It was midnight when Jeff Bell first arrived in New York back in 2009. After flying across the country into Newark Liberty International Airport, a bus took him under the Hudson River and dropped him off at the gritty Port Authority terminal.
“I got rid of everything except for what I packed into two suitcases and was walking with them through Times Square, the center of everything, with no money,” he recalls. But the future all-star’s career, at that moment, was far from certain.
Upon graduating from the University of Washington two years prior, he landed a job in finance, “tricking myself into wanting it,” he now admits. He went through training, but the whole time, he couldn’t shake this nagging feeling that he belonged behind the stick and ultimately declined a position.
While attending college, Bell had worked as a busboy, server and eventually bartender at the downtown-Seattle outpost of McCormick’s Fish House, part of the McCormick & Schmick’s empire. “I was pumping out Vodka Martinis—cold, shaken or extra dirty—and Bloody Marys at volume during happy hours,” he remembers. “Then, people were drinking more to unwind than to appreciate a good cocktail. Manhattans were what your parents drank.”
In New York, the Midtown location of McCormick & Schmick’s offered Bell a way to pay his rent, but it was prolific restaurateur Danny Meyer he truly wanted to work for. “The best of anything is in New York, and the hospitality industry here is unparalleled. I read Meyer’s book Setting the Table and thought maybe I could meet him.”
Even better, he landed a job at Meyer’s Roman-inspired trattoria, Maialino, inside the Gramercy Park Hotel. There, he expanded his drinks knowledge working under then-bar manager Valerie Meehan, wife of Liquor.com advisory board member Jim Meehan, who runs the award-winning establishment PDT.
Increasingly serious about his career, Bell started barbacking at PDT in the summer of 2010, and he’s been there ever since. Today, as head bartender, he dreams up recipes steeped in history but with modern whimsy, like his Cereal Milk Punch (Momofuku Milk Bar’s signature cereal milk, Bernheim Wheat Whiskey, Glen Thunder Corn Whiskey, Bärenjäger Honey Liqueur, grated nutmeg), which is a riff on a traditional New Orleans Brandy Milk Punch.
In June, after two days of rigorous competition and a sudden-death tie-breaking shake-off, Bell found himself thrust into the spotlight when he was named U.S. Bartender of the Year by the United States Bartenders’ Guild and Diageo World Class. The following month, he competed against 43 of the best mixologists from around the globe in the Diageo World Class international finals aboard a ship that toured the Mediterranean. While Spain’s David Rios ended up the grand champion, Bell more than held his own, making it to the final round of eight and winning the “Against the Clock” challenge that required him to make eight flawless drinks in just 10 minutes.
It’s been a “crazy, unexpected ride” since his Times Square introduction, Bell says, and he anticipates more surprises along the way, because “the bartending world is still like the Wild West.”
But I’m pretty sure those adventures will never again include a shaken Martini.
Alia Akkam is a New York-based writer and managing editor of Hospitality Design.
(Photo courtesy Getty Images)