Monday, July 14, 2008

The Buzz About Pairings, Spirited Dinners, and the Apprentice Program

This article was first published on July 12, 2008, as a part of the 2008 Tales of the Cocktail Blog.

Many people ask us how we come up with our cocktail–appetizer pairings. Easy—we love to eat, we love to drink. Things happen when you combine the two; our faces give away the results. (Frowns and other wry facial contortions equal bad—smiles accompanied by oohs and aahs equal good.)

Well, that’s what got us started, but it’s not that simple anymore. Now we taste-test cocktails with appetizers for at least a week, sometimes longer (you actually do get tired of eating pigs in a blanket three days in a row). Our latest duo, El Zete (rhymes with Pete) paired with Chorizo Sobres (little deep-fried envelopes of chorizo, peaches, and scallions) took two weeks of boozy mixology and kitchen antics to achieve a pairing that made us imbibe with gusto.

Cocktail hour is important to us. It’s that magical, crepuscular time of the evening during which the two of us reunite and talk about the day’s adventures. Since we get out of work late (Happy Hour is already over at most watering holes), we started combining appetizers with our cocktails to get a jump-start on dinner, and to assuage the twisted moans of agony emanating from our growling stomachs. Who doesn’t love an appetizer? Heck, sometimes when we go out to dine, that’s all we order.

Some of the food–cocktail pairings on the menus of the Spirited Dinners sound tantalizing as all get-out. [Spirited Dinners is a Tales of the Cocktail event that showcases the talents of New Orleans chefs pairing their cuisine with cocktails created by guest bar chefs.] The one we’ve opted for will be at Stella! with food created by Executive Chef Scott Boswell, and cocktails created by two of our favorite mixologists in the world, Bar Chefs Brian Miller and Phil Ward, both of Death & Company in New York City. The menu, as expected, has some outrageous things on it, like the first course: “Peanut Butter and Jellyfish” (Tempura Chinese Jellyfish (!) with Spicy Red Peanut Chili and Local Summer Melon Kimchee). Wherever and whenever are we going to get to try something like that? And, of course, paired with the Fresa Brava (Herradura Silver Jalapeño-Infused Tequila, Yellow Chartreuse, lemon juice, simple syrup, strawberry), our taste buds have never been more ready for this marriage (which certainly won’t be banned in the French Quarter, thank you very much). Says Ward, “It’ll be neat to see who shows up for this [Spirited Dinner]. I’d never had jellyfish before, but with the peanuts, we knew Tequila would go well with it, and the strawberries complete the peanut-butter-and-jelly element.”

Joaquin Simo making customers happy at Death & Co., NYC

Another of our favorite bar chefs is Death & Company’s Joaquin Simo (known for his food–cocktail pairings in New York City), who will be assisting Phil Ward for the Stella! Spirited Dinner. Simo believes that Miller and Ward have created cocktails that will “challenge conventional notions about pairings.” Although the menu is filled with rich foods, this dynamic duo have opted to create drinks that are, for the most part, “stirred and boozy rather than citrusy.” Simo shares his coworkers’ philosophy regarding pairings. “I don’t always want to use acidity to cut through rich or fatty dishes—I love using big boozy stirred drinks that demand to be sipped where most people would reach for that bottle of big red.” When asked what he’s most excited about, Simo touts a drink called the “Gypsy Woman.” “The peppery, vegetal tequila [in the Gypsy Woman] is getting it’s edges rounded off with the vanilla and oregano notes in Bianco vermouth, and the herbal dimension gets gloriously deep with the addition of green Chartreuse and the Bitter Truth celery bitters. A savory cocktail with a depth no dirty martini could ever hope to compete with, this should be a welcome foil to the gentle sweetness of the crab and the lobster roe pasta.”

Visitors to Tales will be seeing a lot of Simo. He was chosen as one of the eighteen bartenders to participate in the 2008 Tales of the Cocktail’s Cocktail Apprentice Program, founded by Ward and Miller, thus enabling gifted bartenders, like Simo, the opportunity to work alongside influential and high-profile mixologists. The Program sprang from a conversation that Ward and Tales founder Ann Tuennerman had. As Ward said, “We realized Tales was getting bigger every year, and they needed more help. This gives these young bartenders, up-and-comers, the chance to be a part of this event, the Grand Poobah of the industry.” Simo (a native of Quito, Ecuador) cut his teeth at his family’s home in Miami, where his father, a classically trained pastry chef, owned a French bakery, and his mother, who came from a long line of cooks, created elegant meals (“always a salad course”) for all her food-lovin’ sons. After pouring endlessly through the pages of cookbooks and food magazines, and making dishes repeatedly just to perfect them, he got older and, because of his curious culinary mind, began to see how food can combine (and, with more practice, combust) with booze. Years later, we find him standing behind the bar at Death & Company, impeccably groomed, well-mannered, and knowing exactly what you need, even if you think you have no idea what you want. And although he’s learned plenty from legend Gary Regan, it’s Phil Ward and Brian Miller who have been his sherpas, coaches, and spirit guides. “Death & Co has been a remarkable place to work, learn, and play. The bar of professionalism is incredibly high and I’ve never worked at a place where the staff was so ego-free about the job.” While apprenticing, Joaquin Simo is excited to meet fellow bartenders, both new-to-mes, like Josie Packard, and friends of yore, like Tom Waugh and Jim Kearns.

Another fellow bartender that Simo will get to spend plenty of time with is Maxwell Britten, another chosen Apprentice, who will be Simo’s roommate during their stay in New Orleans. Britten is head bartender at Jack the Horse Tavern in Brooklyn Heights, having recently taken over the position from his mentor, Damon Dyer. He met Dyer at a bizarre catering gig at a Russian wedding in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. When Dyer got the job as head bartender at Jack the Horse, Britten serendipitously started as a busboy. Like any eager young man wanting to soak up all that is around him, he would stay late and watch Dyer ply his art, falling in love with the first cocktail Dyer made for him, a Manhattan. Britten learned from him step by step how to run a bar. He quickly moved on up to waiter, continuing his tutelage under Dyer, and when some bartenders weren’t working out, Dyer asked him to join him behind the bar. So when Dyer left to pursue other bartending/mixology opportunities, Britten took over, chopped off his longish hair, and developed a classic bartender “look,” complete with tight, pressed shirt, and a slight templar curl clinging ever-so-slightly to his forehead.

Maxwell Britten serving up libations at Jack the Horse Tavern, Brooklyn

Britten’s story begins in Tucson, Arizona, where his Dad owned a restaurant and was a wine writer for such publications as Wine Spectator. Just as with Simo, living in a foodie house definitely has its pluses, thus his dad was instrumental in steering his son towards a life in the food-and-beverage biz. Another big influence was Britten’s abuela (he has Cuban blood) who was the original Bacardi agent. She introduced his grandfather to none other than Ernest Hemingway, and during several rounds of Daiquiris at La Floridita, would regale him with tales and more tales. Hearing about cocktails and wine and spirits naturally influences a young mind, and Britten’s first attempt at clandestine mixology resulted in what he and his friend would label the “Shitty Idea Punch,” a mixture of a little bit of everything. You can guess the results. So, itching to spread his wings, the young Britten boarded a train and headed to New York City. On his way, he had a ten-hour layover in New Orleans while Tales of the Cocktail was in full throttle, but he didn’t know it. It would take him three more years to make it to New Orleans and he shows his enthusiasm with a great big smile.

Now that he is head of the Jack the Horse bar, his new cocktails comprise at least half the menu, which he likes to make sure shows the diversity of the spirits at Jack the Horse. He works closely with Tim Oltmans, owner and chef of Jack the Horse, who is a big influence, in preparing the cocktail menu. Regarding his “Charleston Riff,” a sweet blend of Plymouth Gin, Kirsch, Dry Vermouth, Punt E Mes, Luxardo Maraschino, and Grand Marnier, David Wondrich noted, “the proportions are perfect.” (1 ounce of gin, and a half ounce of everything else.)

What excites him about the Apprentice Program is the opportunity to meet people. “I work alone at the bar, which sucks. Working alongside the best bartenders of the world will open up a lot of windows for me, allow me to make friends with people I’ve never met before, like Ted Haigh, Robert Hess, Tom Bulleit, Angus Winchester, and Jeff Berry. I’m also excited to meet all the European people I’ve been reading about.”

So if you see some of these young and soon-to-be influential Apprentices at the bar, walking around town, or while sitting next to them at a seminar, let them bend your ear for a spell. You may just learn something.

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