DeGroff will be at the Bitter Bar in Boulder on Monday, June 11 to present his "On the Town" seminar, a benefit for the museum that chronicles the history of cocktails and bartending through music and amazing storytelling. The show starts at 8 p.m.; tickets are available at the door ($45) or at www.museumoftheamericancocktail.org ($40).
And in the meantime, here's a taste of my recent conversation with DeGroff:
Sean Kenyon: How did you get your start behind the bar?
I worked in restaurants from the time I arrived in NYC, with the exception of a short stint at an ad agency owned by my best friend's older brother...that turned out to be the key that opened big doors for me many years later. The agency had the Restaurant Associates account, a plum account to be sure since it allowed them to entertain all their other clients in the highest of style. RA operated some of the best restaurants in the world at the time, and being part of the "family," so to speak, I got in on lots of the dinners, etc. Joe Baum was the president of RA and so began the rest of my life!
My first job in the rest biz was dishwasher at Howard Johnson's in Times Square....Many years later, upon meeting the French chef Jacques Pepin, the subject of HoJos came up. Jacques was hired away from his job as chef for President Charles de Gaulle to develop dishes for Howard Johnson's...and, you guessed it, he worked in the Times Square store! They were about to go into the hotel business and wanted to spiff up their image... I said to Jacques, "Ahhh, so we were associates: You created the dishes and I washed them!"
My next job was waiter at the then-famous Joe Baum bar and grill, Charlie O's ...sadly, that name ended up in the Reese Brothers empire, along with Dunkin' Donuts and Pizza Hut. But at the time, it was Joe's most successful bar. One day after finishing the lunch shift, a very harried manager, Marcy Blum, ran through the dining room announcing that she needed a bartender for a party at Gracie Mansion. I piped up and said that would be me and so my BT career began... The regular BTs at Charlie O's wanted no part of loading and unloading truck for shit money, so I got all the Gracie Mansion parties. Eventually I got the service-bar job working with two amazing Irish BTs who truly mastered the art of customer relations. It was the most important learning experience of my whole career.
You have been credited with spawning the resurgence of the craft of bartending. What motivated you to reach back for the old recipes and methodology while you developed the iconic, award-winning bar program at the Rainbow Room? Joe remembered me from the ad agency days and he knew that I understood, but more important, he knew that I knew the stories. Ron Holland, the ad guy and my best friend's brother, was a master storyteller and I studied his technique for years. Joe had a vision of a nineteenth-century style bar with all fresh ingredients and no mixes -- not even a blender. He wanted a classic cocktail bar. That meant fresh juices, no soda guns, correct recipes and an elegant mise en place. And, most important, the stories.
I began to study old, out-of-print cocktail books to learn how the original practitioners went about using all fresh ingredients. It meant returning to nineteenth-century techniques of bartending. I was soon recreating the classic cocktail. It garnered attention and people began to embrace the idea.
Thanks to your influences (as well some of your contemporaries), bartending and mixology have come so far in the past twenty years, slowly regaining the credibility that our profession held prior to Prohibition. In your opinion, what do we have to do to continue to move forward and advance the craft? Reinvent or return to the customer service I learned from my Irish bartending tutors. Get the speed back into the equation.
You have been heavily involved with the Museum of the American Cocktail. Can you tell us a bit about the Museum and its mission?
Of course. The museum was created to represent a hugely neglected part of our American heritage, cocktail culture: What it is, where it came from and how it is evolving.
But mission number one at this moment is finding a new home and raising enough money to move in and rebuild our exhibit ...and hence the whirlwind tour of "On the Town." When we are operating normally, we do monthly sessions presented by top industry personalities -- both in New Orleans and in Washington, D.C., where we have two talented board members, Derek Brown and Phil Greene. Eventually our mission includes a beverage library and more intense bartender-training opportunities.
You are coming to Boulder on June 11 with "On The Town." What can we expect that night at the Bitter Bar? Four drinks to illustrate the eras covered in the piece, music, some historical perspective on Americas saloons, lounges and big city bars. Stories (most important) and fun.