The Making of Mission Chinese’s Interactive Cocktail Shrines

Inspired by the sidewalk art found in New York's Chinatown, Mission Chinese beverage director Sam Anderson turns cocktails into elaborate installations. Lizzie Munro follows Anderson as he builds his latest "cocktail shrine."

At NYC's Mission Chinese Food, beverage director Sam Anderson has started building elaborate cocktail shrines in advance of service.

He begins by color coding items for the shrine—and occasionally painting them street side (left). From there, he assembles cocktail fountains, which he'll use to serve the drinks (right).

The symmetrical display becomes a fixture at the front of the restaurant, luring guests in from the street.

Today's shrine will get much of its color from the addition of marigold garlands, which are strewn together with fishing twine.

Making a quick stop at the lower level of Chinatown's Hong Kong Market, Anderson buys candies, stacks of play money and novelty candles to decorate the shrine.

Around the corner, on Mott Street, Anderson stumbles on persimmons and rambutans—prickly, grapelike fruits—that he plans to use in the shrine as edible decoration.

Back at the restaurant, he sorts through various paraphernalia and begins to populate the shrine.

Most of the items are chosen at random (left), though some are more personal—among them, a childhood photo of Anderson and his younger brother (right).

Though the items are initially grouped by color, as they're placed into the shrine, their positioning becomes more arbitrary.

Anderson tends to a tangle of marigolds, leftovers from a South Indian wedding just a few days before.

He begins placing them individually into the installation.

The entire process of setting up takes nearly two hours and leaves a considerable aftermath to clean up.

The rambutans are placed alongside a portrait of Sinéad O'Connor, near postcard and trays of mismatched buttons.

Anderson tears flower petals and places them in a dish near the center of the shrine.

The floral motif is repeated throughout the shrine, via rose-shaped floating candles and via the surrounding garlands.

The final step—putting the cocktails in place and lighting incense—is done just before service.

Components of the finished shrine include an array of flowers, dozens of candies and a pre-batched Negroni that's been laced with a lemon numbing oil made with Szechuan peppercorns.

“You see that?” asks Sam Anderson, pointing to a spent, prickly rambutan shell that’s been casually tossed into an open trash bag. “That’s what we’re looking for.”

We’re standing at the corner of Mott and Grand, in the heart of Manhattan’s Chinatown, and Anderson, the beverage director at Danny Bowien’s Mission Chinese Food, is out to gather materials for his latest restaurant installation project: an elaborate “cocktail shrine” equipped with fountains and embellished with seemingly nonsensical paraphernalia—mismatched buttons, Spice Girls figurines, a bowl of eight-sided dice, an orange-capped Thermos and a framed photo of Tina Turner, to name a few.

Just a few minutes earlier, at Hong Kong Market, he’d spun through subterranean aisles picking up stacks of play money, airy rice crackers and novelty candles. Back upstairs, he’d added a fat bunch of miniature Thai bananas. “I think I’m going to spray paint these,” he said, as he walked them to the checkout line.

Loosely inspired by similar setups found throughout the neighborhood, often on sidewalks and street corners, the cocktail shrine occupies a nebulous space somewhere between bartending and installation art. The serve-yourself setup features pre-batched drinks (in this case, a trio of multicolored cocktails made with spirits donated by The 86 Co.), which are given away for free at the start of service. But the additional trimmings are more arbitrary.

“The little individual things are not important,” he says as we search for those elusive rambutans—the tropical, grapelike fruits found at produce stands across Chinatown. “This is all very nonliteral.”

Back at the restaurant, Anderson begins work by organizing his dozens of items by color, separating them into categories of pink, orange and turquoise, while just a few feet away a contractor bag overflows with hundreds of marigolds; strung into garlands with fishing twine, they’re leftovers from a South Indian wedding that’d been gifted by his girlfriend’s floral company, Fox Fodder Farm.

“This conch, I’m hoping to set it right here,” he says, gesturing towards one of two large shell-shaped ceramic bowls, which he intends to fill with floating, rose-shaped candles and butterfly pea flower tea.

The tea, which Anderson discovered while searching for an alternative to blue Curaçao, has been newsworthy in its own right: Its unique ability to change color—from cobalt blue to violet when mixed with acid—prompted him to use it as the base of his much-talked-about Mood Ring cocktail, which he debuted late last year. Mixed tableside atop a glowing LED coaster (to allow the drinker to better see the reaction taking place in the glass), the Mood Ring’s theatrical presentation was, in some ways, a precursor to the approach that Anderson takes to his shrines.

“It was kind of a breakthrough for me doing large events,” explains Anderson of the shrine concept, which he used this past summer at a cocktail pop-up for MAD Symposium in Copenhagen. And the irony—that this version of a bar relies exclusively on pre-batched drinks—isn’t lost on him. During the build, he repeatedly jokes to his staff: “This is me bartending, right now,” he says. “This is bartending.”

“I’m repeating a message that has very much been a message for the last three or four years,” he explains. “It’s like, ‘Don’t take it so seriously, but take it seriously.’”

Anderson’s also upfront about the fact that he doesn’t go to bars and isn’t much of a drinker. (“I probably get more inspiration from going to PS1 or going to the Whitney than I do going to a cocktail bar,” he says.) But he’s nonetheless held a number of distinguished bartending positions: In addition to being on the opening team at Hotel Delmano, Anderson cut his teeth behind the bar at Freemans before eventually beginning work as beverage director for Ken Friedman and April Bloomfield’s Salvation Taco. Citing his mentors, he lists the likes of Lynnette Marrero, Jim Kearns and Toby Maloney.

“I think that where I’m at—and the generation that I think I’m a part of—is the generation of the full circle,” says Anderson. Noting a pushback against the sense of formality that accompanied the early days of the craft cocktail movement (“Walking into a cocktail bar became this really harrowing experience where you didn’t want to do anything wrong,” he says), many of today’s bartenders are bringing practiced technique to more casual environments.

“I’m repeating a message that has very much been a message for the last three or four years,” he explains. “It’s like, ‘Don’t take it so seriously, but take it seriously.’”

About two hours into the build, Anderson returns from a search for an additional a power strip to connect the fountains (the one that he normally uses has been co-opted today by Bowien, who’s in the back of the restaurant rehearsing with his band, NARX) and begins placing the drinks, left to right. Alongside a framed photo of Sinéad O’Connor, he arranges the Firewater Walk With Me, a tropically flavored cocktail of rum, orgeat and baijiu, while the crimson Tingling Negroni—flavored with pine liqueur and a lemon numbing oil made with Szechuan peppercorns—secures a spot on the main table flanked by persimmons. When the fountain containing the Copper Gato (a mix of vodka, ginger and carrot juice) springs a leak, Anderson is quick to jump in, offering what’s best described as last-minute spout repair.

As he circles the shrine lighting candles and sticks of incense, he explains that his next project—a collaboration with his girlfriend to be displayed at a warehouse in Bushwick, Brooklyn—will be more ambitious and will ideally lead to him designing and building an entire room filled with these interactive cocktail shrines. “It’d just be a next level for me and a next level for what a drink can be,” he says. “[It’s] saying to people who work in restaurants to not be limited by a drink-to-drink perspective.”

By now, the shrine has begun gathering attention from passers by, many of whom have stopped to gawk at it through the restaurant’s front window. The shrine, explains Anderson, will be operable for the first two hours of service, reluctantly adding that it’s meant to, at least loosely, commemorate the launch of a new menu.

“Sometimes it’s easier to give the public a little bit of an explanation as to why you’re doing something,” says Anderson, citing the shrine’s timeliness, “but I’d actually rather pull away from that.” This particular installation, he goes on to say, was simply something that he wanted to do, a project that needn’t be beholden to a greater, philosophical purpose—or any purpose at all.

“I don’t want to use the word ‘art’ or imply that what I’m doing is art at all,” he says, finally. “They’re drinks, you know?”

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