Learning Curve

Better late than never, although with the sizable gaps in time between each post it is almost at the never side of things.  To best illustrate the past months I should start by filling you in about our bar.  The bar.  Booker & Dax.  BDX, as we call it.  It’s a small room in the back of a bustling world class restaurant that has consumed all of my time and every drop of energy for the last 8 months.  Two bars, a prep kitchen, 4 tables, 32 stools, 2 bartenders, a server, hostess, barback, manager, cook, 147 liquor bottles, freezers, fridges, clear lime juice, liquid nitrogen, a centrifuge… and a vacuum rotary evaporator.  It feels like a pub but looks like a laboratory, serves exciting cocktails and addicting food, it functions at the highest level while flirting with being too casual… it’s extremely hard for me to wrap my head around and has been my battle for what feels like a lifetime.  In short, a bar which focuses on high end craft cocktails utilizing new techniques which we at the bar are implementing.  I will leave you here with some links to what others have written about the bar thus far so I that I don’t have to form words to what I can barely grasp:

http://www.momofuku.com/restaurants/booker-and-dax/

http://drinks.seriouseats.com/2012/02/video-dave-arnold-booker-dax-cocktails-centrifuge-liquid-nitrogen-techniques.html

http://gizmodo.com/booker-&-dax/

There are more from all over the map if you google Booker & Dax.  Woo.

I have been running on such high emotion and so little sleep for the last few months it has left me with much ammo for this blog, for your sake I am reigning in what makes it to this page for fear of crafting a 200 page memoir about the struggle of opening a bar with untested tools and virtually no space.  Since January we have been drafting menus, staffing, building, experimenting, buying, ordering… etc, all while the old version of the bar remained open.  We have just ticked off the 5 month mark of being open, and I only now feel like we are finding any sort of stride.  It’s interesting running a bar that focuses on the fore front of technology because of the ever lurking pressure to keep innovating, and even just now as a fledgling bar I am already feeling the heat of ‘what’s next from Booker & Dax?’ In this city so driven by food and culture your life on the scene seems to be much like a shark, keep moving or drown.  I don’t say that negatively, it’s like going to the gym, if you are not building up you are losing ground, and that always means working to improve and find to a new direction.  Already I fall nostalgic for cocktails we are replacing on the menu, until I fall in love with the one that replaced it.  Upwards and onwards, always upwards and onwards.

So much more has come out of Booker & Dax than I could have anticipated.  It is not the organizing and admin, cocktail creation or staff emergencies, all those things I could have predicted in the day to day of restaurants and the bar world.  Press, media, events, social presence, and the never blind eye of being in NYC…  is what wears you out quicker than anything.  We have been fortunate enough to be involved in wonderful events like Taste of the Nation to benefit a great cause, and MOFAD (Museum of Food and Drink), CityMeals on Wheels Benefit, and then there are the guest bartending nights at bars around the city, barbacking at Speed Rack an all-female bartending competition benefiting cancer research, teaching a class for Manhattan Cocktail Classic, and then you turn around and the bar is full of photographers shooting the ‘bright green cocktail or the one with the flames.’  Apart from everything these things are amazingly fun, but when they begin to back up against each other, and with scheduling, and ordering, and… you start to forget about things like laundry, eating, cleaning, exercise, reading… We are moving (again) and as I started to pack up I realized we never actually unpacked.  I’m 26!  It is certainly the right time to dive head first into the fray, and to quote an institution I am fond of, ‘Learn by Doing,’ there is no better education than hands on work.  The work opens more and more doors everyday revealing so many cool people, new places, fantastic meals and drinks, and new opportunities!  It becomes slightly addicting and definitely intoxicating after a while, and I find it hard to say no to anything coming our way.

It must be said again, and I know I have touched upon this in the previous post, but the bartenders, servers, barbacks, cooks, NEW MANAGERS (Robert Henry Nelson) are heroes.  Dave Arnold and I bust into the bar at the drop of a hat and generally destroy all semblance of sanity.  “What if’s” fly around and “how ‘bouts” spout out repeatedly, leaving a trail resembling that of a tornado… Yet the intrepid and obviously hardy crew never fails and always powers through.  The fact that we have assembled such a talented staff is the miracle that keeps everything running every day.  I could not put to words accurately the curiosity, intelligence, energy, spirit, and dedication that the gang has.  They are the heart and soul of the bar.

There are a few people out there making sure that I see the light of day, and to those few champions of things outside of the bar I solute you.  We have escaped the confines of the bar to walk shelter dogs around South Brooklyn (since I can’t have my own), learned how to raise chickens in Brooklyn, gardened veggies, play in a soccer match, and rampaged and frolic around the city.

Once again I haven’t written about much, updating anything, or corresponded with family/friends in any coherent fashion, but it did serve as a nice outlet for voicing what words happen to build up on my mind.

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To come:

Surströmming! Eating rotten fish out of a can from Sweden! See below.

(http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2012-04/popscis-friday-lunch-can-putrid-surstr%C3%B6mming)

Moving! Again! And how it’s the worst thing that can happen to a soul in NYC.

The fun side of things:  http://blog.zagat.com/2012/04/30-under-30-nycs-hottest-up-and-comers.html

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What the heck just happened?

I am mostly alive.  I am slightly zombie… ish.  I am living a new life.  Since the last time I posted the world has been flipped on its head once again.  Gone are the days of distilling and nights of Amor, now is the time for pork buns and flaming cocktails.  Starting last November I took a position with Momofuku to champion their bar program at Ssam Bar in the East Village.  For the last four months I have been working with the incredible Dave Arnold and a team of amazing bartenders to flesh out a new cocktail bar, Booker & Dax, featuring a craft cocktail menu based around some newfangled and amazing tools created by Dave himself.

This post is not about the bar.  If you want to learn all about the awesome stuff happening at Booker & Dax then I will go into the bar in detail another time.  This is a post about the demands of running and opening a new establishment, about falling off the face of the earth, about sacrifice, success, and shortcomings.

The moment I started at Momofuku it has been a constant slamming of information, research, administration, creation, press, cleaning, hiring, firing, drinking, ordering, inventory, and lots and lots of hours logged.  Never before have I been so immersed in one single all consuming project.  7 days a week, 15 hours a day.

For better and worse, I have been so inundated in Booker & Dax I have not posted a blog post in 4 months, called my friends, been out in the city, been on a date, cleaned my room or washed any laundry; my gym called me yesterday to ask if I still wanted my membership because I hadn’t seen them in 3 months.  There are so may facets to cover when joining a new company, opening a new bar, and then running it that constantly demand all of your attention.  It has left me overwhelmed not a few times.

Why it’s worth it:

{I am entering this blurb post writing this blog post: I didn’t realize that I needed to spew out all of this below, I think the last few months have been so emotionally charged/draining that once you get started you can’t really stop an outpouring as such this is.  So the following is less informational and more… therapeutic}

The people.  There is one thing above all others that makes this constant battle worth it, the people.  Throughout this entire process I have constantly met and enjoyed the company of so many amazing individuals.  First and foremost are a team of bartenders who have such an extreme passion for what they do that they will endure anything just to learn more and be a part of something so great.  Working side by side with these guys has taught me so much about not only bartending, but work ethic, loyalty, creativity, and the unmatched energy that has made Booker & Dax the bar that it is.  I’m constantly blown away by what these people bring to the table everyday and I count my lucky stars I have them to lean on constantly.

Dave Arnold is a mad man with a pension for genius, and has quickly turned into one of my best friends.  Working with this man has educated me on carbonation, the physics of liquid nitrogen, using a rotovap, clarification, dilution, dirty jokes, flavors, interviewing well, and more importantly all about family and friends.  There are very few men on earth who command such loyalty from everyone they encounter.

I am now thoroughly convinced that if you gave me a cardboard box, a couple of pitchers of malt liquor, and a phenomenal caring bar staff that it would millions of times better than the most perfectly crafted well appointed bar with manikin like bartenders.

As this bar only just begins to find its stride and allows for some breathing room, the staff and management can begin to step back and start to unravel everything.  More than any success we have gained has this project illustrated my short comings.  Only when put under such great pressure do you ever see the cracks in the dam, and boy have I ever found a long list of cracks.  What my priorities are do not always seem to coincide with what the bar priorities have to be to make it succeed.  Balancing my time between costing out cocktail prices by dashes of bitters, staffing costs, over time hours, inventory, making sure we have the most cost effective blocks of ice, employees W-4’s are signed, and all of the admin drudgery versus the much more attractive side of my position like creation of recipes, tasting new spirits, events, and normal bartending… is hard.  Also, I make horrendous excel spreadsheets. I’m terrible at scheduling.  Routine, not my strong point.  To answer this all though, I now know this, and am starting to learn how to not necessarily fix these things but rather combat myself.  Once again, without the bartenders, dear god we would be lost at sea.

Bah!

On entirely an entirely different note: I am now 26.  Some years back, I believe in the ever impressionable era of 9th grade, Robby Nelson explained to me that the male body peaks for distance running at age 27, and ever since then I have committed myself to the idea that it is at 27 that a guy is perfect. (also it may just turn out that after 27 I may actually commit to the idea of being a man and not just a guy)  Absurd, I know.  My father, who is ancient, is far fitter than I am and could kick my butt while hog tied… but, none the less this gilded age of 27 has wrung in my head as the epitome of fitness.  While this last year has actually been fairly successful as far as staying healthy goes, this up coming year it the focus.  First step: cut out the daily doses of pork belly… yeah.

There is so much more I want to write, but I am becoming more exhausted just thinking about everything at this point.  So after getting this unorganized mass above out of my brain and on to paper I do believe I could produce a coherent post on the actual bar, cool new things, home bars, eating out at amazing restaurants… the fun side of things. Tomorrow.

Much love to you all.

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Heads, Heart, and Tails: Crafting Spirits

When I talk to people about working in a distillery they all seem to have the same response, “I have always wanted to know how it works.”  After spending some quality time crafting bourbon batches, I can now confidently give you a run down on what it takes to make a batch of booze.  So here is some insight into the not overly complex process which I have been spending day and night working on.

I first learned the process physically, simply recreating what my co-worker showed me, but as I ran through the process over and over again I was also diving into a couple of books about the what was happening on a molecular level.  From fermentation to distillation there is a lot of science involved, and yet since I am at the helm you know this process must be pretty forgiving.  Fostering the ideal conditions for small molecular changes is obviously a challenge, but the more I deal with our large scale lab experiments the more I realize it is an art.  There happens to be room for a lot of artistic interpretation, and most of these seemingly precise reaction are actually extremely forgiving.  That being said, don’t try this at home.

To sum everything up: we are making porridge, fermenting it with yeast, and then boiling it over and over to capture the steam, which we bottle and sell.

In a few more words: We use organic corn which has been flaked, and we cook it into a porridge.  When it thickens and cools to the right temperature we then unravel all of the starches from the corn by adding barley (shipped over from Scotland) which contains an enzyme that turns starch into sugar.  After it cools a little more we dump in some yeast and let it go to town doing what yeast does best: eating and being gassy.  As the yeast uses the sugars as fuel it produces waste of alcohol and CO2.  So we let the yeast sit there and create a fermented mash of corn and barley for 6-7 days.  After that we strain out all of the solids, take the liquids, and boil them in our stills.  Since alcohol boils at a lower temperature then water we can remove it from the liquid before anything else and condense in jugs.  We repeat the boiling process again with the already removed alcohol for better purity and higher alcoholic content.  This comes out at 80% alcohol, which we dilute and put into casks to be brought out down the road.

What this means for me: a lot of lifting!  Carrying around jugs of fermented corn and barley.  Stirring very large vats of boiling and sticky porridge.  Carting around large wooden barrels filled with water.  It is all very glamorous.

The interesting part for me so far has been three fold: first, the process is fascinating.  You can actually see each chemical reaction and change happen in front of your eyes.  I take 15 gallons of corn mash (porridge) when it is thick and oatmealy and dump in 1/2 gallon of barley and within 1 minutes the enzymes from the barley have completely liquefied the entire mess, it transforms in front of your eyes from oatmeal to water.  Second, the physical labor and crafting something tangible is extremely satisfying.  There is something about working hard for 8 hours, being exhausted, but holding in your hand the fruit of your labors.  There are few things more satisfying then creating from scratch.  Third, I am alone at the warehouse in the deeps of Brooklyn by myself through the entire process.  It has been interesting spending time on my own just working away, playing music and hauling around buckets.  If you think I make a lot of noise when I am wandering around the house while everyone is home, try sticking me in a warehouse by myself for 8 hours.

So that is it for now!  I will continue this process day and night for quite some time.  Soon enough the first round of bourbon and whiskey will be done aging in their casks and we will begin to fine tune their flavors, which is something I am very much looking forward to.

Here a few limited pictures from the distillery:

 

 

Physical Fitness – Going Presidential.

It has been extremely challenging to get in the runs that I have wanted to lately.  When you are on call for work all the time, and work 7 days a week, you don’t really have a good schedule for getting into a rhythm in order to get back into shape.  Lately I have been experiencing that guilt you feel when you know you should be out running/going to the gym, but just can’t summon the energy to remove yourself from your living room.  Couple the lack of motivation with working in a hot dog/cocktail place and having a girlfriend who is in culinary school for pastry, and you have a generally soft to the touch guy.  I don’t weigh anymore than I ever have, but the whole “not quite firm” thing is discomforting.  I may still be skinny, but my fitness is pathetic.

So in-spite of my unruly schedule and extremely odd sleep patterns I am going to try and carve out a ritual of routine fitness.  In the city this is a little more challenging than it was in ABQ, due to (this sounds absurd) I can’t drive to the gym, and I always have to run from home.  While the running isn’t awful, it is also not diverse.  There are not 100’s of miles of accessible and radically different trails beckoning me to run them everyday, there are only streets.  There is something to be said for the foot pounding repetitiveness of concrete block after concrete block in the way it is great to check off a day on your training schedule.  It is that sense of daily accomplishment.  I do miss actually being somewhat mentally engaged on a run through the mountains.  Odd how when I had the mountains and rivers at my disposal back home I was only focused on how I didn’t want to run at all. On the same note, I really miss working at the running store… I am actually, and I never ever thought I would ever say this, going to have to purchase some new running shoes and running gear.  I think at some point over the next month I may actually burn through the pile of running shoes I have crammed under my bed, and I am down to my last few pair of ragged short shorts.  Who would have ever thought that this day might come.

So here is goes one more time, a push to gain the routine and discipline to actually establish a real fitness regimen.   So watch out for me in my neon green safety vest flying through the streets.

Culprits:

The Answer – I wandered out to the local running path on the East River with the cam the other day.

Eclectic Selection

Working, Running, Blogging, and Bathing.  Unabashedly, I love taking baths, it always allows me to clear my head, relax my muscles, and spend some good time thinking about what needs to be tackled next.  Whoever created the stigma that bathing was either feminine or sissy needs to take a bath, maybe it will let them spend a little bit more time thinking about the words that are coming out of their mouth.  Here are a sampling of thoughts that were pondered during my most recent bath.

It is not a rare occurrence that I come across an article about Crif or PDT in some New York publication highlighting our cocktails and hot dogs.  Lately, even more fun than finding my place of employment highlighted in a magazine, is finding it highlighted in a magazine right next to Shannon’s bar.  I can’t help but crack up when I pick up Manhattan Magazine and side by side in the ‘best of’ section are both of our places nicely written up and applauded.

I’m slowly and painstakingly getting back into running shape.  10 Days: The amount of days it takes for it to not be agony to tie up your shoes and step outside.  To be honest the running is more challenging these first few days than during the rest of your current stint, but the truly hard part is just mustering up the will to get yourself out the door.  Once you hit the pavement everything else works itself out.  Running the streets of New York you always have someone watching you, egging you on, and as great as a motivator as that can be it ultimately turns out every run to be stitch in my side.  With an audience you can never just jog, you always have to at least attempt to look fresh and quick.  You can’t let an onlooker who you are seeing for all of 12 seconds think you could possibly be tired from running 3 miles in 90 degree heat, and the fact that you live amongst 1.6 million people and will probably never ever again see this random sweaty person again is impossible to fathom at the time.  For some reason bravado and style are the only thing you care to exude while on the run, whether you outwardly pull it of or not is… debatable.  Transports me straight back to my first cross country race in high school, not having any training under my belt and not quite understanding anything about the sport of running, I preceded to run like hell out in front of the gathered crowd and as soon as I was hidden behind a hill  come to a grinding halt and gather myself for the next sprint in order to impress the onlookers.  I can only imagine how absurd it must have been to see a sweating, sprinting, and smiling boy whip by you on the course and head out to the next small hill only to reappear again 25 places behind and 5 minutes later.  Although I have only been out for a few runs now it has already offered me a real escape from the city.  Being able to run along the river into a cool ocean breeze Brooklyn’s factories in the distance, and Manhattans skyline reflecting off the water, it makes it seem as if no one else gets to see what you are seeing.  Somehow running makes you feel like you have earned the sight you are soaking in, making it more yours than even the random tourists gazing in the same direction.  If anything, the sights alone get me out the door when I am tired after work.  Hopefully as these days get busier and busier with the imminent opening of the new restaurant I will continue to have time to run, because I certainly need it with all of the pastries in my fridge.