Celebrity Status vs B.O.H. Work Ethic

Its been nearly three months since I chronicled Peter Jahnke’s heroic Ramos Gin Fizz marathon in my first blog post here on Commercial Free. In it, I made note of the “back of the house mentality” that my good friend brought to the craft and how greatly that inspired me.  Well, for some reason, I have been thinking about that a lot lately.  Perhaps it has to do with my own professional transition, as I am  helping to open a bar in one of our city’s most anticipated restaurants. Leaving the raucous energy of a place like Grand Prize behind me in favor for a more “buttoned up,” regimented restaurant environment, I find myself once again looking to the kitchen for inspiration, both creatively and professionally.  Its an amazing thing to see cooks from around the city, many of whom were running their own kitchens or sous at wherever they were before, graciously grinding it out with their heads down and a “yes chef” mentality.  I think about the sacrifice that cooks make on their long and tireless journey of a career, and how we as bartenders really do have it easy. But then again, bartenders are a different breed, and some would argue that if we were meant to be cooks or chefs, then that’s what we’d be.

When I bit down on the whole craft cocktail bug, nearly four years ago, a large part of what inspired me was the idea that it is a “craft,” a set of skills to develop, explore, and attempt to perfect with the knowledge that you’ll never actually get it exact. At Brennan’s, I was fortunate enough to spend an entire day assisting Dale Degroff, during my infancy as a craft cocktail bartender, before I had even committed the Corpse Reviver #2 to memory.  Sure I had his books, but at the time I don’t think I was fully aware of the greatness that was in front of me, and I was certainly unaware of his celebrity status. What I saw was a man completely devoted to his craft, who showed up with his own tools, much like a chef; who knew his shit and could engage a crowd; and who was still doing the work.  Sure there was a book signing that day, but only after Dale had put in a solid ten hours prepping, batching for two events and then hosting them, one of which was a private staff seminar. Back then, to tell me there was such a thing as a celebrity bartender would have been like telling me about a lead bass guitarist or an award winning cashier.  

Another thing that got me sipping the craft cocktail kool-aid was the notion that bartending is once again becoming a career that you can be proud of, a job that is no longer just a stepping stone to make a little cash while you search for a real one, or something to do until your music gig actually starts to pay or until your paintings become worth something.  It was that notion that armed me with the devotion to start investing in my own tools, to start buying books and reading them repeatedly, to attend any and every seminar I could get in to, to join a guild, and to begin to explore ways to be creative behind the bar. Something I took away from all the reading and lectures was this recurring notion that it is hard work, and that it is a thing to be mastered, so I set out working my way through books like the Old Waldorf Astoria, the Bon Vivant’s Companion and Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, attempting merely to understand what these cocktails meant or were supposed to have meant.  Sure one could follow a recipe, “but do you hear Jimi?”  I think it was probably the mentors I had at the time, people like Lu Brow and Justin Burrow, who instilled this notion in my mind that the classics had to come first.

I look around at the industry today and I see that the whole thing is changing once again.  The sort of punk rock ethos that defined the craft cocktail movement when I jumped on has now signed to a major label.  And while folks like Dale Degroff, Tony Abou-Ganim, Gary Regan and others were the Johnny Thunders, Joe Strummers, and Dee Dee Ramones of their generation, they have simply paved the way for a newer generation of Green Days and Blink 182s to carry the torch.  I see a great many bartenders these days who are not focused on mastering the classics at all, but who have the fancy Japanese bar spoons, and cool branded doctor bags filled with more branded swag.  The focus has shifted from being great at your job, to trying to be a celebrity. And the formula is pretty straight forward: attend the right events and conferences, follow the right people on twitter and be sure to interject some brown nosey comment into their conversations as often as possible, always know where the cameras are and be sure you get in the middle of the frame, make friends with the local food writers and foodies, exaggerate your experience and qualifications, and whatever you do don’t make cocktails if at all possible.  While that statement is obviously not fair to the many personalities that have rightfully earned their laudable positions in the industry, it nevertheless is a recurring theme.

And what does all this celebrity status get you? A brand ambassador job, a feature in Imbibe, a trip to New Zealand if you’re lucky?  Okay, well the trip to New Zealand sounds pretty friggin awesome, but I have always been confused by the whole progression of being recognized for doing something you love and the reward being not having to do it anymore.  You kick ass at cocktail competitions and the prize is you don’t have to bartend anymore.  That’s like telling a musician “okay dude, you’re signed, now you can put that guitar away, you didn’t seem to really like it anyway.”  It leaves me wondering how much the movement has truly affected the actual job of bartending.  Sure, there are more places with fresh juice, stirred Martinis, and bonded rye whiskey, but it seems as though the physical act of bartending is still this thing to get away from as soon as possible, and I’m left wondering why. Perhaps if we behaved more like cooks and kept our heads down until it we master the basics, we would value our jobs a little more.  Just a thought.

So how bout a drink?


Post by Alex Gregg


6 thoughts on “Celebrity Status vs B.O.H. Work Ethic

  1. There’s plenty of celebrity chefs that no longer cook. And their existence arguably helped make the non-bartending celebrity bartender possible. But great post! I always feel a sense of loss as a drinker when yet another talented bartender stops actually bartending in favor of the higher wages and health care available to brand ambassadors, etc.

    • I agree, and to be fair, the many of the ideals I hold so strongly to were introduced to me by people who are now

  2. I agree a lot of what your saying (except for my Japanese bar spoon. I love that thing), but the greats in this city have always been the ones who have had that one person to inspire them and you don’t get that anymore. Of course I look up to people like Justin. Nowadays, if you win a cocktail competition but haven’t made a proper Manhattan in your life, your still considered a craft bartender.

    Furthermore, there are not enough people in the city trying to help teach these bartenders the proper craft or maybe the bartenders themselves are resisting (can’t teach an old dog new tricks). Maybe they just hate books. Whatever the case, it would be nice for our own local “celebrities” to help novice craft bartenders out. I’ve only been bartending for two years now and I learned from only one source, but at that source I got to learn a ton from people like you. And I’m continuing to learn even now. There such a thing as genuine admiration from amateurs, whether on twitter or otherwise. I’ll let you be the judge of who is and who isn’t.

    For those that win competitions for the sake of free crap and getting there name out there, just forget them. More importantly, dont clump our younger generation of bartenders with them. I can’t learn from them. And if I have already, it’s all bad habits. In all actuality, I’ve always felt that most of the important competitions that deserving bartenders have won were a way of praise for said bartender (Lindsay Heffron for example)

    My point is (and it may have gotten lost up there) that there are some out there that want to learn and think the way you do. Give them a chance. Let them stage, hold local seminars, listen to their dumb questions. Don’t dismiss or judge them.

    Let my shitty garage band play at your dive bar.

    • I have a japanese bar spoon too and a branded doctor’s bag filled with branded swag. The Japanese bar spoon is a great tool. And Im speaking more about the national phenomenon than any Houston stuff. One major thing I just couldn’t fit in is how brands exploit a good many of our desires to be recognized with things like, “do this (for free) and you’ll get a ton of publicity,” when the conversation should go down like “do this, you’re the most qualified, and we’ll pay you exceptionally well for your skill.” In some cases the culprit is the major label

  3. Pingback: This Week In Food Blogs: The End of Cheap Food? | The Alief Post

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