Above: Audrey and Dale at the James Beard Awards, circa. 1999-2001
PART TWO: From Beacon to Pegu Club and lessons learnt along the way…
How difficult was it for you to change operator’s perceptions of the quality of ingredients they were using in the bar at the time you were starting out?
I have to say that I was truly fortunate (I think the stars were aligned for me during those years), because I didn’t have any of those problems. When I went over to Beacon, keep in mind that all of the people that were behind Beacon had also come from Rainbow Room and had worked with Dale, so they got it. They were also some of the best beverage minds in New York. So I didn’t have to change anyone’s minds there about what was needed. Waldy already knew me and recognised me as a creative, so he basically gave me the creative keys for that bar and let me loose. He was so amazing too, such a talented chef, and he loved the creativity of cocktails. I also had free rein of the walk-in fridges during that time, so armed with what Dale had already taught me, I had begun to contemplate fresh herbs and homemade ingredients behind the bar.
Waldy was very patient and nurturing, I remember being excited about something I was working on and I’d go up to him while he was on the line in the middle of service. He’d stop whatever he was doing, take a sip, and give me a quick comment or critique. As would his chef de cuisine and sous chef – it was a fantastic team to work with. The Mojito had only just arrived on the scene a year earlier while we were at Blackbird, and the notion of fresh mint in a cocktail was still a very novel idea. Beacon is where I rolled out the ginger beer recipe, as well as the place I developed the Gin-Gin Mule, the Jamaican Firefly, Tantris Sidecar and a few others. I had just begun tinkering with the Old Cuban there before I left.
What’s your proudest achievement in your career?
There are a couple. Because of what I learned from Dale, I was able to develop a strong skill set that enabled me to open a bar that would jumpstart the craft cocktail industry in the United States, as well as the artisanal spirits industry.
This wasn’t easy, it took a lot of work. I felt like a single mother of 20, teaching young bartenders and servers the 101 about every detail that we now take for granted – things like what is vermouth? what are bitters? how do we use them? – the very basics. It was the same education that Dale had provided to me, with the exception that I didn’t have the managerial support and expertise of an already-established corporation like Rainbow Room behind me, so I had to do it all on my own. A number of my staff had left good jobs because they believed in what I was trying to achieve and I in turn felt a strong responsibility to ensure their education was solid, to equip them with the proper tools they needed to express/evangelise the cocktail in their own right to our guests.
I also paid a price for it. I worked my ass off in the process and in all honesty, it almost killed me. I was frequently exhausted because the public response was so overwhelming and I was just trying to keep up with it all. Consequently, my thyroid tanked, my adrenal glands flat-lined, and my overall health suffered for a time. So I own these achievements not as a boast but very much like a purple heart. I did it because I felt it was absolutely necessary to do, and because I could. In other words, I had the wherewithal to execute it. For me, not furthering Dale’s legacy would have been a downright sin and I felt that as someone who was given such gifts, skills and incredible opportunities from him, that I had every obligation to do so.
The other achievement that I do derive even more pleasure from though are all the people that I’ve mentored, all of those who have gone on to become great successes in their own right. In these instances I feel the maternal pride of a den mother. I’m so damn proud of all of them and I know that every, single one of them will continue to pass on the craft legacy to their own bartenders in very much the same manner that Dale had passed on to me.
Which of your cocktails are you proudest of creating and why?
For me, creating a cocktail is like giving birth to something. You incubate it, you birth it, you nurture it, and then you let it go off on its own two feet. They are all so different and yet you love them all in different ways, for different reasons. So you can’t pick one. But I’ll tell you what makes me proud: it’s not my personal choice, instead it’s every time I see another bar or bartender serve a drink I created, because it means they enjoy my cooking. That makes me very happy.
Please describe what each of the bars below mean to you; what did you learn in each of them and how the individual bar progressed your career?
see part one
The Tonic Restaurant:
When I was at Beacon restaurant I was offered two jobs. The first was at Windows on the World (the other sister restaurant of Rainbow) as a wine cellar apprentice. It was an extraordinary opportunity which would have meant I would have got to further my wine education from both MS Kevin Zraly and MS Andrea (Immer) Robinson, two titans of the wine industry. However, it would have meant taking a very large pay cut. It was also only a few months before 9/11…
The second job I was offered was the Beverage Director position at The Tonic restaurant downtown. It was being overhauled from the top down and it was a chance to work with a super-cool and super-talented chef that I had heard of, and the salary was more than double what I was currently making at Beacon. The Tonic position was distinct in that not only would it be my first job outside of the Rainbow family but an opportunity to create my very first bar program from scratch. The cocktail program really took off and it became a great success, right up until 9/11. At that point the bottom had fallen out of the F&B industry downtown and it shuttered a short while afterwards.
Where do I begin with Bemelmans and The Carlyle? Working at The Carlyle was like attending a top finishing school; I really thrived there. This was where I was able to take what I had learned from Dale and embed it into a five-star hospitality program.
It also was my first time working in a union house which truly dictated the level of service it would provide. As the director of one of the hotels outlets, I was responsible for its entire operation – the operations, costs, profit and loss, as well as all of the beverages in the other outlets. I was also required to report to the General Manager and Director of Finance at weekly accounting meetings, along with each of the other department heads. I learned a great deal about the business of the bar there.
Dale had often lamented about his headaches of working with the union at Rainbow, to the point where I felt wary about taking the position. I envisioned having to endure similar conflicts and spending the bulk of my time struggling with that. But I’ve always loved a good challenge, so I took the job anyway and discovered that Bemelmans was staffed with older gents who I felt were misunderstood. They had all been working in that same room together for many years (two of them for 50 years; one having served President Truman); a couple of them were only a little bit younger than my own dad, and another was a union delegate. In their eyes, here I was, a young woman, probably just another clueless ‘manager. But from my perspective as a fellow-bartender, I could see that they were simply weary from the continual changeover in managers, not having anyone to put their trust in or feeling supported by and consequently always having to be on guard. Frankly, I thought the whole dynamic was wrong so unbeknownst to management, I decided to do something quite unorthodox – I gave those bartenders my word that as a fellow-bartender, I’d “have their backs”; that I would look after them as best as I could, and take care of whatever their needs were. I also told them that unless any real offence occurred either between themselves or with a guest, that whatever happened within that room would stay within that room, and that we would work through it together.
I also pledged that I would continue to grow the initial program that Dale and I had installed there, that it would triple their tips, and that together, we would establish a dynamic, positive energy that they would enjoy working in. Of course they were initially sceptical, they’d never experienced that before but I kept my word and took care of them like they were my family. I gave them my trust, honesty and humanity and I my love. Within a short frame of time they turned around and did exactly the same with me. Everyone began to relax, trust more, to work together and the division that had previously existed within that room and the whole manager vs. union thing began to fade away.
I happily took care of a lot of the technical cocktails behind-the-scenes details for them, which was appreciated by the older gents in particular – for them to progress into a modern-day cocktail program from a long period of stagnancy was stressful and couldn’t happen overnight; I fully appreciated that. The room came back to life not because of the technical success of the cocktail program, but I believe because the energy within became a very positive one and the gentlemen who worked there could truly enjoy their working environment again. We’d even begun enjoying an after-work drink together at the end of the week. The entire experience was very special for me – I love and miss those guys. I think true hospitality has to take place within one’s own doors, with the very people that one works with. I do this at Pegu as well and I feel it is in this degree of true concern and care that has allowed my teams to thrive and become successes in their own right. If I had to define it, it would be simply be to love them like family.
I created Pegu Club based on my knowledge of what a cocktail should be. Up to that point, there were many commonly accepted cocktail principles that hadn’t sat well with me and it was important for me to take a hard stand. Pegu provided me with a platform to draw a line in the sand, go against the flow and implement a program based on everything that I had learned up to that point. For example, the bar scene in the US at that time was completely dominated by vodka. Conversely, I opened with 23 gins on my backbar. While I consider vodka to be an important spirit, part of my stance at that point in time was to keep it tucked away in order to teach bartenders how to work with other spirits as well. It simply had to happen in order for the progression of the craft industry to take place.
Part three: Falling in love, bigging up London and almost becoming the second female head bartender at the American Bar.
For part one of this interview, see here
From the New York issue of The Cocktail Lovers Magazine. Read it here