There’s been a steady cross-pollination of ideas between bar and kitchen down the years. But perhaps the most radical impact of all is yet to come, says Julian de Féral
When I was nine, people started to ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I told my mother I wanted to be a chef, because I loved cooking. What with it being 1980s north London, and what with my mother being of Eastern European descent, this was something of an affront. How could a young boy want to be – as my mother put it – ‘a lowly cook’? Banging around pots and pans and whipping up soup was seen as the last resort for the common man.
Fast-forward a decade to the late 1990s and you had the likes of fresh-faced Jamie Oliver carving out a nice niche; leading the charge of young chefs eager to bring the kitchen back into a romantic spotlight.
Suffice to say the response I got from my mother when I explained I would be pursuing a career in bartending was not exactly an improvement on the response she gave nine-year-old-me when I told her I wanted to cook for a living…
Bistro or bar?
How times have changed, and how history repeats itself. In the mid-19th century, London’s first celebrity chef Alexis Soyer famously dabbled with drinks. He created spiked jelly shots and, inspired by the growing popularity of the relatively new soda market, created Soyer’s Nectar, a raspberry, apple and quince concoction.
Most often, however, the river runs the other way. The bar world is typically inspired by the kitchen world and not
the other way around.
Over the past few years, it has been particularly marked, with the growth in modern gastronomy capturing bartenders’ imaginations and quickly elevating the understanding and parameters of techniques far quicker than any other outside influence.
Former Diageo ambassador Dan Dove points to the personality of the chef as a potential reason. Amico’s, his cocktail bar in Essex, is directly influenced by Italy’s famous cuisine and breaks the boundaries between chef and bartender.
Broadly speaking, chefs have long been recognised as having ambition and a strong work ethic, but are also more resistant to change, particularly if direction or collaborations are not coming from the typical hierarchy of the kitchen world, but from a ‘lowly bartender’.
He argues that, with consumers ever becoming more educated and demanding increased transparency when it comes to food provenance, their attention will naturally turn to the liquid they enjoy with their food. Would this be the case if fine-dining restaurants hadn’t brought the idea of locally sourced food or terroir-specific wines to our collective attention?
Low-tech, top spec
Rob Wood is owner of Smultronställe in Birmingham, which he regards less as a bar, more as a ‘cocktail restaurant’, serving set tasting menus of everything from tea to ferments, jellies and cocktails.
Wood is not shy of the fact he cribs techniques and equipment to give his drinks a culinary angle. Although chefs and bartenders alike have distanced themselves from the term ‘molecular’, and many methods associated to that movement are now seen as unfashionable, he still thinks some molecular techniques are applicable. It is, he says, particularly relevant for small independents that can’t afford higher-end, lab-grade equipment, such as centrifuges, rotovaps or ultrasonic homogenisers, which are proudly used by many of the world’s best bars.
Wood prefers to use gels, gums, espumas, spherification and carefully selected additives, such as acids, to manipulate flavours and textures – all 21st-century kitchen techniques.
The delivery of the drinks at Smultronställe is simple, with no ice well and nothing shaken, and the majority of the drinks and bites preparation done beforehand, just as a kitchen team would do with their mise en place.
The small, intimate setting gives him time to really talk through the processes and ideas behind each item, such as why a particular apple variety has been used, or where the inspiration for an unusual flavour pairing has come from.
At Knowhere Special, a subterranean bar in Kentish Town, owners Helen Gay and Ash Clarke have a similar, relatively low-tech approach to ‘culinary cocktails’.
With Gay having trained as a chef, all the drinks on the bar’s ever-evolving menu are directly inspired by food. The pair will take the flavour of a particular dish as a starting point and likely end up with a clever garnish that acts as a food-drink pairing.
I still remember the first time I visited and the joy of seeing them work in tandem, seamlessly switching between making drinks and frying up a bacon sandwich garnish on the induction hob on the bar.
The perfectionist attitude to their drinks and food is clearly derived from time spent in the kitchen. They’ve built an oven, grill and hotplates into the back bar, and they revel in breaking down what Gay calls the ‘invisible barriers’ between the front and back of house.
‘Although we make candyfloss, edible inks and use Texturas, [created by superstar chef Ferran Adrià], we always find ourselves coming back to humble, classic kitchen techniques of baking, frying, roasting, pickling and the idea that everything is or can be a garnish,’ reveals Gay.
Think like a chef
While bartenders are undeniably getting into fermentation in a big way and are equally preoccupied with their sous-vide machines, perhaps the most interesting culinary influence in the future will be less on production techniques and more on the bartenders’ mentality.
Liam O’Brien, who spent 12 years as a chef before picking up a bar blade for a stint at Brass Monkey in Nottingham, supports this view. His business Hockley Homegrown, and its off-shoot Feral (see p.25), grow fresh, organic and seasonal produce on request for local cafés, restaurants and bars.
Mix it like Marco
DUCK À L’ORANGE
50ml roast duck fat-washed gin (duck leg cooked with citrus peels)
Glass: Champagne flute
50ml pancetta-washed Ron
*Combine 700ml of Zacapa 23yo and 175ml fried pancetta in olive oil. Move to the freezer. Mix after six hours. After 24 hours remove the fat and double strain.
One of his key motivations in setting up the company was the growing acceptance that bars can be very wasteful, and are often not managed as astutely as kitchens.
He talks about the mentality of the chef focusing on input versus output, which is something that modern bartenders could certainly draw valuable lessons from.
The heart of the question is whether the amount of effort and energy put into making a particular ingredient has an equally significant impact on the final product, or is there, for instance, a more efficient way to produce equal results?
Proof is in the provenance
For fresh produce, bars are usually at the mercy of a supplier chosen by the kitchen to fulfil the chef’s needs rather than being geared towards the drinks.
It’s not just that large quantities will be bought unnecessarily, leaving high wastage. Typically bartenders will not put much thought into the provenance or variety of the ingredients. Why, for instance, do 99% of bars use the same variety of mint, when there are dozens of exciting varieties that are low cost, easy to cultivate, available locally and grown throughout even the UK’s most temperamental seasons?
Pansies and nasturtiums can, quite frankly, go fuck themselves. Sure, they look pretty, but there are dozens of edible flowers that are grown in this country that could bring a distinct look and flavour to a particular drink.
Imagine the horror on a fine-dining chef’s face if you told them that they could only order through one supplier or could only cook one cut of beef? As O’Brien points out, a key difference between chefs and bartenders is that great chefs will always go straight to the supplier, enabling them to source unique ingredients that meet their exacting standards.
If there is an ingredient, let’s say, a fish from a particular village that is highly sought after and very expensive to buy with a minimum order of a whole box and a naturally limited shelf life, chefs from different restaurants will pool their resources and work as a cooperative.
They will travel to that fishing village as a group, meet the fisherman, quality-check the fish, get a feel for the environment and buy a box together, splitting the spoils. Surely bars can endeavour to work in the same way?
Would that rare cognac be cheaper to buy as a barrel at the source and then split between multiple bars? Not to mention the added bonus of an educational trip to the distillery that would cement a direct relationship with the producer.
Could there, perhaps, be enhanced cooperation between bars and kitchens as the interest of fine diners spreads rapidly beyond sizeable wine lists?
If the chef’s hat fits…
The passion and dedication that chefs are known for continues to spread to the bar, and bartending is once again considered a serious profession.
Karol Bobiński of the Soho House Group, who studied chemistry, enjoys applying his learnings to his ‘molecular-style’ drinks. He understands that, while spherification is no longer cool with the kids, bartenders still have a way to go to truly understand ingredients in the way that a chef does.
They need to learn how to process every part of that herb, for example, not just to pay lip-service with ‘#sustainability’. They also need to realise that different methods of dealing with all those components, such as heat applications, really open up the spectrum of flavours and unlock potential in everyday products.
As bartenders, we naturally still fall behind chefs – and I would imagine it will remain like that for a long while. I do, however, see positive change as the bar industry realises that it is perhaps less about appropriating methods or equipment from the kitchen. Whizzy techniques and shiny bits of machinery are all very well, but in order to catch up with the folks in white, it may be more important to really learn how to think like a chef.
Recycling. Freecycling. Tea-cycling…
Smultronställe on the philosophy behind its Apple Waste Tea
‘As part of our Trash Tea programme, which uses everything from acorns to passionfruit husks, we welcome every guest with a cup of tea,’ says Rob Wood.
‘Once all the coveted cuts are retrieved, we then chop down the remaining flesh – that includes cores, peels, leaves and seeds into uniform chunks. These are then dehydrated to be later rehydrated into a cold-brew tea of apples. Once rehydrated, the cold-brew tea is kept chilled and served to guests on arrival.’