There’s no two ways about it: The cocktail world has been progressing ever deeper down the rabbit hole of culinary influence for some time now. Whether a bar is influenced by a complementary in-house kitchen or using comparatively unusual ingredients (horseradish, turnips or turmeric, anyone?) to up its booze game, the line between bartender and bar chef is increasingly blurry. Even garnishes frequently resemble standalone, outlandish snacks these days. (We’re looking at you, over-the-top Bloody Marys.)
The knowledge that can be shared between bartenders and chefs about building flavor profiles and experimenting with complementary (and perhaps unusual) ingredients can be an invaluable, symbiotic relationship, offering a completely new perspective and complex, thoughtful dimension to drinks.
Below, seven bartenders outline the greatest lessons they’ve been able to transfer from the kitchen to the bar, from cooking in Grandma’s kitchen to a magic ingredient that revolutionized an entire cocktail menu.
1. Alba Huerta on Moving as a Team
“There’s one particular thing I’ve learned about building bar programs from restaurants,” says Alba Huerta, the owner of Julep in Houston. “Almost two decades ago, the kitchen is where I first saw respect for the job. Watching a kitchen team work in unison is like sitting in front of the world’s greatest orchestra. Communication, timing and temperatures rule their universe. Add the element of customer service, and the same rules apply to any cocktail bar program.”
2. Joey Houghtaling on Learning in Grandma’s Kitchen and from The Flavor BIble
“My background in flavor profiling dates back to being a young child and helping my grandmother cook for the holidays,” says Joey Houghtaling, the co-founder of Phoenix Cocktail Club in Milwaukee. “I watched and learned so much from her over the years. [As an adult] I’ve tried to learn everything I could from people around me who are successful chefs or bartenders. I was never really the kind of person who wanted help learning, so at first, even though I had the palate, I wasn’t sure about how to translate that into making drinks.
“My first attempts consisted of me going to a grocery store, buying every sort of produce and trying to make something happen. I quickly learned that wasn’t going to work, but then I found The Flavor Bible (Little Brown and Company, $38). Seeing the flavors in print helped make my senses open up, and I started to understand how a lot of different flavors worked.
“It was about five years ago that someone told me I should start matching drinks with food I loved. I had been winning some local competitions but had a creative block. This is when I really started to research different techniques of incorporating flavors into spirits through methods such as fat washing, infusing, creating and mixing different bitters and using different compound syrups. I entered a Manhattan competition where my inspiration came from barbecue: I smoked a coupe with cherry wood, then made a Manhattan with bacon-fat-washed bitters.”
3. Gregory Westcott on Final Taste-Test Approval
“[Our chef’s] mastery of flavors really gives the cocktail program a culinary advantage,” says Gregory Westcott, the bar manager at Hinoki & the Bird in Los Angeles. “His feedback is always the final step in making sure the cocktails are ready to be placed on the menu. What better palate to give feedback than a chef’s?”
4. Morgan Weber on How Culinary (and Cocktail) Opposites Attract
“My favorite creative moments while developing drinks, without a doubt, always happen when I’m bouncing ideas off our culinary director, Vincent Huynh,” says Morgan Weber, the beverage director at Eight Row Flint in Houston. “He has an amazing palate and brings to the table decades of cooking and eating experiences that have shaped his unique approach to food.
“Not having the same background in cocktails that I do, Huynh is not encumbered by ‘too much cocktail-focused education.’ He understands where I’m coming from with the classics but constantly throws out ideas based on his cooking experiences. The drinks that accidentally come out of those R&D sessions are consistently the most interesting that make it onto our menus, like the Haitian Divorce, which came from a discussion about how to incorporate the flavors into a Tiki-style cocktail.”
5. Cari Hah on Self-Taught Culinary Creativity
“I come from the opposite perspective, because I’m a bartender who has never had the opportunity to work with a great chef or the benefit of having a full amazing kitchen to utilize for the bar,” says Cari Hah, a bartender at Big Bar in Los Angeles. “Every bar I have worked is just a bar with bar food or a place where the kitchen and bar don’t necessarily work in conjunction with each other.
“I wouldn’t call this a disadvantage, because it has forced me to be creative in how I prep ingredients and work with the space and limited equipment that I have. But I definitely have experienced great envy when I hear my peers talk about how much their chefs help out and offer advice on culinary techniques that I would love to learn. I don’t think there is better or worse. There is just different. I have been able, though, to figure out culinary techniques in a rather DIY way since I don’t have expensive equipment (e.g., sous vide, a big range-top stove, dehydrators, vacuum sealers, etc.), so I am very imaginative in that way.”
6. Jason Stevens on Sharing Between the Bar and Kitchen
“Before we began planning our food and beverage menus [for upcoming locations], chef Joshua Thomas and I discuss what is available locally, then create a deck of ingredients we both want to focus on,” says Jason Stevens, the director of beverage and bars at La Corsha Hospitality Group in Austin. “We break each ingredient down to all of its usable parts and work together on how we can use the whole of the ingredient. The kitchen is using Rio Star grapefruits for suprêmes? The bar can use the peels for citrus cordial. Our overall food and beverage program has more synergy when we approach it this way.”
7. Ryan Yamada on One Magic Product and Putting the Guest First
“In designing the cocktail menu for John Besh’s Marsh House, in the Thompson Hotel, I got to work with chef de cuisine Justin Cameron,” says Ryan Yamada, the owner of Raise The Bar in Nashville. “I had an idea for a seasonal Old Fashioned utilizing apple bitters, bourbon, salt and maple syrup. Chef Cam introduced me to a phenomenal product Burton’s Kentucky bourbon-barrel-aged maple syrup. The end result was a rich, round flavor with subtle notes of fall.
“When I presented the cocktail menu to our owners and managers, I made two versions of the drink: one using the Burton’s maple syrup and another using a bulk-ordered maple syrup. After the tasting, Cam asked me about the difference between the two drinks. He was able to tell that one wasn’t as complete as the other and that it tasted ‘thinner’ and ‘flat.’ I told him I was worried about the beverage cost of using the artisanal syrup and had made the second drink with the bulk product instead. He told me that at the end of the day the cost wasn’t at all prohibitive but not to even worry about that. He said the consideration I needed to take was the difference in the guest experience as they enjoyed the better drink. Cam truly helped me gain that perspective.”