Creating a gin specifically designed for cocktails is only one part of the Fords Gin mission, which aims to support the bartenders redefining the future of hospitality. Together, we’re profiling the industry’s most notable game-changers—the folks emerging as leaders beyond the bar by tackling key issues ranging from social justice to sustainability.
A peek into Ashtin Berry’s Instagram Stories feed (@thecollectress) gives an immediate sense of what’s on the mind of this multifaceted activist and bartender. On any given day, it tends to be a powerful mix: a digest of articles she’s reading, inspiring quotes, often portraits of women of color, ranging from fashion models to Michelle Obama, snippets of conferences where Berry is often a featured speaker—and, of course, the occasional cocktail.
The outspoken activist has found a way to use hospitality as a tool to champion underrepresented and marginalized groups. If it seems like a sudden swerve away from her former glossy job as beverage director for New York’s Air’s Champagne Parlor and the sake-focused Tokyo Record Bar, Berry assures this was always the plan, and her journey toward focusing on this discipline began even before leaving Air’s.
“People might think it’s haphazard, but it’s been very intentional,” she says. “I knew it was important to introduce the language of intersectionality, so I could focus more on it later.” (For those not familiar with intersectionality, it’s the theory that various social identities can overlap—race, gender, sexuality, class, etc.—and that these multiple identities contribute to the systemic oppression and discrimination that each individual experiences.)
Today, that has manifested in her new venture Radical XChange, which Berry co-founded with Kisira Hill. The company consists of a collective dedicated to producing thought-provoking symposium-style events and The Cook’s Club, a pop-up restaurant that will pair women and people of color working in restaurant kitchens with chef mentors. In addition, Berry also maintains a full schedule of public speaking engagements, writes a bi-weekly column for ChefsFeed and maintains a prolific social media presence. “I feel like an octopus,” she quips. Berry certainly seems to be constantly reaching in various directions.
Educator / Activist
Her hospitality career began in Chicago, where she worked primarily at wine bars, including managing the bubbly bar Pops for Champagne. It was there she met Ariel Arce, who would eventually bring Berry to New York as beverage manager for her then newly-launched bars. When that stint ended, Berry relocated to New Orleans, now home base for her activism efforts.
Speaking out and advocacy came naturally to Berry. “I’ve always been pretty vocal,” she says. But within the last couple of years, a volatile political backdrop and the burgeoning #MeToo movement “made people more interested in what I was saying.” Most of her efforts naturally coalesced around the hospitality industry.
“Advocacy has always been important,” Berry says. “Because of the way the hospitality industry is structured, generally some of the most marginalized people work in it, including immigrants, women, women of color and people of the queer community. And nothing disappears when you walk into a bar or restaurant or hotel. In fact, it sometimes can become more hyper-focused.” That can translate into biases that prevent ascent to leadership positions, or even from getting hired.
As part of efforts to tell the stories of marginalized groups, Berry and Hill are planning a February 2019 symposium in New Orleans, to be called Resistance Served. “It will look at the contributions of black and African-American people, from the time they got the vote until now,” she explains, with bartenders and sommeliers engaging with anthropologists, sociologists and other experts to talk about the worlds of agriculture, business and the restaurant industry. “Two-and-a-half days to cover 200 years [won’t be enough], but we’ll try to start a conversation.”
The Cook’s Club will also be a New Orleans event, a small-business incubator in the form of a pop-up restaurant. The event is “focused on ending the disparities in leadership for people of color and women in back of the house,” Berry explains. Each week, a different line cook will cook under the tutelage of a mentoring chef, to work on technique, plating, presentation, etc. “The idea is we get them a head shot, pictures of the food—it’s like a platform, a portfolio starter.”
Another topic that may be addressed in her upcoming ventures: domestic violence in the hospitality industry. “Sexual assault and harassment are huge issues in our industry,” she says, “and no one wants to talk about domestic violence.”
Taken all together, that’s a lot of heavy-hitting issues for one person to try to address. But Berry insists that 2019 will be about “not feeling guilty about focusing on one specific thing,” instead of taking that octopus-like approach. But that may be easier said than done, she acknowledges. “I’ve always focused on everything—that’s how my brain works.”
In terms of her approach to cocktails, Berry typically draws on her wine background, focusing on low-ABV cocktails—such as the wine- and sake-based drinks she became known for in New York. But her repertoire extends far beyond that. Now that she’s based in New Orleans, she’s “always thinking about what’s good to drink in hot weather”—drinks like her Flower Power Sour, a mix of Fords Gin, lavender and lime. “So refreshing,” she says. The drink builds upon floral notes already found in Fords, while the gin’s spicy backbone “gives it a layer that makes it more complex.”