Adventures in Bartending

August 25th, 2014 by Kari Skaflen

I’ve never bartended before. The closest I ever came was two winters where I bussed tables before graduating to make salads and deliver pizzas in an Italian restaurant that was part of a hotel complex in a Colorado ski town.


Bussing tables was physically hard work. Myself and the other busser had to clear tables with giant trays (no bus tubs allowed!), hoisting them with two hands over one shoulder and walking back and forth between the dishwasher and tables.


By the end of each week my uniform — black shirt, black pants and a bright red tie with a pattern of Mickey Mouse scattered abundantly across its surface — was a deep shade of burgundy, stained with pasta sauce, olive oil and spare noodle fragments. I’d selected this particular Mickey Mouse tie for reasons I can no longer remember or possibly justify— we were asked to select (read: buy) a tie of our choice and yet I had chosen Mickey Mouse. I’d only been to Disneyland once but I don’t think it left any profound effect upon my young soul. By Sundays the silk no longer supple and shiny, hung awkwardly in a thick crinkled pendulum from my neck. But I didn’t care much. I was 18 and snowboarded everyday, slept on couch cushions on the floor of an apartment I shared with two strangers, ate 20 cent ramen and Totino’s frozen pizzas perpetually on special for $1.99 and spent my days flying down the slopes with abandon. So what if I had a cruddy tie? I loved the restaurant staff and the free focaccia bread that I ate by the handful because it beat cheap ramen.


At each table, there were giant jugs of Chianti wine on sticky red and white checkered table cloths. The wine was maybe $4 a glass and was consumed in a comical honor system. At the end of the night the guests told their server how many glasses they’d consumed and were appropriately charged. As a busser one of my end-of-the-night jobs was to help refill the jugs of Chianti. And so I would dutifully pour wine from an industrial-sized carton of industrial flavored wine into the jug with the pretty label. Once or twice a server would ask me to open a bottle of wine— a task I was arduously slow and sweaty palmed about doing.


For the next passage of sixteen years, I was always on the opposite side of the bar. The only exception being a party I attended at a neighbor’s loft where one of the guests mistook me for a hired bartender and asked me to refill his glass with vodka and tonic. Not wanting to be offensive, I obliged, begrudgingly. As the clear liquid splashed into his glass, I kept thinking what a brazen dick this guy was. He later apologized and said he thought I was the bartender. I’m not quite sure why, perhaps I have a bartender aura? A scent of booze? Fast forward several years and I decided to find out if the man at the party was right. Do I have an inherent talent for bartending?


I’ve been working with a restaurant group for three years as their staff photographer. I can’t say exactly why I decided to bartend now as opposed to earlier or never, other than curiosity. It’s a great skill to have. If you can bartend well, you can pretty much, in the words of Jay Z, “make it anywhere.”


I checked with the manager and the lead bartender and both were super welcoming and said, yes, I should come in and stage behind the bar. A stagier is a French noun and means trainee. But in our English bastardization we use it like a verb, so in this sense it means to train. Basically, it’s an elegant way to say, will work for free. I picked the least busy night of any night of the week at the least busy restaurant in the entire company.


When the day of my stage arrived, I was admittedly nervous. The manager had emailed me a list of cocktails to study the week prior. I had glanced at the list, printed it out and let it linger on my desk, buried underneath folders and post-it notes. I folded it in half and put it in my bag as I walked out the door.


My next stop was the grocery store where I bought my apology gifts in advance: two bombers of decent, local beer, gummy bears for behind the bar and two chapsticks— for no reason at all other than I saw them in the checkout line. I caught the number 56 bus down Grand Avenue and tried to study the seven pages of cocktails. It wasn’t really working: quantities, liquors, ice styles, they all went in and out of my head in the same breath. I got off the bus.


I breezed into the restaurant high on endorphins and gave the chapstick and gummy bears to the kind-hearted lead bartender who was to be my gerant (Fr: manager) on this muggy summer evening. I kept the bombers in reserve, a peace offering for any profound screw ups.


Things started off well. There were two girls at the end of the bar with whom my boss for the evening was more than a little preoccupied with flirting with. He was showing off his tattoo, the one that should have said, “when it rains it pours” with the little Morton Salt girl under her umbrella, but instead reads, “when it rains it purrs.” I wondered if he was going to get their numbers.


An older woman, too tan and too blonde for early June, or ever for that matter, sauntered in. She ordered a vodka cosmopolitan. She wanted a specific kind of vodka and rattled her order off like a pro. G (boss) asked if I wanted to make it; I was intimidated by her specific vodka request and indigo lined eyes that surveyed the bar in a cat-like manner. In the same swift assessment I imagine she determined G too young for her prowess to be effective. I told G he should make her drink just in case I was wrong.


I had invited several friends and my husband to drop by the bar.  I would be “bartending” I’d said.  They came— miraculously— at more or less the exact same time. They sat at the bar and I fumbled my way through two of their cocktails with G’s help. I was visibly shaking as I attempted to pour my first cocktail. “More, keep going”, G said over my shoulder as I filled an unstable jigger with gin over a big glass. I knew that just as the silver cone was about to overflow, I should tip it into the glass.  And of course under normal circumstances I am possessing the correct amount of coordination. It was all the eyes, over my shoulder and in front of the bar that made me twinge and move with less than steady hands. I did the only thing I could, laugh.


Things got busy quickly, busier I think than G anticipated. I clumsily stirred a drink with the appropriate accessory: a long stemmed, small spoon. The ice clanked noisily around in the glass when it should have been stealthy quiet. I furrowed my brow in concentration trying to spin the spoon at the right time so the ice wouldn’t touch the sides of the glass. Luckily, not all the cocktails were stirred. Some were shaken. The cocktail shaker with ice and libations was frigid between my palms and slightly slippery. I had visions of the two metal cups held together only by some miraculous suction, shooting out of my hands and across the bar, hitting a guest square between the eyes. Despite the slippery shaker and the fear of pegging an innocent bystander, I thought I was pumping the shaker in the air with vigor. I could feel my biceps flexing with casual nonchalance. I was, as my husband’s iphone video would later show, moving my arm at a pace that can only be described as troublingly slow.


I trudged on behind the bar, fumbling around with bottles and jiggers and different glasses. If there were no simultaneous cocktails to be made, G would set out the liquors for me from the well and grab the appropriate glass. Three of my friends all ordered the restaurant’s house punch. I made it maybe 6 times in a row for them as well as for “real” guests.  And so when my friends who amazingly continued to pour in, despite ominous dark clouds and the threat of rain, asked “what’s good?” I recommended the punch, because I had it memorized.  Lime juice, next to the grapefruit juice, the gin three deep in the well, a few dashes of this and that, and then shake it up; pour it over tiny little ice cubes in a silver cup, zest an orange wedge, add cherries and serve with a straw. Yes, as complex as that was, I was nailing it. So that was my drink. Success, I could smell it until the inevitable mistakes occurred.


At one point, I was muddling mint and sugar at the bottom of a glass and when I finished, I thought it would be a good idea to whack the muddling tool against the top of the glass to get the last drops of mint and sugar off. Not so. The glass broke into several large chunks in front of my friends, who barely disguised their laughter.  Someone yelled Ooopa! G looked mildly perplexed and brought me a new glass.


In another instance of sheer newbie flubs, a guest inquired how the chicken was prepared. I ran to the manager across the bar for help. She rattled off a list of seasonings and herbs that were applied to the chicken making it extra delicious. The only addition I could remember by the time I got back across the bar to the patron, was caper butter. I told him it came with caper butter, and he looked at me strangely and said, “peanut butter?”


As a coup de grace, later in the evening, I managed to spill a neat shot of Chartreuse slightly outside the glass as I awkwardly tipped the overflowing jigger mostly into the glass but also a little down the side. One of the servers had to wipe the glass down and kindly told me to add more to the guest’s glass to make up for what had dribbled down the outside. Neat indeed.


The night sailed on. The humidity parlayed itself into a giant rainstorm that swept through the city keeping guests lingering over their drinks. The interior of bar grew even darker as the charcoal colored clouds rolled through, leaving wet darkness in their wake. I made more punches and a few other cocktails where there wasn’t a rush of drinks and G could properly supervise me on something aside from the punch. I poured wine. I refilled water glasses, I cleared dishes for patrons who ate at the bar. I even made a chai tea for the host. I was getting the hang of things.


At the end of the night (really it was only 9pm when I was cut) I sat on the other side of the bar and had a glass of prosecco. And felt free in a way I hadn’t in a long time. Maybe I was free of the obligation of bartending, but beyond that, free in the knowledge, that while this evening hadn’t been the most stellar success of my life, that with some work and time, I could probably be, at least, a hack of a bartender. And being a shoddy bartender was the equivalent to understanding that freedom to move locations, to return to a more carefree time of lesser responsibilities and fewer inhibitions, lived just beneath the surface floating up occasionally like ribbons of bubbles in my prosecco glass.

Tags:  Food Culture 
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