Read how the 30-year-old ex-chef stumbled into his profession, what makes a great bartender, his favorite watering holes, and more.
What brought you to Chicago?
I moved here for culinary school back in 2001. I went to the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago (CHIC), which is now Le Cordon Bleu. I was cooking professionally for probably about six years, and I was at Moto for about three years. I was the sous chef there before I left. Chef [Homaru Cantu] asked me to work the bar one night because he wanted a chef running the bar—he wanted a more culinary approach. At the time I had no idea what I was doing. So I did that for a little while and then went back to the kitchen. I went to our sister restaurant, Otom, and ran the bar there for a while, and then I was offered a job at Violet Hour and I had to accept. I did that for a year and a half, and I was offered a position at Sable as head bartender.
So you basically stumbled into the job.
Yes, I never said I was going to be a hotshot bartender some day. I had no intention of doing this, but it’s something that I absolutely love.
What’s the key? What makes a great bartender?
A great bartender is not just about the cocktail and spirits knowledge. That stuff is important, but what’s most important, I think, is just being a good person, for one thing—being a good host. Bartending is about taking care of people, making them happy. You are choosing us in your free time and to [spend some of your] disposable income with me, so it’s incumbent on me to make you feel happy and comfortable and welcome.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve had at Sable?
When you bring in the sort of cocktail bar into the equation, there’s the awkwardness when someone comes and they ask for the Jager Bomb—Jagermeister. That is a really terrible liqueur that college kids love because it’s sweet. It really doesn’t taste good. That’s where the awkwardness comes in. We don’t carry flavored vodkas, we don’t carry Jagermeister, we don’t carry Red Bull. But I want to be able to give this person what they ask for. It’s service versus hospitality—service is robotic, but hospitality is showing that you care about somebody. I don’t have the thing you are asking for, but I know what you want, and I know what you like, and I’m going to get you something that tastes better that I think you will enjoy more. You just didn’t know about it.
We’re trying to find a way to translate what we are doing—which is definitely not the norm when it comes to a lot of Chicago bars—into what everyday drinkers are expecting without being uptight or condescending or in any way.
Would you like to own your own bar someday?
At some point I definitely plan to own my own bar, down the line; it will happen when the time is right. But I’m really happy and grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given at Sable right now.
Will you be a lifer in Chicago?
I’ve been here for about ten years; I was from outside of Philadelphia before that. I consider myself [a Chicagoan] now—absolutely love this town. My fiancée and I talked a little about “do you want to live somewhere else for a year? Hang out in Maui for a year?” It always comes back to [moving] back to Chicago eventually. That’s always part of the plan.
Ever miss the kitchen?
I do. I cook at home a lot. My girl and I, we like doing curries, barbecue, smoking, braises, that sort of thing. I manage to get that out. In many ways, being behind the bar is like being behind the line on the kitchen. On a busy Saturday night, if you are working service, tickets are coming, you are scrambling to keep up. It’s just as high-paced as being in the kitchen, with the added wrinkle that you are putting on a show for all these people, and you’ve got people constantly interrupting your concentration and asking for drinks and asking questions and that’s part of it. It’s a lot to get used to, but it’s a rush and it’s a lot of fun.
Have you invented any drinks?
Dozens and dozens and dozens. The cocktail list at Sable has 30 or 40 drinks on it, and at any given time about half of them are mine and then the rest is our bar staff. We give everybody an opportunity to try and get a cocktail on the menu. On top of that, there are drinks you come up with in the spur of the moment. You have conversation with somebody, and they say I want this, this, and this. Drink creation is a nightly thing for us.
Where do you go when you take bartenders around town?
It depends on whether they’ve been here before. When friends are in town, we usually do the cocktail bar tour: Violet Hour, Drawing Room, the Whistler. That’s a great bar in Logan Square. [These outings are] usually less about cocktails and more about seeing our friends. We’ve got friends all over the industry. When you make cocktails for a living, one of the last things you want to do is go to a bar and have cocktails. Usually we drink beer and whiskey. [Another] one of my favorites is Richard’s Bar on Milwaukee [491 N. Milwaukee]. It’s been around forever. It’s just a lively, raucous, beer-and-a-shot type of bar. The youngest bartender there is about 75 years old. [It’s for] everybody—you get younger kids, older folks, an after-work crowd. You get cougars, the regulars, the old-timers. It’s just a cool bar.
Photograph: Anna Knott