If you’ve been to any of James Beard Award-winning chef Suzanne Goin’s restaurants in Los Angeles, including Lucques, A.O.C. and Tavern, and ordered a cocktail, you’ve likely experienced firsthand the creative magic of barman Christiaan Röllich. He’s the tattooed guy in the apron and dashing neckerchief behind the bar with a salt-and-pepper beard that’s just a hint shy of guru-length proportions.
Röllich grew up in a small town in the Netherlands where his parents had planned for him to eventually take over the psychiatric hospital they owned in Amsterdam. He considered following that path, but was more enamored with the idea of working in his local tavern, where the underage Röllich got a job as a dishwasher. He eventually moved to California, like so many before him, with plans of becoming an actor, and while he had dreams of being the next James Dean, he had to settle for being Brad Pitt’s body double on the set of Ocean’s Eleven. Hollywood’s loss proved to be the bar world’s gain, though he does see his share of celebrities at work and has created cocktails for the weddings of stars like Drew Barrymore, among others.
While he’s been tending bar for twenty years, ten of those behind the stick at Lucques, Röllich has juggled a number of pursuits, from being a club promoter to a clown to selling women’s shoes and going to school to study respiratory therapy. But an obsession with making cocktails took hold and living among the bounty and variety of seasonally driven produce and ingredients available to him in southern California inspired him to specialize in building a bridge between the bar and restaurant kitchens. “There was always a natural balance between the collaboration between the bar and the kitchen,” says Röllich. “In the kitchen, they make everything from scratch. So I knew I couldn’t let the bar just be an afterthought. I wanted to transport that same philosophy and dedication, and bring that to the front of the house.”
Röllich has rarely encountered an ingredient behind the bar that he didn’t consider modifying to his own specifications, whether he’s creating housemade raspberry-fennel syrup, kale-infused rum or his own compound gin, aperitivo bitters and vermouth. The first recipe in his debut book, Bar Chef: Handcrafted Cocktails, written with Carolynn Carreño, is the Green Goddess, one of his signature drinks, which has been celebrated in the Los Angeles Times, Bon Appétit and The Washington Post. Made with green tea-infused vodka, arugula simple syrup, cucumber-jalapeño juice and lemon juice, the long drink features an aromatic rinse of absinthe and is garnished with cucumber slices and fresh mint. It originated when a demanding client requested a last-minute non-alcoholic green cocktail for a celebrity fundraiser: “So I go into the walk-in and just start grabbing everything that’s green—cucumber, basil, arugula, green tea, jalapeño, kale. Literally everything that is green,” remembers Röllich. The drink was a hit, and he ended up putting an alcoholic version on the menu at A.O.C. where it has remained ever since.
So what does Christiaan Röllich do when he’s not scouring the Santa Monica farmers market for inspiration or serving drinks to LA’s movers and shakers? The veteran bartender answers our Lookbook Questionnaire to share the first time he got drunk (it involves a bloody fistfight among hopped-up carnies), the joy of skating the Venice Beach boardwalk with his family, his admiration of no-nonsense dive bars and not judging famous rock stars who order Apple Martinis. —Brad Thomas Parsons
Head barman for the Lucques group, a.k.a. the creative-with-liquor-guy for all Suzanne Goin and Caroline Styne’s restaurants.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
Emergency room surgeon.
Best thing you ever drank:
I am spoiled rotten. Whether it is brandy, whiskey, whisky, tequila, mezcal, rum, gin or vodka, or very old vintages of Burgundy, Bordeaux or Rhône—I’ve drank it all. For me it all depends on the time of day, and company you are in. But an ice-cold 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola is probably my favorite drink.
Worst thing you ever drank:
I don’t like kombucha.
First time you ever got drunk:
I was a carny for two years, traveling from town to town. As the new guy, and the only person who finished high school, I wanted to keep up with the other guys drinking. They drank beer, I drank rum; a “bacootje” (Bacardi and Coke), one for one. That turned into a disastrous and bloody fight night. I ended up crawling, walking and falling back to my trailer and vomited until the sun came up.
If you had to listen to one album on loop, for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Rattle and Hum from U2, or Eddie Vedder’s Into the Wild soundtrack, or a best of compilation of the Rolling Stones. But what about The Strokes? No, that’s it.
What’s the weirdest hobby you currently have or have had?
I did Thai boxing pretty hard, training twice a day, five times a week. But that’s a thing of the past. I actually pulled out my gloves not so long ago to try it out again. After the session, I walked out of the gym with a pulled calf muscle.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago?
I like to live a life without regrets. I am enjoying the ride.
Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted:
I remember it was Father’s Day three years ago. I was trying to come up with a cigar-flavored drink. A dad classic, like an Old-Fashioned or Manhattan kind of thing. I infused cigar leaves in whiskey, and I remember, after the first taste, my stomach turning in a big knot and wanting to vomit.
What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not eating, drinking, or drink-making?
Being with my family, skating with my kids over the Venice Beach Boardwalk. I recently bought a long board for my wife as well. So we are the “Skating Röllichs.” When we’re not skating, we like to eat Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and watch people go by.
Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten:
I don’t like to judge people for what they drink. I am a barman, I serve what the customer wants. However, there have been times that famous rock stars would come in and order rosé. Or I remember a different rock musician coming in and asking for an Apple Martini.
Your favorite bar, and why:
Home, for the company. I serve my liquor neat, my beer cold and I have $10 grocery store red wine. No tip jar, no cocktails. But if I leave the house, Equal Parts is my kind of bar. A no nonsense dive bar. Adam Ohler, my former barman, did a great job creating a cool atmosphere. No fancy ice, no special glasses, just well-made drinks. And a jukebox in the corner.
Best meal you’ve ever had:
My most epic restaurant experience was an eight-course dinner with my wife at the two Michelin star award-winning restaurant Mélisse in Santa Monica. Josiah Citrin’s cooking and Matthew Luczy’s wine pairings are out of this world.
What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar?
Tequila blanco, neat. Anything better than Patron will suffice.
Heineken. But if we are drinking wine, I love Burgundy. I like to say I am a simple man, but I like really well-made, simple-looking stuff.
In a dive bar?
Tequila blanco, neat. Don Julio will suffice, or a Heineken.
Your preferred hangover recovery regime:
This takes a bit of discipline. But while you drink, make sure you eat. After a night of boozing, wash down some aspirin with two glasses of water, and have water next to the bed. And if you forget to do that, a Bloody in the morning will do the trick for me.
The one thing you wish would disappear from drinks lists forever:
I feel every absurd cocktail contributed to the cocktail revival we have today. Every dumb cocktail has an essence or possibility to be great, you just have to look a bit harder.
The last text message you sent:
“I love you (heart emoji)” to my wife.