Friday, November 12, 2010

Chefs & Bartenders: Can They Get Along?!

Mike Ryan, Heather Terhune of Kimpton's Sable Kitchen & Bar (Photo: Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants)

When Meals on Wheels had its annual Celebrity Chef Ball at Macy's on State earlier this fall, it was the first time chefs stood side by side with mixologists during the prestigious Chef's Table Dinner.

They were in unison in every sense of the word, right down to the chef's coat, cuisine and cocktails. The cocktails flowed seamlessly with the dishes and everyone was happy.

Not so much this week when the two worlds clashed when Alinea chef Grant Achatz and his staff unveiled some of the cocktails set to debut at his revolutionary Aviary lounge to 35 of the city's most prominent bartenders.

When some "dared" to give unfavorable feedback to 312DD on some of the drinks, they were immediately shot down as being "jealous" and "threatened" and "afraid of progress."

But is this really true, or did we stumble into a larger story about chefs and bartenders fighting for territory in restaurants now that the mixology scene is on full blast?!

"Bartenders and chefs are cut from the same cloth," says Kyle McHugh, owner of River North liquor retailer Drinks Over Dearborn and also organizer of the mixologists at the Celebrity Chef Ball.

"The veil between the two positions has always been very thin. These are arguably the highest-skilled positions in restaurants. (And) just like a bartender doesn't like people coming behind his bar, the chef is the same way. There are fragile egos with chefs and bartenders. ... Everyone's looking to do the same thing: which is to produce a high-quality product."

McHugh adds that because the modern mixology culture is young—with the average age late 20s to mid-30s—with it comes a different philosophy and work experience. Bartenders are typically also foodies, he says, so when they're off the clock they're usually eager to check out the latest new restaurants. Chefs, however, he says, in their free time do not typically go out of their way to see what the hottest bartender in the city is doing.

Kyle McHugh of Drinks Over Dearborn (Photo: Kyle McHugh)

He feels as though inroads are being made, such as the aforementioned Meals on Wheels event, but in order for the two camps to work seamlessly together, barriers must be broken down and the egos must be pushed aside.

"We have to constantly and slowly prove ourselves in the culinary world," he says. "Us taking these baby steps and being humble about it and being supportive of one another is going to move us forward."

More Mixologists on Successful Culinary/Cocktail Collaborations

Daniel de Oliveira, who worked previously behind the bar at Mercadito and is now brand ambassador for Olmeca Altos tequila, is one who believes bartenders can learn a lot from chefs.

"For one, they bring a culinary side to what we do, and having worked alongside many great chefs I can tell you, their knowledge is invaluable," says de Oliveira. "And two, they don't have the bullshit pretension that so many possess in our field."

Kimpton's Sable Kitchen & Bar head bartender Mike Ryan has been in both worlds. He was the sous chef at Moto and chef/bartender at The Violet Hour before his current position.

"It definitely helps that I have been there (in the kitchen) and I understand what it is like to work behind the line," says Ryan. "In the modern bar culture, there are a lot of prima donnas who are flashy. So much of it comes down to humility. ...the goal should be that the restaurant is a success overall, not just what's going on in the kitchen or behind the bar. It has to be everything."

And even though The Bristol is the first house mixology position for Debbi Peek, she believes she works in harmony with star chef Chris Pandel.

"Chris Pandel is the most amazingly talented chef I know, and he is humble," says Peek. "He cares what you think, which is awesome. Every cocktail I make I have him taste before it goes on the menu.

"He's very hands-on with the cocktail program. He'll bring me fresh produce all the time because he wants the cocktails to complement perfectly with the food."

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