For the first time in a long time, I’m writing from what used to me my captain’s chair: NYC, the Starbucks at Delancey and Allen, seat by the window. I’m in the city for a couple days while on break, and let me tell you it is good to be back. Last night I finally got to hang out with my old roommates at Laura’s new restaurant – Ellabess in Nolita – a very cool place. I ordered “The Capri”, a house cocktail made with vodka, muddled peach and cucumber, St. Germaine, and sparkling wine. It was a total powerhouse… really awesome. Drinking it took me back to my own days behind the bar, specifically to lessons learned from one of my favorite regulars.
This guy’s name was Alan. Now as a bartender, as I’m sure is the case with a lot of service jobs, you encounter a ton of personalities. Over time, and especially with alcohol, it gets to be pretty obvious which ones float to the top and which ones don’t. Alan didn’t just float – he was like a styrofoam ball. For all intents and purposes, picture country music legend Kenny Rogers (menwholooklikekennyrogers.com). Too Santa Clause-y to be cool? You’d be surprised. When Alan sat down at the bar, owned it.
Eventually I got to wonder what the secret was. There had to be something tangible about his approach, something I could grab onto and learn from. Eventually, I found it: it was in the way he ordered. No matter what, Alan only had two different orders. The first was classic: “You know what I want.” What he wanted, of course, was Belvedere up, dry, with olives – the good olives, the ones from the back kitchen. Annoying, yes, but what could you do? It was Alan.
The second order was just as simple: “Make that two.” This one would always follow asking whatever beautiful woman sitting next to him what she was wanted to drink. And for as demanding as Alan was with his own Belvedere-up, he became just as flexible with this order. Cosmos, appletinis, it didn’t matter. “Make that two.”
I could never decide whether Alan liked the drinks I made him – the Belvedere included – or whether he just choked them down for the image. What I came to realize, though, was that it probably didn’t matter. He had figured out that the particular cocktail – the exact flavors that graced his tongue – weren’t all that important. Much more so was the environment he created and the experiences he could cultivate from it. Pretty deep stuff, and not all that intuitive. What does that mean about personal preference? How much do we sacrifice in experience by getting our way? What do we miss by refusing to take a chance?
On my last night behind the bar I talked to Alan about it. I explained my observations (everything but the Kenny Rogers thing) and revealed my ultimate conclusion. “My question, though,” I eventually asked, “is do you even know you’re doing it? Or do you really just not care?” True to form, the response was classic: “What do you think I’m dumb?” He said he’d gone through almost his entire life on the outside, and “figured it out” only when he was about forty. “Trust me, if you get this now, you’re ahead of the curve.”
I wouldn’t say I totally get it now. I’m still selfish, I’m still cautious, I’m still a little too concerned about my tongue and less about, I don’t know, everything else. Last night, though, was different. Last night I ordered the Capri only because Laura suggested it. As I sipped, I felt myself become the styrofoam ball. The fact that it was one of the best cocktails I’ve ever had was a happy coincidence.