Cocktails have always had a complicated relationship with food. Wine? Sure. But the conventional thinking with cocktails was that they were too strong to pair with a good meal and should be enjoyed on their own.
In the earliest days of his career, Leo Robitschek, now the bar director at New York’s Eleven Madison Park and The NoMad, felt the divide. Back then, “chefs didn’t like sharing, nor did they like sharing their tools,” he says. “They also didn’t like to be outshined.”
After joining the EMP team, however, Robitschek found an enthusiastic collaborator in Daniel Humm, a chef eager to build trust between the cooks in the back and the bartenders working out front. Members of Humm’s staff would sit in on Robitschek’s weekly tastings, both to share feedback and to gather ideas for use in the kitchen.
This kind of dialogue has become increasingly commonplace, encouraging drink-makers across the nation to think more critically about how cooking complements cuisine, and vice versa. “Through my career, I’ve seen the culinary arts advance and craft cocktails become prevalent in restaurants, and because of that there’s a lot more collaboration,” says Julian Cox, beverage director of the Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You. “Now we’re literally working hand in hand to create entire menus together and exchange ideas.”
Such synergy has helped blur the line between chef and bartender, ultimately elevating both the restaurant and bar industries.
Some bartenders attribute this new attitude towards collaboration to heightened consciousness across the industry at large—chefs are much more visible now thanks in part to the popularity of food TV, and their focus on ingredients is increasingly en vogue. “It was the continued growth of hospitality in general,” says Abigail Gullo, bartender at Compère Lapin in New Orleans. “We’ve seen the craft beer movement grow; we’ve seen the farm-to-table movement grow. It’s all connected to what we do on the bar side.”
Will Elliott, of Brooklyn’s Maison Premiere and Sauvage, agrees. “As that element of locavorism and producer-driven experiences become more popular, you’re definitely seeing bars follow suit,” he says. Elliott has also levied bonds in the wine world to solidify this relationship. “Gaining the respect of wine people opens [cocktail bartenders] up to gaining the respect of kitchens and chefs.”
The strengthened link between kitchen and bar manifests itself in the form of intelligent beverage pairings, but it’s also influenced how bartenders work, both physically and creatively. “When I first started bartending, it was always the kitchen versus front-of-house. Now it’s much more of a conversation,” says Ezra Star of Boston’s Drink. “The kitchen has become more of a centerpiece and a place for inspiration.”
Star and her staff tap the chefs of sister restaurants Menton and No. 9 Park for techniques and tools that will help them whip up proprietary cocktail additions, like syrups and cordials, more efficiently. But the core connection between chef and bartender runs deeper than technique. Star’s Fiore di Francia is a nod to Franco-Italian relations, encouraging Gallic St-Germain and Italian Cynar to align. “The cocktail was inspired by the food combinations I’ve seen along the Italian and French border, where elderflowers grow,” she says. “The food is neither French nor Italian, but something in between.”
This process also helps bartenders follow the lead of chefs and sync their ingredients to the seasons. At New York City’s Mace, for example, the cocktails are classified not by style, strength or spirit, but by spice—kitchen staples like coriander seed, fennel seed, star anise and saffron dictate the makeup of their list. When dinner customers first came across the unorthodox menu, “they were surprised—but they were surprised in a good way,” says co-owner Nico de Soto.
Bartender Matthew Biancaniello is so inspired by the culinary potential of cocktail-making that he’s turned his experimentations into a career. His book, Eat Your Drink, teaches readers how to apply a farm-to-table ethos to beverages; he also collaborates with chefs to create drinks, often based on savory, vegetal flavors, to match tasting menus.
“I still consider myself more in the food world than in the alcohol world,” says the Los Angeles-based bartender, who has used everything from sea urchin and heirloom tomatoes to arugula and durian behind the bar. “It’s all about the ingredients first.”