In Conversation with Jessi Pollak

What makes a great bartender? Speed and precision with ice and a shaker; an encyclopedic knowledge of the classics; enough creativity to contribute a recipe or two to the canon; and, most importantly, somebody who’s fun to talk to—or at least somebody who can give a plausible enough impression that they’re actually listening.

When I meet Jessi Pollak, she’s behind the bar at Gavin Kaysen’s North Loop restaurant Spoon and Stable. Her full suite of skills is obvious halfway through my first Suffering Bastard, which, she charmingly explains, is her take on a drink invented by an Italian Jewish bartender working at Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo that was popular with hungover British soldiers during WWII (she uses gin instead of bourbon, then dashes in sherry and a house-made ginger syrup).

Pollak’s reputation in the industry precedes her: Last summer, she was crowned the best bartender in America at a prestigious competition put on by the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild known as the World Class. After winning the big one, she competed to be the best bartender in the world in Sydney. Some of the best bartenders here at home have told me that we’re lucky to have her representing Minneapolis’s cocktail culture, leading the way for an underrepresented demo in her city. She’s in her early 30s, and while it’s taken her seven years to rise to the top of her profession, she got her start only after leaving a career in academia.

“I didn’t even go to bars that much in college,” she says, after we make it to our table in the bar at Mara—Kaysen’s restaurant in the Four Seasons, a couple blocks from Spoon. “I would order amaretto sours at the VFW, with sour from the gun,” she says with a smile. “That was my go-to.”

Pollak grew up outside of Orlando before her parents moved to Cambridge when she was 13 to be close to her father’s job at an industrial manufacturing company in White Bear Lake. She says she was miserable at first, missing both the weather and her friends down in Florida. “It was a rough transition,” she says. “That’s an age when you’re just starting to find yourself and figure out who you want to be.”

Sitting in our booth at Mara, she looks comfortable in her own skin, wearing a blonde buzz cut and a well-tailored black blazer, the color she’s preferred since she was a young goth skipping high school classes to read Anne Rice. She eventually earned a GED before graduating with a fine arts degree from the University of Minnesota.

A self-professed nerd, she takes her bartending career as seriously as she took her academic one. Her preparation for the competition was so rigorous that she says she practiced with capped bottles “until, even if I went completely brain-dead from nerves, my body would just do the thing.” Not that she wants pouring cocktails to seem hard—the point is to make it look easy.

“I’m trying to be intentional about my audience at Spoon and Stable,” she says. “I’m making sure that it’s a menu that’s fun and delicious, but approachable enough that no one’s going to be afraid to order a drink because they have no idea what’s in it or how to say it.”

How did you get into bartending?

After I graduated, I worked at the U for the Department of Spanish and Portuguese Studies as an administrator for three years. It was a good job on paper: state university, paid well, and I had benefits and a private office. But I knew I wanted to leave academia, so I saved up some money and quit with the idea that I can live without a job for six months, figure my life out. The first of hopefully not too many life crises.

You quit with a plan though. Very responsible.

You can’t take too much of the nerd out! But I saw a Craigslist ad for a bartender at the Du Nord cocktail room. Cool value set, Black-owned distillery—it’s a fantastic place. And they had an ad out saying no experience required, so I just applied. I thought, This will be fun; I’ll make some money; I’ll learn a cool skill. Bartenders are cool—I’ll be cool for the summer, and then I’ll go back to real life.

How long did you work there before Spoon and Stable?

I was there for a year. I left there, and I worked at a couple different bars—Rabbit Hole, Eat Street Social—for a year and a half before moving on to Spoon and Stable.

“She practiced with capped bottles ‘until, even if I went completely brain-dead from nerves, my body would just do the thing.’”

There’s this French kitchen brigade vibe behind the bar at Spoon.

It felt like a different kind of bar in ways that I instantly connected with. For one thing, it’s not a drinking bar—the staff aren’t drinking there. I worked at some bars where the staff are drinking a lot, and it didn’t appeal to me. Or honestly, it did appeal to me, but I knew it wasn’t sustainable.

I remember in Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain wrote about how his restaurant was like a pirate ship of mayhem. And then he visited Éric Ripert’s Le Bernardin, and it also had an intense energy, but it was clean, quiet, and efficient.

Spoon felt like going from a house party to a cocktail party, and that was fun in a more mature way.

You do seem to have ascended pretty rapidly into the Minneapolis cocktail elite.

I’ve been thinking about that lately—like, Oh, was it quick, or was it not? There just wasn’t a spotlight on me before, which is something I think a lot of chefs and bar professionals experience, where suddenly you’re the “it” kid. It’s great; I’m thrilled to be in that position now. But I’ve been working.

You put in a graduate level of work before completing your World Class dissertation.

That’s a good way to put it. Speak academia to me. Yes.

Why did you decide to enter the big one?

Even before I started working for Gavin [Kaysen], I realized that in many ways, Minneapolis is not connected to the rest of the beverage or culinary industry. If I wanted to be really successful, I needed to network outside of the city.

Why is that?

Just the fact that we’re not a destination exactly. We don’t have beaches to lure people here to enjoy our great food and cocktails. You have to come here with some intention. We got some flyover country vibes, and I think that’s all right.

What was your first big competition?

I did one where I met Nathaniel Smith, who used to be a bartender at Spoon and Stable. We competed against each other—he won. He reached out to me once Spoon had an opening and said, “You should interview.” Once I got to Spoon, I started upping my game, doing more competitions. There’s something called BAR 5, the highest level of spirits knowledge certification that you can get in the U.S. It’s a five-day class in New York City with a brutal test on the last day. Bartending skills, but also knowledge, history, and blind-tasting spirits in the same way that sommeliers taste wine. We tasted hundreds of spirits.

So, your academic background served you well—you knew how to study.

I love a good flashcard. I got teased at BAR 5 because I had this massive three-inch-tall stack of flashcards that I kept with me at all times. They were my security blanket.

How long has making cocktails been a form of self-expression?

Since basically day one. I come from an art background—making things feels natural to me. I also really like the consumable aspect of cocktails. I always had a lot of weird environmental guilt with making art because you make this thing that just sits in the world. And so, cocktails: You can make this beautiful thing that you put a lot of time into, and then it’s a shooting star; it’s gone, and that feels great to me.

When did you enter World Class?

It’s like all the fanciest, best bartenders, and so it felt very unattainable. But in 2019, I volunteered to barback for a day at one of the regional competitions. I had the opportunity to meet some of the competitors and watch what they do, and I was like, I could do that. They’re not doing anything that I haven’t done.

The application for the World Class competition is pretty advanced, right?

They do it differently each year. And that was part of what drew me to that competition, was because it wasn’t just entering one cocktail. This year’s application was creating an intentional menu that somehow ties to your location.

Light work for you.

I took an academic approach. I did cocktails that used different produce created by the University of Minnesota. So, Honeycrisp apples, varietals of strawberries or corn that were developed at the U of M, incorporated into all my drinks.

You had to compete against actual bartenders at some point, right?

Regionals were in Chicago. An in-person competition with two days of challenges. The other two people who ended up being the top three were actually both friends of mine, Sarah Syman and Jarmel Doss, both fantastic bartenders. It was mostly men, and there were only three women in that round, and we all went straight to nationals.

Is that unusual?

When women do bartending competitions, they’re very, very successful, but fewer women do them than men. So, not as many women apply for these competitions, but when they do, they head straight to the top.

What are the cultural barriers?

I think it partially has to do with the fact that men are raised their whole lives to believe they can do everything. We see men apply for jobs that they’re not qualified for. Women don’t. And there isn’t as much mentorship for women in the industry. So, they’re not even told, like, “Hey, there’s a competition; you should do it,” in the same way that men in the industry are.

They cut from 100 to 50, and then eventually, you went to Nashville to compete against the top 15 bartenders in the country.

There’s lots of types of bartending competitions: Some are about making a great drink, some test your speed, some are about storytelling. World Class basically takes all of them and puts them together.

Did you guys go out drinking in Nashville at all?

The night before the competition started, they took us out to dinner and put the competitors and the judges and everybody on a party bus.

To go out on the strip?

Yeah. But it was the saddest party bus you’ve ever seen in your life. We were getting booed by bachelorettes on the street because it’s just a bunch of terrified bartenders sitting there. These are the nerds, right? We’re just like, “Hey, guys, all I want to do is go back to the hotel and look at my flashcards; I’m not trying to be on a party bus right now.” And then after dinner, they gave us the option of, like, “Do you guys want to go out more?” No! I want to go cry in the shower.

Does the pressure come from knowing what winning it all could do for your career?

It just puts you on the map.

How did you find out that you won?

At an after-party after the competition. I got to celebrate with my husband and the other competitors. Those two women from Chicago, they lost their absolute minds. We were screaming and hugging, and it was good vibes all around.

From there you go to Sydney, and, I mean, the cocktail was invented in America, so how did you lose?

Well, I lost to a Norwegian. And I mean, we’re doing some cool shit here, but honestly, they chose Sydney specifically because many of the world’s top 50 bars are in Sydney. Sydney has a wild cocktail scene.

Does Minneapolis’s cocktail scene have a style?

As far as the cocktail scene goes, I think it might be changing too fast to know. When I first started bartending, which was not that long ago—we’re talking seven years ago—there weren’t really women running programs in this town. It was a male-dominated town as far as bar scenes go, and that’s not the case anymore.


Three things about Jessi Pollak

  1. She shaved her head after her World Class win. “I was riding the high, feeling invincible, and I was like, ‘You know what? Let’s see if there’s any moles back there!’”
  2. She lives with her husband, Isaac, in St. Paul. They were married seven years ago in a small ceremony at the Hennepin County Government Center.
  3. She loves true crime podcasts and books. “I feel like I went from Anne Rice to Ann Rule.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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