My bias is real. I was a bartender for many years, right out of college, and that gives me a soft spot for anyone behind the stick. Perhaps that’s why I feel a little chuffed for the bar community whenever the big awards come around. Everyone loves to parse and debate the various chefs in play for the James Beard Awards, but why don’t we have the same laudations for our local barkeeps? The one James Beard Award for national Outstanding Bar Program is not sufficient. If the JBFA is to be considered the top industry honor in the nation, it should have regional awards for bartenders along with chefs.
Think about it. Isn’t the bar program the other half of a creative vision that forms the full dining experience? Chefs are now categorized as artists because of their inventive food craft using ingredients and technique in innovative ways. Well, bartenders do that, too. And if you’re stopping me with “Well, not everyone drinks alcohol,” I’ll just point out that one of THE most creative areas in a restaurant, especially nowadays, has to be the nonalcoholic cocktail section: Make me something that isn’t what it is, but it should taste like it is, and you have eight ounces to make that happen.
Even more so, if the national awards are truly focused on shining a light on more women in the industry, there are plenty behind the bar kicking ass. Our local bar community is one of the best in the nation, and it’s being boosted by the women within the ranks. They are as serious about the game as any chef who has columns upon columns of press.
Take Jessi Pollak, who was recently named 2022 U.S. Bartender of the Year. The Spoon and Stable bar manager trains on her own time to get ready for bar competitions, and it pays off. She bested every other bartender in America and is headed to Australia this month, where she’ll face off against the best in the world, representing the United States in the World Class Global Finals.
“I wasn’t trying to win! This is the first year I’ve done this competition, and I thought I’d get the hang of it and come back next year to win,” Pollak admits to me. “World Class is different from other competitions. It tests everything about being a great bartender, and that appealed to me.” Speed, presentation, and spirits knowledge all came into play. “I knew that just giving a good cocktail wasn’t going to be enough. I had beautiful wooden coasters made to emphasize whatever point I was trying to make with the drink. You have to be mindful and sharply connected to what you’re doing.”
Pollak is one of a few local bartenders who’ve also completed the rigorous BAR 5-Day Certification process. Kara Smith of P.S. Steak is another. “It may have been the hardest week of my life,” Smith told me when she returned from the program earlier this spring. You have to apply and then be accepted to the program, which takes place once a year at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. The program teaches history and spirits knowledge, and you have to study for and pass an exam to be certified. “Jeff Rogers convinced me to try. He said that it just helps solidify the sense that this is what you should be doing with your life. That it will be really hard, but you’ll come out the other end a much better bartender and industry person as a whole because of it. And in the end, it meant a little more to me because I had a lot to prove to myself, just personally, that I’m still able to do these really great things in my life.” After failing the test in 2018, Smith reapplied and went into it this year as a sober bartender with a mission. She passed.
One of the top local chefs who’s on fire with openings hears me. Daniel del Prado knows how important a drinks program is to his growing collection of restaurants, and he wants nothing more than to shout the praises of Megan Luedtke, his bar director. Let’s be clear: She had big shoes to fill when nationally recognized talent Marco Zappia departed the company, but by all accounts, Martina, Colita, Sanjusan, etc. haven’t skipped a beat.
In fact, del Prado’s partnership with the Rand Tower Hotel includes new projects in which Luedtke is integral. Bar Rufus, in the lobby, features her high style with classic cocktails and a leading-edge martini. Upstairs on the fifth floor, Blondette and bar Miaou Miaou will debut with a clearly femme finesse. Luedtke plans a menu of visually stunning cocktails in both petite and large formats for Miaou Miaou. “We want to keep things fresh, but also fun,” she says. “What’s the point of innovating if you’re not making things that people will love? Push the envelope, but bring everyone along for the ride.”
That’s an award-winning sentiment, if you ask me.
October 13, 2022