had so much fun, and had a solid spiritual start for the rest of the evening.

This is where the dream really begins.

We had reservations at Spoon and Stable at 8:45. We showed up at 8:30. Now, I had become friends with a few of the bartenders (one came up and did a night behind the stick at Vikre with some fun specials) at Spoon, and their bar manager, Rob, was one of the judges for my weird cocktail a year and a half ago. We walked in, told them our names, and they said they had our table ready a bit early. They asked for our coats, and in what must have been some expression of MN-Nice, we refused, not wanting to trouble the hosts who were working their asses off on a busy Saturday night. I leaned on a table by the bar briefly, and no sooner had my elbow hit the table after my jacket came off than a tiny bottle of Miller High Life showed up in front of me. I looked up and Rob, 20 feet away in the middle of building a drink and addressing a customer, simply made 1 second of eye contact and threw me a nod. Between bartenders, that nod meant:

“Hey! Thanks for coming down! I hope the drive was not stressful. Welcome back. It’s good to see you. I know you work in the industry, and aren’t asking anything of me personally. But I appreciate you and I want to do something special. I know you can drink this tiny beer in about 3 seconds. You know I know you’re here, and when I get a second, we’ll chat, but for now, have a drink on me.”

In 1 second. Maybe 1.5 seconds, at the most.

I laughed out loud, and when my lady friend got back from the restroom, we were seated. The host who asked us if we wanted to check our coats followed us to the table silently, and when we got there and saw how uncomfortable we would be with our coats hanging off our chair/booth, he smiled knowingly and handed us a numbered piece of paper, quietly taking our coats without a fuss. The restaurant was loud, not an empty seat in the house, and the buzz sort of added to this weird magical atmosphere. I felt noticed and special, ego be damned.

Alright. Here’s where things get a little fuzzy. I’d like to say it doesn’t have anything to do with the drinks we had at Lawless, but dammit Jeff! A lot of things happened in rapid succession. I am pretty sure I will get some of the order wrong. But here goes:

So we are sitting. There is water in our glasses. We are given menus, she gets a gluten-free menu because dietary restrictions. The server mentions there is a new sommelier working. His name is Nico. I, incidentally, have been at one of the wine-food dinners he curated at Lake Ave in Duluth, and considered him an acquaintance. I laugh, and tell the server he did the wine for one of my favorite meals a year ago. At that moment, Rob appears and gives me a hug, and we pick up where we left off from the nod. He offers to buy us a round of drinks, and we elect to leave our choices in his hands. He leaves, and then Nico shows up, points at my Vikre sweatshirt, and we chat about Duluth a bit, when he’s coming back. We somehow connect over the Rosé dinner I attended. We make it a plan to grab a drink together next time he’s in town. While he is standing there and we are chatting, a tiny, elegant amuse-bouche shows up for both of us, compliments of someone and gluten-free because magically everyone knows about the gluten restriction at our table. And then Rob comes back with our drinks. He proceeds to explain my partner’s cocktail, and I am only catching this out of the corner of my eye. He pulls out a lighter and flames the citrus at the table. You shitting me? This is the bar manager in the middle of the shit on a Saturday night flaming a citrus twist over her drink. He walks away after shaking my hand again and recommending a pasta dish with a charming, “of course that’s what you should eat” shoulder shrug/smile, Nico and I wrap up our little chat and he takes away our wine glasses after seeing the cocktails arrive, and we are provided bread and gluten free snacks with some cheese and butter, I believe.

This is the first 15-20 minutes at our table.

After placing our order for appetizers and the courses we picked, the other bartender, Isaac, shows up and demands a hug, and we chat briefly and jovially about the evening. After he left, we were given a moment of relative silence. We had been successfully transported away from whatever the hell else was going on outside and into this lovely, family-feeling atmosphere.

The rest of the food comes out and it’s ridiculous and delicious, and we are left alone for the most part. Time to chat about what’s going on, and time to observe the insane service choreography that’s going on around us. Our server answered some questions about how many tables are in a section usually, and she was admirably informal while remaining professional.

Dessert. We ordered one thing to share, we received that thing plus another thing someone thought I would enjoy, plus a face-sized piece of cotton candy, PLUS we each got a small cookie tin full of a handful of sweet delicacies, her tin being, of course, free of gluten.

We closed out and I made it a point to go to the bar after dinner. At this point, I am pretty sure nobody even knew it was my birthday. This was just how we were treated. We sat at the bar, full to the brim, and then the Amaro started. My partner and I got into a heated and invigorating discussion about what good service is, and our glasses never emptied. At midnight, she wished me a happy birthday, and Rob then bought our Amari. Rob and I shook hands once more, and made a pact to get the cities bartenders on a bus and up to Duluth, and then we went—wait. No, then we handed in the number and got out coats back, which we laughed about heartily.

Ok. Now that’s a lot of details, but the feeling was just magical. Everything about my experience told me we were valued, and that the people were grateful for our presence. That’s what it should feel like, and that’s something I really want to impart to folks I interact with in my job.

Just a note: I was wearing a hoodie and black jeans. We were the most under-dressed folks in the entire space, but I couldn’t help feeling like we were at the cool kids’ table.

The next day, we made our way to the Vikings game. The performance was woeful and the beer was expensive. It was fun to hang out with the Duluth crew. We made tentative plans to meet up with Dustin after leaving the game and hanging out with some of the Duluth folks. My plan for the previous night, Saturday, was to go to spoon for a quick dinner (ha!) and then make it to Esker Grove and Young Joni. Those two bars never materialized, the opportunity slowly disappearing into the time-warp that was our experience at Spoon. So, when Dustin got a hold of us and suggested Esker Grove, we quickly made our way to the Walker to see what was up. It was a lovely space, the bar and seating area fit the Walker so perfectly. The drinks were exceptional and classy, just nicely executed plays on some classics. Clay-washed Overholt? Yes, please. We had our drinks, and then Dustin was like “Dude, we have to go to Young Joni,” to which I grinned. He gave us a ride, and after breaking the cap to some bitters in his car and subsequently pouring the bottle into a leaky Citadelle barrel (because why wouldn’t he have a few barrels in his trunk?), we made our way onto the roads. Some fun music, good chats, and then we were there. We walked into the alley, found the red light post, and walked into the back bar. Young Joni was like walking into another place entirely. Weird wallpaper, music that was like tiki meets 70’s folk-rock meets a hint of EDM (on a reel-to-reel. Yup.), vintage Playboys scattered across the tables that probably came from someone’s grandparents’ family cabin. The walls had dark wood paneling like a cabin, but behind the wood and between the cracks in the panels, there was this subtle Edison-yellow-warm glow, giving the feeling that we the sun was setting outside, or the cabin in which we were drinking had no need to be weather-tight because it was summer or we were on some Island. Again, transported. The menus had weird and unrelated vintage family photos on every page, followed by a description of each cocktail that was typed on an Underwood and described, not the taste, but the attitude of each of the drinks. Adam nailed it. Every drink was novel and intentional, and perfectly executed. We sat with Dustin, and met some new friends. Let’s talk about rodents in our work environments. Fernet and pho broth? Sounds good. What’s the dumbest question you’ve been asked? I hope our friends end up in Duluth someday soon. I threw around some free drink tickets and we went home after a round of hugs.

The next morning, we made it the restaurant where Marcos worked and had a brief tour of their kitchen. We had breakfast and coffee and chatted about our lives with him, where we were and if we were happy. It was a lovely, relaxed end to the weekend.

Must-do list, check. Bonus list, check (thanks, Dustin). Cherry on top? Yup.

It was an invigorating, inspiring, challenging and relaxing weekend, and I came back to Duluth with so many feelings. Feelings about good service, feelings about cocktail experiences, feelings about friends, and feelings about the industry I find myself in. This was never supposed to be my career. I was supposed to graduate college and go on to be an academic. I was supposed to do a million things, but this is where I find myself, and damned if I won’t go as far down the rabbit hole as I can.

I don’t often make the time to visit the bartenders who visit me. I will be making more time for those connections because they inspire me so much. I feel so fortunate to have made the move to Vikre and been given so much opportunity to create and co-create. I think I feel a part of a culture that is bigger than Duluth. Hell, it’s bigger than Minnesota. As bartenders, we do the same thing, just in different neighborhoods. We share and cultivate experiences with a community no matter where we tend bar.

 

how I became a bartender

Preface:

This is my first legit foray into this “blog” stuff. I don’t want to limit it to cocktails and bar-related (baresque? Baroque? Baroque.) things, because I’m a well-rounded human being, dammit! That said, I do spend a lot of time and energy thinking about libations and potations. Whatever.

Post-preface:

The POS (point of sale, where servers/bartenders ring in orders and keep tabs) I worked with about 4 years ago presented me with a menu every time I clocked in. Let’s see. Am I a prep cook today? Am I a line cook? A dishwasher? A server? The day I acquired a “Bartender” option when I clocked into work was about 3 and a half years ago. Right place, right time, with a little help from the manager’s unwillingness to work weekend days, I suppose. I was working in the kitchen as head prep cook and brunch line cook and decided to put in my 2 weeks without a real plan for what to do. The bar manager heard I gave my notice and asked me if I wanted to be the “brunch supervisor”, which meant I got to work Saturday and Sunday 8:30-5. I had wanted to deal with customers a bit more, so I jumped on it.

As with any origin tale, especially of the Marvel/DC variety (which this is adamantiumly not), the narrative has a richer backstory that led up to that moment. I had several brief interactions with serving drinks, all of them in some weird circumstances.

(Flashback, camera pans out of the kitchen, zooms in on a 18-yr old, freshman Scuzzi with a weird fro and a shitty beard. It’s finals week. College roommate is holding a bottle of Bailey’s.)

I grew up in an extended family that did not have a positive view on alcohol and drinking in general. It was generally forbidden, and “drinkers” were referred to with some amount of disgust. I somehow made it through high school with just my nerdy friends without drinking, or even really wanting to drink. I went to college with more of my family’s alcohol-perspective than I realized, and didn’t drink at all in my first semester. Except this one time. My roommate had a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream, and brought it out at a particularly celebratory moment during finals week. He offered me a shot, and my immediate reaction was that familial disgust and a hard no. That quickly melted via some liberal self-examination, and I had my first intentional taste of alcohol. It was fine. At that point, it tingled a little bit (which is hilarious, Bailey’s is like 2-proof). Point: I got over my weird negative cultural perspectives about alcohol in that moment. It was great.

Note 1: Drinking while underage is illegal. /endrant

Note 2: My mother only drinks the cocktails I make. I just gave her a shaker/strainer combo, a jigger, and my copy of Death & Co. So we have progress.

The next semester I came back to school and made great friends with one of the Seniors on the hall, and he convinced me and my roommate to join him in making drinks and food for what he called “Latin Lounge”. Every Wednesday we would take over this 3-story old house-building-thing on campus and serve handmade gorditas, tacos, and a variety of drinks and shots. We technically only sold plates and 2 different sizes of cups to avoid some fun legal issues on campus. He ran the show, bought the booze, and split the “profits” with us. All to some form of fun Spanish dance music. We served 200+ people in 3 hours. Out of a home kitchen, essentially. It was insane, looking back. The menu was Barbie doll shots, apple pie shots, some mixed long drinks, but the one that stuck with me was a mojito. I loved muddling the mint with sugar to release those flavors. I was an absolute cocktail noob, I can’t even remember the shaker we used. It lasted one semester, and we only made 10-20 bucks a night, but it was a blast. Every one of those nights was a blur. Kind of a weird first for customer service, but it stuck.

(stage directions in a blog post are annoying, sorry…)

My next interaction behind the stick was at a bar/sandwich place. I was 21. I was head prep cook, responsible for making fun soups, porketta, desserts, and making up a hummus recipe. One of my female coworkers who was quite a bit cuter than me was offered the chance to bartend when our coworker called in sick. I was stuck making sandwiches and tiramisu. It was fine. At some point after the lunch rush she freaked out; someone ordered a margarita and she didn’t know how to make it. She came into the kitchen and asked me to help. I washed my hands, went out front, grabbed the worn, scotch-taped copy of Mr. Boston Official Bartender’s Guide, and found the margarita recipe. It called for simple syrup. I googled it. I grabbed some sugar and a fork and a cambro and whisked up a semblance of “simple syrup”, squeezed some limes into it, shook it with some tequila and, I hope, some orange liqueur, and poured it into a pint glass with ice and a stupidly salted rim. I served it to the woman, thanked her for being patient, and went back into the kitchen to finish prep. 20 minutes later, my coworker came back to the kitchen. Apparently that was the best margarita this woman had ever had and she wanted more. Four more, all told. I ended up behind the bar for the remainder of my shift, which included a World Cup soccer rush, had to learn about a bunch of beers and how to keep the foamy stuff (I would go on to discover this was called “head”) from getting too out of control when pouring. I learned where the margarita mix was kept, and didn’t make any more cambro-style margaritas. It was my first and last bartending shift there.

(… because now you expect some sort of dramatic break between stories. Voila.)

Shortly after my emergency bartending shift, I started working at a place that served Scandinavian-style food. I was mostly in charge of making lefse sandwiches and Swedish pancakes. When I started there, they had a liquor license and a small selection of fun cocktails leftover from previous owners. I learned how to think about flavors in drinks, but only in the most basic sense. I even brought back a mojito to the menu. I was a self-proclaimed mojito specialist. Nobody ever told me to mojitone it down.

(Yarrrr)

I quit both jobs when I was offered a gig sailing on a tall ship out of Connecticut. My college friend called me and said they needed crew. I had sailed exactly twice on a small boat, for a total of 4 hours on the water. Of course I said yes. I bought a one-way ticket the next day and gave my two-weeks, with no idea what I would be in for. First day on the ship was hurricane Earl making landfall. I learned how to tie knots and make sure shit didn’t blow away. Later that sailing season, I decided to make a bunch of cocktails for the crew. Guess what. I made mojitos. I had never made mojitos for 8 thirsty sailors at once, though. I took a big stainless mixing bowl, added sugar and water a la cambro-margarita, and squeezed some limes. I muddled some mint, combined the mixture with a white rum and served the mojito-punch-thing in coffee mugs. It tasted like garbage. Ego check. I thought I had my mojito game down, but apparently things happen differently when you make more than one cocktail at a time. Who knew? The sailor solution was to just add more rum and drink them quicker. We drank dark rum with ginger beer the rest of the night and had a blast, but I was discouraged. My mixology skills were not requested again. 🙁

(Closer to home?)

I worked in a kitchen when I moved back to Duluth, and had the pleasure of working with some incredible chefs. One of my dear friends would bounce his ideas off me when we would take smoke breaks. He taught me how to think about salt, how to let things rest, how to cook eggs perfectly, but most importantly taught me that flavor combinations are not bound by recipes and ratios found in cookbooks. He left to work for a different restaurant in town, eventually becoming Head Chef, and now puts out some of the most delicious and interesting food north of the twin cities.

When I started tending bar officially, I had a lot of catching up to do. I read some wine books and had two of the most knowledgeable bartenders in town to answer my questions. I was given liberties to play with some weird stuff and learn about the world of cocktails. When I walked behind that bar the first time, they had Cynar, 2 kinds of Genever, 4 varieties of vermouth, Fernet before it was cool, Ramazzotti, Bonal, and Batavia Arrack. So much weird stuff to learn about right away. I went from messing up a sailor-mojito-punch to learning how to make a proper Pisco sour.

I now work at Vikre Distillery. I was hired when they decided to open a cocktail room via facebook message from one of my regulars, a wine-curious friend-customer. It’s been 2 years, and I can’t begin to describe what I’ve learned since I’ve been here. When I walked in and we opened to customers for the first time, I had no idea what a julep strainer was. I also was convinced that a short shake I called a “lazy stir” was an effective way to serve a stirred cocktail. That first day, some lucky news guy snapped a photo of a cocky bartender in a new environment straining a drink for a customer.

Bartender Nick Pascuzzi of Duluth pours an Inland Sea a drink containing Aquavit with apple blackberry grapefruit lime and vanilla flavors at the cocktail room of Vikre Distillery in Duluth on the first day of operation Friday afternoon in Duluth. This is the first cocktail room in the state allowed under a new microdistillery law passed by the Minnesota legislature in the spring session. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

To this day, it serves as a constant reminder not to let my assumptions get in my own way.

 

I don’t know. I think every bartender has a narrative about how and why they started in this industry. It’s fun to put the pieces together.

 

Keep your stick on the ice.