9:30 in the morning is a cruel time to try to get 500 bartenders together in the same room, especially in Las Vegas. But the turnout was great nonetheless for two of mixology’s living legends, Dale DeGroff and Tony Abou-Ganim.
They started out with a short video presentation hosted by Tony about the bar chef movement. He first interviewed Julie Reiner of the Flatiron Lounge, a bartender known for her brilliant cocktail menu consisting of subtle twists on the classics.
Next up in the video was William L. Hamilton of the New York Times, who talked about the disparity between the progressive food movement we’ve seen in this country over the past thirty years and the state of bartending today. I’ve often been confused, during my travels in fine dining, as to why people will demand local, fresh organic ingredients in their food, yet settle for neon-colored sugar water as accompaniments to their meal. This presentation was beginning to strike a chord with me.
We then were introduced to the bar chefs at Employees Only, a lounge in New York City, just to hammer home the idea that the newest trend in bartending is the idea of “the chef of the bar”.
Tony began his talk with a quote from Mark Twain’s ‘Roughing It’ from 1872:
In Nevada, for a time, the lawyer, the editor, the banker, the chief desperado, the chief gambler, and the saloon-keeper occupied the same level of society, and it was the highest.
At some point, Tony informed us, something changed. He asked the crowd if we knew that that turning point was.
I answered, “Prohibition”.
Now, I won’t regale you with my feelings about the state of bartending today and the long-term effects that Prohibition had, but (and you knew this was coming) I want everyone in this country to give some thought to Repeal Day.
Tony went on to give us point after point as to why the bar chef movement is, and should be, gaining ground in this country. My favorite point of his was this: if a kitchen took such a lackadaisical approach to its food as most bartenders take to their creations, that restaurant would be closed in a week. Yet, somehow, customers are willing to put up with this sort of passionless approach to bars.
Tony then introduced his mentor, Dale DeGroff. Dale continued on the bar chef/mixologist theme by outlining in a very simple fashion just how easy it is for a bar to take a few extra steps and begin putting out high-quality cocktails. He even went so far as to state that using fresh juices in place of low-quality pre-mix can actually be cheaper – in addition to tasting better.
It was a great talk, and I left feeling like I was part of a larger community. Tony and Dale’s philosophies are so in line with my personal approach to running a bar that the resonation I felt when I left gave me a new sense of resolve. I even got to meet Tony later.
If you happen to find yourself in Eugene tomorrow night, stop on in at El Vaquero. The drinks and service are going to be even better than usual.