When most people want to turn their lives around they start doing yoga, or go on a diet, or take time off, or change jobs. Matthew Biancaniello did all of these things, and then he found his salvation behind a bar.
Over five years ago, Biancaniello was recovering from a run of tough luck when he came into a job at the Library Bar in Hollywood’s Roosevelt Hotel. He knew the bar manager, but didn’t know cocktails well, so he studied up and began to wonder why the blasé drinks were worthy of a $15 price tag. Growing up in Boston, Biancaniello would frequent the city’s farmers’ markets with his father and recalls Sunday dinners with his Greek grandparents where his “grandfather would go out into the garden five minutes before dinner to pick the ingredients from the ground.”
Out of natural inclination he began to replace ingredients behind the bar with fresh juice and fruits he found at the verdant Los Angeles farmers’ markets. When one of his managers noticed and realized he’d been spending his own money to improve the quality of the bar’s cocktails, she promised to reimburse him with $100 a week for ingredients. He began spending $400 a week on fresh produce and ice and new spirits. That year, he racked up $8000 educating himself and transforming the Library Bar’s menu.
Biancaniello’s interest in cocktails isn’t just a natural ability channeled into an occupation. It’s an extension of his entire life outlook. “I’m curious,” he says. “And if you can remain curious, you’ll never be bored.” His L.A. existence is rather curious, and Biancaniello narrates it with self-awareness. It’s part of a story he’s building around his arrival at making drinks—an Angeleno’s mythology fashioned along the road of hard knocks.
Biancaniello had moved to Los Angeles several years prior to his first bartending gig, but couldn’t find the job in ad sales he’d hoped to land. He went through a break-up, struggled with an eating disorder and lived in his car for a month. After that he acted, sold art and worked as an animal trainer (his brother happened to be Michael Jackson’s zookeeper).
Like individual landscape paintings, created upon the urgency of a fleeting season, Biancaniello’s cocktails are object-like—as if they could be placed upon a shelf or under a bell jar.
While attending a Guinness Book of World Records event with his brother, who was performing a stunt that involved leeches, Biancaniello strutted up to the judges, told them he would eat anything and swallowed a handful of leeches on the spot. Soon he was on Hollywood Boulevard swallowing eyeballs, cow brains and other revolting oddities as The Human Garbage Can. He made $30,000 and used it (rather ironically) to finance a film, The Breadbasket, about his experience with an eating disorder. After becoming deathly ill following an appearance on the Steve Harvey show where he ate raw chicken feet, Biancaniello retired from extreme eating.
Because of his complicated relationship to food, he decided cooking would be fraught with too many issues. But bartending did not seem such a loaded field despite the fact that his mother had been a serious alcoholic. “I tapped into something that made sense for me,” he says.
After finding a foothold at the Library Bar, he was deep into experimenting with his daily farmers’ market discoveries and began growing his own produce as well. He departed and took up residence a couple of nights a week at Cliff’s Edge, an airy treehouse of a restaurant in Silver Lake, where he instated his own menu quilted together with ingredients foraged from his garden, around the hills of LA and from the city’s farmers markets. He created a style that was composed of brightly-hued drinks, a wild, intense shake and spectacular garnish that wouldn’t be out of place on a tasting menu at Alinea or the French Laundry.
Like individual landscape paintings, Biancaniello’s cocktails feel almost like keepsakes—as if they could be placed upon a shelf or under a bell jar. Here is a passion fruit, split open and spilling out orange tentacles. There a silver-rimmed oyster filled with smurf-sized button mushrooms. Next, a pouf of stinging nettles shrouded around a fuchsia-tinted hourglass like the overhang on a hobbit house. These Tolkien-esque concoctions seem like outtakes from wood nymph’s tasting menu. Yet they can be drunk. Or eaten, for that matter.
“I have no formal training, so I don’t think about cocktails as formulas,” he says. Where many bartenders build their knowledge of drinks on classic proportions and ratios, Biancaniello is like the visionary architect who never took a drafting class. His appreciation for beauty was what drove his style forward. After about a year of creating pastel-colored drinks with wildflower garnishes, he realized he had turned something burdened with memories of destructive addiction into something beautiful. “I was rescripting my relationship to alcohol,” he says.
Once just happy to be mixing with color and playing with paint, Biancaniello has come to juncture where a sense of order has begun to emerge. He’s using mostly small-brand spirits—often organic—with no artificial colors (Campari’s out) or sweeteners, and foraging regularly for ingredients with Pascal Baudar, a wild-food guru.
The “drinks” he’s been creating of late are indelibly linked to food and the pattern in which it is consumed—first course, second course, dessert, etc.—which is interesting considering his conscious choice to not work as a cook. And though he isn’t behind a bar at the moment (he just consulted on Pot Bar for chef Roy Choi), he’s actively seeking a space in which to bring to life this concept of cocktails as courses. “It’ll be a place where cocktails are coming out of a kitchen, but also where you can sit down to a bar,” he says. “And I’ll still be making drinks and talking to you about them.”
There’s nothing new about using local fruit or foraged herbs in a cocktail or a dish. Especially in LA. But there is something singular about the way in which Biancaniello chooses to use them. Everything he’s done over the past few years has been about changing his own concept of what a drink can be, which has changed the perception of those around him—even if it’s just for a drink or two. “If you can change the way you see things,” he says, “everything changes.”