When, side effects where and why did you decide to start bartending?
It’s one of those “I accidentally got into bartending” scenarios. I started in the industry when I was 19. In my interview for what would eventually be my first serving job, the manager asked me to sell him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Based on that, he decided to hire me on as a hostess. I’ve always been comfortable talking to people but had no idea about how to talk about food or drinks with passion and love the way I do now. But it taught me how to orchestrate a room and read guests, then with that knowledge became a strong server. One shift the bartender didn’t show up. From watching, observing and learning through my two other positions, I managed to get through service as bartender and server. That sparked my interest but I didn’t fall in love with bartending until I started at The Keefer Bar in 2011. Dani’s bar program there is so intriguing. Growing up in a family that adopted (both western and) eastern medical practices, I was immediately drawn to the Chinese apothecary-based influence in her program. From the cinnamon stick infused water to the plethora of house-made tinctures and elixirs I had no clue about, I was instantly curious to learn more. Her approach to creating cocktails really still plays true to how I think about cocktails today.
What is your favourite cocktail?
This is like choosing my favourite food. It’s impossible to pick just one. Each has it’s place and purpose. Your tuxedo could be your favourite article of clothing, but you wouldn’t necessarily wear it to go grocery shopping. So, with that I have my two favourite types of cocktails; to make and to drink.
To make: people love watching sours or flips being made. The steps involved, the precision of each step, somehow managing to shake it just enough to get an ideal amount of head while getting every bit of the cocktail into the glass to form a perfect convex meniscus, to the ornate detailing of swirled bitters on top. Definitely sours for the showmanship of detail.
To drink: I’m a big fan of soft yet punchy cocktails. You know, like those drinks that give you a slap in the face then hug you right after. Things with heat and smoke, yet that still have a balanced brightness and tightness to them. Fino or dry amontillado sherry, dry vermouth, mezcal and scotch are my go to spirits for bringing out these elements with the base spirit generally being gin or tequila.
Shaken or Stirred?
While there is something to be said about the elegance in the simplicity of a beautiful stirred cocktail, I’m drawn to the depth and unexpectedness of what shaken cocktails can offer. I’m a big fan of incorporating ingredients into cocktails normally seen on a food menu rather than a drink list. The fact we first taste with our eyes before our nose or mouth speaks to this. It’s all about breaking innate assumptions of first appearances. I like the unexpected.
If you could work with any other bartender in the world for one night who would it be?
This was a tough one. I’m a believer that no matter what you do and how long you’ve been doing it for, you’re always, always, always learning. Staying stagnant leads to mediocrity. Given that it’s only one night and not longer, I feel like I would just get in the way rather than absorb and learn from some of those that inspire me and I look up to. The one bartender I would like to work with behind the bar for one night is somebody whom I’ve already had the pleasure of working with (albeit briefly). Someone who I admire for his steadfast passion, humility, creativity and current consistent (and humble) domination of the cocktail scene is Gez McAlpine. Getting to work with him again and learning from him back where it all started for me, that would be fun.
If you could visit any bar in the world where would it be?
Sometimes you look back at past events or times in your life at situations you took for granted. Times you didn’t appreciate opportunities when you had them the same way you would today. Starting out my career in Vancouver, I was surrounded by many underrated and extremely talented bartenders which I didn’t get the chance to properly appreciate…had I known then what I do now.
The one bar in the world I would want to go to is The Diamond in Gastown. It’s the charm in it’s character. The history of the building (which used to be a brothel and previous scene of fatal shootings), the hidden back bar behind a secret wall which one of the owners Mark Brand would guest at every so often, the ridiculously narrow and steep stairs, the wording and layout of their cocktail menu, their mantra “for the people, the craft, past & present”, to the sign above the entrance you notice as you leave down the stairs “I live in Gastown by choice. Those who are unfamiliar with its particular allures are entitled to wonder why.”, which is adapted from Truman Capote’s quote about living in Brooklyn.
These things that I only notice now, reflecting back on previous visits, but with a different set of eyes; things I didn’t admire 4 or 5 years ago. I’ve been there before many times. Up and down those same steep stairs, drinking in that same secret room running up offensive bar tabs with close friends on a Thursday night. I’ve been there but didn’t appreciate it. I want to go back to a place I loved but didn’t understand, but as I am today. As someone who wants to soak it all in again with intent. Properly.
Where are you working now and what is your cocktail style for that bar?
I’m currently working at an awesome underground tequila bar on King St West (at Simcoe) called El Caballito. It’s amazing to get to work with so many phenomenal tequilas and mezcals, and being able to utilize underrated, misunderstood or overlooked spirits in cocktails. Tequila has such a stigma attached to it based on misrepresentation. I love gaining the guest’s trust to let me create something for them using ingredients and spirits they (believe) they don’t like. A lot of people think we just do tequila, but if you sit at my bar you’ll quickly learn that it’s not just tequila or mezcal. It’s great cocktails made in a way that the guest will have a new found appreciation for. If someone doesn’t like gin, I’ll make them a gin cocktail. If someone doesn’t like vodka, I’ll make them a vodka cocktail, if someone doesn’t like tequila, well you get the idea. I love the challenge in creation. For me it’s all about creating cocktails for guests, using spirits and flavours they haven’t had the opportunity to experience in a way they enjoy.
Who is your mentor, if you have one?
Someone who has taken the time and initiative to teach me and help grow my knowledge, give his insight and share his experience since I first worked with him in 2013 at Rock Lobster is Adrian Stein. He’s someone who is not only my boss but a close personal friend as well. Adrian has helped me through a lot both professionally and personally with his support and guidance. He’s someone who has always challenged my thought process which has pushed me to always think with both logic and creativity. If you were to ask him, he’d say he hasn’t taught me anything that I didn’t already know. But I’m continually learning from as he makes a point to always be constantly learning. He exudes hospitality; It’s first and foremost with anything for him. Everything else is secondary. It’s his school of thought that is something I make a conscious effort to apply to my life and work everyday.