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This was an online interview with Kyle Branche, conducted in August 2009 by Kellie Nicholson, former General Manager of the famous Hollywood Billiards, owner of BarBizz.com, and teacher of the bar at many community colleges here in Los Angeles, California.
Kellie – As an expert mixologist, how do you feel about the changing trends of popular liquors? Kyle – I think today, bartenders/mixologists have more to work with than any other time in bar history. This trend challenges bartenders to increase their knowledge and experience with the products/brands, and creating ideas for new drinks stemming from this wider range and variety of spirits/liquors. Things are progressing behind the bar more naturally now, as it’s perceived with a new value. It also helps that now more than anytime in the last 20 years, the customers appreciate and prefer the bartender to go about his/her job and position in a professional way. They’ve also been made aware of the practice of mixology in the field over the last few years, through articles in popular magazines, television and so forth, so this potential creates an increased expectation at the bar, therefore raising the standard. I first started creating my own signature cocktails 20 years ago, when there was less products available as compared to now. In fact, less mixers and juices were available or used as well. I was working with my executive chef even back then, as far as what was available from his distributor that I could use at the bar. So, at that time I was probably one of the first bartenders in LA, 1989, to bring in these cool 10 oz. bottles of guava, papaya, passionfruit, apple, and grape juices behind the bar for potential cocktail mixability purposes. I also used lemonade. I was lucky at the time in this brand new nightclub I was bartending in, where the manager let me experiment and do tastings when most management in the industry weren’t as acceptable of it, as a regular practice. But as long as I let the manager know the total costs of everything I was using, of which I did completely, he was cool with it. The length of my experimentation led to creating a substantial cocktail menu of specialty drinks, which included many of my signature drinks for the house. What I helped in starting up within the industry back then, they call "cocktail or beverage programs" today, but it's essentially the same thing, though much more in demand now. There are many great bartenders out there currently working in various places across the country, concocting some great recipes with new-thought ingredients including herbs from the kitchen, tinctures, syrups, infusions, and the availability of an expanded variety of bitters, just to mention a few. The popularity of the field now and in the last 10 years encourages more bartenders to be professional about things. And have fun at it ! When we look at the bar as a laboratory, or a liquid kitchen, we're allowing ourselves to be as deeply involved and creative as we want.
Kellie – I've been told that you have met and mingled with many celebrities in your bartending career. Do you have any interesting stories? Kyle – Yes, I have plenty, but too many to mention here. Working in LA and Hollywood, that's a pretty natural, normal occurence anyway. But it also has a bit to do with where and how you work. With me, I canvas quite a bit of territory working freelance, so it happens more. One of the places where it happens most is at The Gardenia cabaret supper club, where I've been working on-call for 21 years now. You get old and new Hollywood celebrity in the club, and everything in between. It all depends on the performer and who they know and network with as friends and business associates. It also stems from the owner of the club, Tom Rolla, who had a long stage career on Broadway in New York, as a Tony award-winning dancer and choreographer. I mean, how many people get to talk to Lauren Bacall on the phone at home and call her "Betty" ? Or when at the end of the show, Mel Brooks comes up to the edge of the bar, pays his bill, and hangs out and chats with us for a couple minutes ? One night he was in, he got up and did a short comedy routine and ended it with singing "High Anxiety". Cabaret clubs are small in nature, but certainly pack a punch with the variety of talent that surrounds it, the entire entertainment industry in television, film, and stage from top to bottom. Over my length of tenure at the club, there's probably a hundred little stories just here alone. The phone conversation I had at the club with Raquel Welch one night was quite an exciting occurence for me as well. And at The Gardenia, we use the biggest martini glasses in Hollywood, if not all of LA. In fact, right behind and over a little walk from The Gardenia is the famous Record Plant recording studios. One afternoon I was asked to come in early, hours before the front door was open for the night, as Tom had let Slash of Gun's n' Roses and his recording engineer in the back door so they could take a break and hang out at the bar for drinks and conversation. Slash was in the middle of laying down lead tracks for the Use Your Illusion albums. Don’t get me started ! I've kept a listing for years now of all the celebrities I've had the pleasure of serving and talking with in the various venues and private parties where I've worked, and it's on a link titled "Bartender to the Stars" on my website – KylesCocktailHotel.com .There's hundreds listed, including actors, sports celebrities, musicians, writers, producers and politicians, in no particular order except for when they happened. Even I have to admit, it's a pretty impressive list. It's all part of the spirit and makeup of the city though, and what happens here. I've been lucky, but a little hustle doesn't hurt either, and from that I have a good reputation, working 150-170 gigs a year. I’m a bit of an outrider these days, but it’s good to be off the main grid, and still go back in when I’m called. In fact, recently I bartended a private party back at the house at 512 N Palm Drive, just off of Sunset in Beverly Hills, that in the late 20’s and early 30’s used to be owned and lived in by “the original platinum blonde”, Jean Harlow. I work the original bar in the house, that has been kept in excellent condition since then. Imagine back in the day, the potential legends that made drinks behind that home bar, when just one of her best friends was Clark Gable. Across the street lived the owner of the famous dog, Rin Tin Tin, and just two doors down at 508 in the mid-50’s lived
Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio after they got married. I was hoping for an otherworldly visitation or two but, maybe next time ! Somewhere down the line, after other projects are completed, I'll probably write a book that covers all my experiences and stories, as LA's #1 Private Bartender. There’s a lot to cover so, it’ll take a long time to sit with that one. Yet, many people in this town fail to keep in mind something from the past, that if it wasn’t for William Mulholland’s Owens Valley Water Project in the early 1900’s, bringing water from 250 miles away, Los Angeles wouldn’t be what it is today. It also faced difficult and disastrous consequences in getting there over it’s 7-year construction. At that time, LA was only half the size of San Francisco. It needed water from other sources to grow, and it still does to sustain it. Read a book called “Cadillac Desert” by Marc Reisner when you can.
Kellie – Your celebrity stories must be very interesting. Hurry and write the book! Speaking of interesting............ Has bartending led you to any exotic locations? Kyle – I don’t know about exotic, but a year and a half ago I was asked to go on an all-expenses paid journalist/mixologist press trip to Cognac, France for a week to visit many cognac brands, the cooperage, and an alembic pot still manufacturer. There’s a whole story I wrote on that though, so I won’t get into it here. It was a great experience, and increased my knowledge of this time-honored spirit much more. I’m hoping to go on more spirits press trips in the future. I haven't worked on any islands, though I was close, but you pretty much have to move to an island if you want to do something like that. I remember almost 20 years ago checking in on being a bartender for a Club Med location, as well as what it took to work as a bartender on a cruise ship. It didn't pan out, probably for the best. Then there’s “The World” Luxury Residential Cruise Line to basically be a live-on bartender. That would be an interesting experience. Some years ago I checked in on working as a bartender on a luxury rail car called the American Orient Express based out of Oregon. They have trains going all over to great locations. They have an actual bar car, and I would be on the trains for weeks at a time. Sounds cool at first, but may feel a bit confining after awhile. I still would have went for it, but there's either very little staff turnover or they prefer hiring people closer to the home base, or you need a connection in, because with my resume and experience, it strangely didn't seem to matter. Hmmm, that's a thought. Maybe I'll eventually move up there, if I don't get to New Mexico first to work on a less busy life. I just can't see staying in LA all the way to the end. Kellie – That's fascinating! For some reason guests tend to confide in their bartender almost as they would a best friend or a therapist. What's the most bizarre secret a customer ever shared with you?
Kyle – Nothing secretively bizarre to mention. Then again, we live in such a bizarre world, there isn’t much of anything that shocks me anymore, that I haven’t already heard before. There’s so much, where do you start ? This type of communication happens more in slower bars where one has time to get to know somebody a little bit. You can also risk the problem of getting to know a patron too much after awhile, and then where do you hide ? In my experience, there’s a lot of stuff you can end up overhearing just by being in the right place at the right time behind the bar. You can also tune it in and tune it out whenever you want. It kind of doubles as a fly-on-the-wall position. The more bar experience you have with a variety of crowds and age groups, the quicker you can get a read on a wider range of people. After close to three decades behind the bar, you also witness the shifts of consciousness with different generations of people. It isn’t reading their minds, it’s reading their energies or current state of mind. You want to adapt to where they are. And after a couple cocktails, they’ll usually shift that state of mind or attitude. I like to become the environment I’m working in, like a shapeshifter, floating and hovering. The tiger tame in his cage. Perfect presence, slightly distant, touch-and-go, and light on my feet. The job of the bartender is the going through of a million temporary moments in time. It is true though, that the psychology aspects of the bartender position is alive and active. To be a good therapist is to be an excellent, caring and patient listener. This is something I’ve learned to be very good at over the years, and I’ve talked in depth with many guests on many subjects, and learned a great deal from people of all walks of life. Especially in a city like Los Angeles. In turn, they may learn something from me, and what I see, know, and understand to be. It’s a good sharing of thoughts for nice conversation. And if it helps anyone through some troubled times, stemming from difficult situations, that’s always a bonus. I can be the Buddhist Bartender when I need to be . . . . . On a bizarre off note, an excellent waiter and good friend I used to work with who now lives back up in Washington where he’s from, used to take me with him to visit cemeteries at night here in town. He was a lover of the dead. We went to Forest Lawn, the Westwood cemetery, and the old Paramount cemetery, which was the creepiest of them all at midnight. We always went at the witching hour to get the fullest effect. He knew where all the Hollywood legends were buried or mausoleumed. Too many names to mention here, but getting over or under the entrance gate was always the first step, into their world.
Kellie – How do you like the job and the profession ? We all see bartending as a fun job, but what are the greatest challenges in keeping it fun night after night and year after year? Kyle – I like the job. I enjoy bartending. It fits well with my nighthawk hours, and I love having the daylight hours off for the most part. I don’t have to work 40-hour weeks, that’s a blessing in itself. In this profession, you get to meet and talk with many people. It’s an underestimated
education. I’ve learned a great deal along the way. I know how to do my job very well, which helps it not feel like a job at all. I need a type of work like this where I'm on my feet and moving. The challenges in keeping it fun over a long period of time are probably different for every bartender. For me, it’s cocktail exploration and drink creating, as it helps keep the work behind the bar fresh with always something new to learn and play with. The other side of this question to answer, again speaking for myself, is to not stay working full-time in the same bar for 12 years. I have to move on or it becomes too much of a couch. In big cities it’s best to work in a variety of venues anyway, so you can expand your knowledge, experiences, and networking capabilities. There are positive benefits to moving around a little bit, if you can. The way that I work now, I don’t have to worry about that anymore, as freelance keeps it fun and new. It used to be every 4 years and it was time to go. Half of that battle though, had to do with getting away from the level of management turnover we had here in LA in the mid-late 80’s, most or all of the 90’s, and probably still now to some degree. I may be a little jaded here, but we had to deal with the problems of the time if we wanted to stick with it, when no one was coming to the rescue. LA is the soup of good and bad all poured into one steaming bowl, qualified or not. It can also be dangerous with criminal behavior, corruption, and the occasional bullet flying in a club. It’s best to steer clear of potentially hazardous venues. In a comment on his imdb page, Val Kilmer said “I feel safer in Johannesburg than in Los Angeles. If I have business to tend to in LA, I do it all in a 24-hour period, and then I’m gone”. In many ways, this is still the Wild West. Some individuals that are attracted to open a bar are arrogant, ego-driven types with a lot of money who don’t know much about the business and it’s operations in order for it to survive. They just want to look cool, spend a lot on the decor, receive compliments on their venue, and have girls sit in their booths. Imagine the management types these owners end up hiring and firing. And if they're still into nosing up the 80's drug, cocaine, that just makes things worse. Things didn’t get done, product didn’t get ordered, and someone is screwing with the shift schedule. This is what the staff had to deal with often. Gets really old after awhile. These problems and subsequent short stays were usually not the fault of the tipped floor staff. Most people always want to do a good job at their workplace. It's Hollywood baby, welcome to Los Angeles . . . . . Thankfully, in the last 5 years there's been a new breed of bartenders and bar owners opening up a selection of great new classic-styled bars in town, 10-15 of them, that take the business of the bar profession and the art of cocktailing seriously. A good haven for bartenders today to relax and get comfortable with their craft and service at the workplace, without bothersome thoughts on their minds.
Kellie – Well, I know what you are talking about, because I had the same experiences in the 80s. Some things have improved, but some still have not. What do you think of the change in tipping customs? It seems that the honor system no longer works, so the solution looks like a mandatory service charge. How would you feel about that ?
Kyle – Right when you think we should be at a standard 20-25% average gratuity for a tipping custom now, it seems to have stayed at an early 90’s level of 15-20 %, even with all of the ways the bars of today and bartenders have expanded with mixology and professionalism. Tipping swings low to high by nature, which is why when we count our tips at the end of the shift, we’re hoping for a good average percentage, so we can more easily forgive the ones that didn’t tip at all, and call it a night. But it’s a little different everywhere you go. Is the clientel of the bar high end, middle class, professional, or a combination of everybody ? What you get is where you work. After a couple of drinks though, people start loosening up their grace bank accounts. You get them to like you and appreciate the service you’re performing. The rest is up to them. We have little or no control after that point. A mandatory service charge helps in stabilizing a gratuity average, than you just have to hope for a weekly consistency of busy nights. What you don’t want to happen, is for the implementation of it to bother or sour the great tipping customers and regulars who tip good. You don’t want to end up getting less from them, so there has to be a way to keep it subtle on the radar. Having the charge optional to the bartender’s discretion is probably the best way to manage it, if allowed. Sales vs. Service. What are we, anyway ? The industry looks at our jobs as service positions. The IRS looks at our jobs as sales positions. This is like two wildcats looking out for their own food supply while we get caught in the middle with the leftover scraps, and we’re doing all the work ! As a service position, the industry doesn’t want any of our gratuities, cash or credit, to be taxed from our end-of-shift receipts, for they know what we’re missing and what we need. The unfairness is understood. Yet they still have no problem perceiving the positions as worthy of only the minimum hourly wage required by state law, regardless of the incredible stresses of physical and mental pace we go through to make the establishment money. This is why insuring bartenders is at the same risk level as insuring jackhammer operators, all the while the bi-weekly paychecks received are basically, financially raped. And heaven help you if you end up working in a fine dining establishment where the far majority of payment is by credit card where the customer doesn’t possess the concern or foresight to cash-tip you. As a sales position set forth in a justifyingly convenient manner by the IRS for their benefit, they are the attackers. Hypothetically, let’s say the IRS is right, for the moment. If we are to perceive our work as sales positions, than should we not be receiving a commission/service charge on each and all of our sales, plus the gratuities and the hourly, from the establishment that we basically “Rep” for with the products and brands they supply us to sell ? The positional terminology that both the industry and IRS use for our work and the jobs that we perform is definetly by design to benefit them only. We get taken at both ends with nothing left in the middle. Imagine if the IRS didn’t hijack the credit card sales with an 8 % tax on gratuities ? Those extra monies could be used to pay for our own individual medical and dental insurance premiums, outside of establishments. Having this kind of program made available would lead all currently without, to feel more secure within our profession and take the work with even more appreciation and good effort. If we’re going to respect our positions as legitimate professions in F & B much in the same
way that Europeans do theirs, this is the least the industry can help out with. The staff doesn’t want to burden anybody or any of the establishments they work in. The industry would be better off as so would all the staff. Like a pressure lifted away. A healthy move in itself. Imagine the renewed energies and vitality to the work environments. Tell me that’s not going to increase revenues with more customer frequency, with that subtle negative undercurrent disappearing !
Kellie – Well said! I don't know a bartender who wouldn't agree with you. Speaking of health insurance and benefits, do you think it's fair for bar and restaurant employers to expect their staff to be professionals, but guarantee no benefits or security? Kyle – I think it’s fair to expect of an employer, but what really happens is more of a mixed bag. Some who do, and some who don’t. Any bar and restaurant employee should come to work and do the best job they can in a professional way, regardless of what is or what isn’t happening around them. Always do your best, because you’re doing it for yourself too. It’s a good reflection on the strength of one’s character. And you never know who else is watching. Think forward. It’s hard for an employer to afford or guarantee that type of benefit or security. If it’s too expensive for us as individuals, it has to be very expensive for an employer to cover everyone on staff, even at a multiple discount. For the most part, it’s not a get rich quick business. Many go out or sell out of business, so if they’re unsure about the future survival of their own business, or are only in it for the short term, then they won’t justify spending the money for that sort of thing. What we need is an independent association created, a health insurance hub, covering all bar and restaurant employees, with a monthly or quarterly pay-in program that operates outside of individual businesses, so if the employee ends up going to another place of employment, the insurance travels with them. With millions of workers in the industry currently without, you would think that would be enough potential monies coming into the hub to at least warrant serious research and investigation into the possibilities of actually making this happen. We deserve it.
Kellie – We all know how easy it is to give away free cocktails for a better tip. Do you think the bad economy will encourage this unscrupulous practice? if bar owners don't enforce some type of service charge, can the bartenders be blamed? Kyle – I don’t think so. I hope it doesn’t, anyway. It’s not a good practice to fall into something like that. The next thing you know, it becomes a habit, and the next thing is you’re soon getting caught. Then you’re out of that job. Yet, there are people who thieve and people who don’t. How do you filter that out in an interview ? This type of unnecessary theft is nothing more than a reaction to what all of us working in this industry know the problem to be. It’s one of many direct reflections of an issue that is in need of address for a better solution.
The service charge would certainly lift stresses in some areas of security, and you would hope that would also curve the bad habits of some at the same time. It should also be designed as a flexible service charge to some degree, if possible. You don’t want it so rigid that it also causes unforeseen problems that you can’t undo and repair. The industry needs to institute some new practices that help out in these exact ways. There’s a new sense of professionalism being practiced in the industry in the last five years or more, and that should eventually be met with the things that bar and restaurant employees need the most, to continue to enjoy their work in the field, but in a more secure and financially fair way.
Kellie – You certainly are fair in your assessments of the state of the industry. Many can't see both sides of the coin, but your view is probably wider because you work on both sides. What other bartending jobs have you had up till now ? Kyle – So many different and interesting venues and themes, whether it be full-time, part-time, on-call, seasonal or temporary, it’s impossible to count or remember anymore. I worked a few places at the same time too. Forget about putting it all on a resume, and mentioning just a couple wouldn’t be fair. Before I went freelance, my last full-time bar job was at the famous Lakeside Golf Club in Toluca Lake. Speaking on individual gigs though, I’ve worked at the Santa Monica Airport Hangar, Saddlerock Winery, Peterson Automotive Museum, The Science Center at Exposition Park, Capitol Records, the Culver Studios, The Biltmore and the L.A. Times building downtown, the LA Equestrian Center, the annual Giant Village New Years Eve party on the open streets downtown, the largest over 21 NYE party in the country, and in 2008 I was asked to bartend up in the private quarters of the Reagan Library in Simi Valley on the night when they had the Republican National Debate there. It was a long day, as I was there early to cover both lunch and the dinner after the debate. Three weeks beforehand, we had to be cleared by the Secret Service. After receiving our security clearance badges, they shuttled all of us up to the library from the park across Olsen Road.
Kellie – How did you go about getting involved in the culinary field, and bartending ? Kyle – My first job in food and beverage was working at a pizza parlor for two years in my hometown when I was 16 and 17. One of my jobs there was to change the kegs in the cooler, so I learned both American and European tappings early on. Then I left and worked in music stores. Later on after I moved to Phoenix, I worked as a lot jockey at a big car dealership, a manager of a large computer warehouse, then as a travelling rack jobber back in the music business for a few years. I would also work part-time as a barback on the weekends at a busy bar nearby where I lived. But I had to get off the road, too much driving every other week for four days with a company van full of music – albums and cassettes. 8-Tracks had just died off a few years earlier. Didn’t
want to catch myself falling asleep at the wheel. I did however, during that time, win a couple artistic end-cap sales display awards from Journey and Willie Nelson, back when they were both on Columbia Records. I also had the best rock n’ roll posters on the planet! And eventually, so did many of the students at ASU in Tempe, for their dorm rooms !! But my energy is that which needed a more moving on-my-feet type of job, otherwise I get bored to easily. Bartending came in as a direction to go at the time, and it also helped get me out of my slightly introverted personality. A brand new hotel was under construction on Camelback Road, and I wanted to work in it as a regular job. I crash-coursed a bartending school in one week, and went to apply there. The lady in Human Resources liked me, and was able to put me in a barback position in the main bar. After a while there they let me do poolside and banquet bartending, and inventory the liquor cage. I looked really young at the time, but I was very determined so, practice was on. Later on that year, I had a chance to transfer to California and work at a Black Angus restaurant in Burbank, as at that time the Marriot Corporation owned the Angus chain and Embassy Suites Hotel. I also ended up with a second job at Castaways up in the foothills. My father worked for Lockheed in Burbank at the time, so I had a place to stay and started building up more bar-shift experience from there.
Kellie – What are your favorite or preferred bar venues to work in ? Kyle – I’m pretty much adaptable to just about anything, but I prefer to work freelance all over town, wherever I’m called upon. I already know the fee or what I’m making going in, as far as pay. And that’s every gig. No more working two busy nights and two slow nights in bars, hotels, or restaurants. No more insecurity of mystery money. And I certainly don’t need the politics of any regular working environment anymore. I work less and get paid better. Each gig feels new and fresh, and a challenge to pull off from start to finish. I don’t care to work really large parties or events that much anymore. I’ll do it and fill out my work calendar if necessary, but I try to avoid them when I can. I’ve worked many bars, hotels, and restaurants etc, and have bar managed about a half a dozen venues along the way, but I prefer to work small private parties today, of 50-100 guests. I also have a listing of bartender friends that I know and have worked with many times before, that I can call and put them on bar gigs on dates that I’m already booked. All of us network with each other on gigs that come up, and I’ve grown a good reputation and clientel over the years. Just recently I got called seven times for one particular date. I wish I could physically bi-locate with bar gigs. That would be fun, and more lucrative !
Kellie – Tell me about your private parties. Kyle – I’ve worked well over 1,200 private parties and events. Hard to encapsule in a couple short paragraphs. Imagine it, and I’ve probably done it. There’s all kinds of reasons for a party in a big city. And it’s enough that I can work in this way only. With that, I’m very thankful. Not too many bartenders in the business end up having the wide range of experiences that I do. In the way I work now, I go to the people, they don’t come to me. With my years of experience and knowledge, I’m a good person to be out there in the field educating and imparting information of spirits and cocktails to all the people I meet at parties; the guests, the general public. That’s an underestimated and undervalued service for the industry. Educating the masses on what’s current and popular in the beverage world.
Kellie – Have you bartended any brand-sponsored events ? Kyle – Many. Several of them happened when I was working at the famous Hollywood Palladium on Sunset, but many others elsewhere in the field at private, corporate, brand, or movie industry events. I’m also currently a bartender for Patron Tequila at several of their events here in LA. They also can come in through caterers, PR firms, beverage services, and other sources.
Kellie – What’s the most shifts/gigs you’ve worked in a row without a day off ? Kyle – I remember back in the late 90’s working 29 in a row, that totaled out to be 39 in 45 days. Just one of those times where they all lined up perfectly, working in 4 or 5 different venues. It was quite an exhaustive stretch, but I made it through.
Kellie – What does your current bar kit consist of ? Kyle – I probably have the largest bar kit in LA. Too many items to detail, but it rocks. It also includes a custom portable bar whenever I or the client needs. I’ve built it up over a long time so I don’t have to rely on anyone but myself for what I need, to do the best job I possibly can for the host/client. I’m hard to beat out there. But I’ve worked hard, been in the trenches long, and I’ve earned it. I also have a 3-page word doc of a complete bar/beverage listing that I email to any clients I work for or through. This helps them tremendously and puts them at ease, so when they go to the store their not feeling like they’re forgetting something. The benefit to me when I arrive is, I know what’s going to be there for me to pour. And once in a while, I’ll bring some new brand products on my own to introduce them to, that I like. They appreciate the extra mile.
Kellie – Is there certain music you like to hear in the background that gets the motor running in high gear for a busy night behind the bar ? Kyle – Music plays an important role in these types of environments. You want to play music to fit the room and it’s collective energy at the time, and have it a volume level that matches what the role of the music is supposed to play in the bar venue. I like rockin’ music that brings a good beat behind the bar. It helps create a rhythm and flow to the work I’m doing, which is making drinks for everybody all night long. I’m on my feet and moving during the entire time, doing many things, completing many tasks. I prefer being in a great mood when I’m working, and music helps keep it there. I’ve worked in many venues that have had different styles of music. Jazz, country, rock, R&B, dance, and cabaret. I like them all. I even worked in a singing server restaurant for a few years as the bartender and bar manager. There was so much singing talent on the staff that after a while it started to rub off a little, and I ended up singing songs on stage as well, either by myself, with others, or with the accompanist. It was a very popular and busy place located just down the 101 in Thousand Oaks, with an occupancy rate of about 180. Kellie – Clothing-wise, what do you like and prefer to wear when you’re tending bar ? Kyle – The lighter and softer the clothes, the better. First, I always wear what is required or requested of me; black and black, black and white, casual, bistro, whatever. What is most important to me are the shoes I wear. They have to have support, cushion, shock-absorption, a soft, thick, and quiet rubber soul, and longevity. I also wear 2-3 pairs of socks for a little more cushion. You’re on your feet the whole time, so it helps to keep them in good condition and strong, which also reduces body fatigue over long stretches. I rotate and stagger two or three pairs of shoes sometimes. I get them at Workboot Warehouse. Kellie – Where and how did you receive your bar training ? Kyle – Besides the early stage bartending school to initially get me introduced to being and practicing behind a bar, I basically learned a little from everyone I’ve worked with, including speed and high-volume, where you really need to kick up the pace to high gear and get your full body coordination down. Every move you need to make efficiently. Good body and mind control working together helps a great deal. I’m also self-taught a bit in many areas. I think that just goes along with it all. At that time, there weren’t any specialized/advanced courses available to take like there is today. Kellie – Do you use any special cocktail shakers when making your drinks, or do you stick with using the standard Boston shaker ? Kyle – I use four Bullet Shakers put out by a company called Metrokane from back East, two 16oz and two 28oz.. I think they do the best job at colding the ingredients faster than the rest, with the least dilution, due to their gauge of steel. And they feel good in my hands to shake,
as far as weight and diameter. I also have some antique shakers, and have used a couple in the past, more for show though. They’re bigger in size, do a pretty good job, but they can be a bit awkward to shake over your shoulders. The Boston shaker combination of pint glass and tin cup are fine as well, and is what I started with early on, but I question how cold they get a drink when it goes back and forth from steel to glass. In the end, if the shakers are clean, you have good ice, and you know how to rock it cold, than the drinks will come out fine no matter what you use. Provided you know how to get the top off to strain it after you chill it to a frost ! Pick and choose what you want as a shaker. I prefer shakers where the tops slide/fit in, not outside. There’s plenty of styles available out there. Everybody does their own thing.
Kellie – You use atomizer bottles for your vermouths, why ? Kyle – I started that up at The Gardenia in Hollywood close to 15 years ago now. I prefer to atomize vermouth into the chilled martini glass, as these days far less vermouth is wanted in martinis than way back in the day, as you can tell by the recipes in the old bar books. Today just a little is enough, except for the few who request the original amounts. The palates were different then, wanting more bitter or herbal, as now it’s more dry or with the popularity of the “flavored martini” crowd, sweet is on the palate more. The herbs infused in both dry and sweet vermouths were designed to stimulate the appetite, before dinner, or lunch for that matter. The use of the bottles behind the bar also have a certain quality of flair to them, and customers still comment on them often. Many want them for their own homes, so I tell them where to get them. Or if they want to spend a bit on a special bottle or two, they can go to an antique district, and find a store that stocks the classic perfume bottles with the exterior tube line and pump. They’re very cool, but cost a lot more. I think you can get them in both glass or ceramic.
Kellie – You have specialty signature cocktails of your own, what led you to those creations ? Kyle – Back when I started off learning more of how to put ingredients together. It’s good to have a strong working knowledge of the flavors of everything that are in back of the bar for you to work with. That’s the first step, as it helps keep those flavors in the mind’s library for easy mental access, on the palate. When you start the thought process of creating a signature drink from scratch, many ideas for directions come into play. What’s the initial inspiration ? A flavor, a drink name, a holiday, the weather, something that goes well with the bar theme and concept that you’re working in ? A cold drink, a hot drink, a martini, a blended drink ? Or other things ? This all assists with a starting point to launch and build from. My ideas for drinks are different than another bartender’s, and so on. You just go where it leads you. It’s trial and error, but you get better at with more and more practice while it continues to increase your knowledge of flavors and combinations. This helps you learn more in-depth about
the spirits you’re working with. From the ice to the garnish, it’s a building process from simple to complex. I’ve been called The Chemist by some, and Professor by others. I’m a good lab rat ! It’s fun, but you also want to have a certain degree of proper attention with what you’re doing, because the main goal is always to create some great, popular drinks. I have about 60 signature cocktails I’ve designed over a 20-year period, in 10 different drink categories; martinis, specialty cocktails, hot drinks, cream drinks, layered drinks, rocks drinks, shooters, Long Island variations, after-dinner cordials, champagne cocktails.
Kellie – Have you participated in any cocktail competitions, and if so, how did you fare, and was it fun to compete ? Kyle – 20 years ago, when I first became a member of the USBG, I applied and entered into the competition that year with a drink of mine called “Pink Floyd”. Between that time and the date of the actual competition, I injured my lower leg in a freak accident behind the bar one night. An actual puncture wound of about an inch in depth. I had to be off my feet and leg for 10 days. That cancelled me out as a competitor. From that point, I never entered or tried to compete again. It became superstitious to me. As the years went by I pretty much lost interest altogether. At present, there are cocktail competitions going on all over the country and internationally, sponsored by many brands, aside form USBG-sanctioned competitions. There’s plenty of bartenders involved having fun with that now anyway, so I don’t need to be another one. These days, I prefer creating new innovative ideas with projects and products over the need to compete with anything, so it’s better for me to gallop solo at my own pace, even though it’s also on my own dime. It’s much more satisfying, and gives me the chance to do something with the use of my artistic qualities.
Kellie – You’ve written many published articles for the industry magazines or other publications. How did you get started with that ? Kyle – By accident. I had just finished producing my debut DVD, and I was emailing editors of some of the industry mags to ask if they would do a product review of my new release. Many of them said yes, and I sent the DVD product to them. A short while later, I received an email from Rob Costantino of Sante Magazine, and Meridith May of Patterson’s Beverage Journal (now The Tasting Panel Magazine), asking me if I’d be interested in writing as a contributor. Rob is back East in Vermont, but Meridith is here in town. She had just took over Patterson’s, so we met to talk at the Smokehouse restaurant in Burbank. I ended up writing my own monthly 1-page cocktail column “Liquid Kitchen” for about 4½ years for her and the mag. I still write for Sante as a contributor, going on 8 years now. I’ve also done some sporadic pieces with a few other mags. All in all, it’s led me to being published about 75 times now, which includes a few feature
covers, and the latest online super-feature press trip story “The Sleeping Spirit”. It’s not a thing you get rich from, but you do get paid for your work, and you receive good exposure as well. Kellie – Are you working on any bar projects ? Kyle – Yes, juggling plenty. Working on the Achilles heel – my website! The release of my new bar book, getting my cocktail recipe cards used as a POS tool in the liquor/mixer aisle of major grocery store chains, having an associate work on the transfer of my Cocktail Hotel book as an iPhone app, the new releases of my cocktail calendars for 2010, waiting for sponsorship of the Beverage Road show for online, shooting more drinks for another phase of my cocktail photography series, pitching the series show for Historic Taverns, and having scriptwriters here in Hollywood considering writing the episodes based on a treatment I wrote for a one-hour dramatic television series, titled Life Behind Bars. Last year I developed, designed and drafted a new board game, again, based from my book Cocktail Hotel (aka The Hotel of Naughty Cocktails). I would like to get that developed more and produced in the next couple of years, whenever time permits, as it’ll be a long project. I fund, publish, produce, package, and release my own products. But like anything, it’s all depending on time and monies available, to do so. I no longer seek out agents and publishers. That seemed to be a futile exercise. They look for the most marketable with the potential of good or great sales. They don’t feel that bar books and other bar products have a high enough interest out there to reach certain sales levels. They do publish some, but their range of acceptance is limited down to the few they choose. That’s understandable. I’m just glad I know now. With doing my own thing, I’m pretty much free to create, produce and release whatever and whenever I want, with what I think there is a need for, not only with the bar industry in mind, but more so with the interested general public out there. I take it to the people. That’s where I’ve had the most support from. In the future, I would like to participate in a position with others from the industry in the production of an entire Beverage Network, much like the Food Network. I think it’s time for it. I’ve been talking it up for years now, but it’s also a big engine to get going. Though, one could think that it certainly wouldn’t be lacking any potential brand sponsors. It would be like a field of dreams for them. Whatever it takes. Time will tell. Kellie – Speaking of time, what do you like to do in your off-time ? Kyle – Concerts, ballgames, movies, biking, hoops when possible, travel when I can, do an Indian Sweat Lodge when the timing is right, and I like to drive up to Santa Barbara or Ventura for the day and just hang out, as it’s only an hour up the coast, and takes me out of the city for awhile so I can truly relax. I like to keep my life pretty simple and live low. As my bar gig work takes me to the high lives of others, my projects, writings, and production work can be complex in nature, take a lot of time and thought to develop, and I fund them all. My projects and products are hobbies in one way, and a business venture in another.
Kellie - Where did you grow up as a kid ? Kyle - Before my parents moved us out West to Arizona, I was raised up until the age of 7 on my Grandparent's dairy farm in the Southern part of upstate New York, right off the edge of Lake Ontario in the small historic town of Sackets Harbor, which is near Alexandria Bay, Cape Vincent and the St. Lawrence River, all basically in the Thousand Islands region of the state. About 10 miles away is Watertown, where I was born, and Syracuse is about 75 miles from the water.
Kellie – Any advice for future bartenders ? Kyle – Get involved and have a passion for it, utilize it as a creative and artistic space, practice the art of communication, enjoy busy times, find the right bartending job and environment that fits your desires, and learn as much as you can to get better at it all the time. Be a professional !
Kellie - Last thoughts ? Kyle - I'll never be a winner of the popularity contest in the beverage industry. Only a few really are anyway, so that's just as well. I've been productive in directions a little too outof-the-box for that. With thoughts, ideas, creative efforts and current/future activity in mind, I've always been running alone or ahead instead of staying within the pack. Yet, no one can question everything I've accomplished on my own over the years as far as side works, with potential brand POS support materials, wholesale/retail bar products, and all my published articles and stories in the leading beverage magazines I just wish there was the type of support mechanism in place in the industry for someone like myself and others, with what we do for both the bar/beverage world and consumers. There's nothing really in place at all from an industry hub of sorts. It certainly is needed. The option of working in some capacity with brands or beverage and liquor distribution companies is present, of which I have done a little bit, but would not be the type of position I would have much interest working in on a regular basis. For the most part I prefer to work with brands, not for them. I'm not quite cut out to be a full-time brand representative, spokesperson, beverage director or in-house mixologist. The National Restaurant Association (NRA) is a federally budgeted office. Around since 1919, they represent some 60,000+ restaurant and bar owners and 300,000+ establishments throughout the country. In going to their website (www.restaurant.org) you notice many different education programs and information they have available for member participation, but nothing representing all of the staff that work in them, which are 12+ million. Though we as service workers are not who they represent or what they do, they talk about us in their content, and we serve in important representative positions for them, not to mention the big increase in overall professionalism within the industry in the last 10 years. A spin-off association needs to be created to represent service industry workers. A hub that
could implement progressive opportunities for its more potential members, such as affordable insurance programs for all uninsured industry staff, and an F & B discount card with a minimal annual fee, recognizing service industry workers in all positions. 10% for breakfast, 15% for lunch, and 20% for dinner at all eating and drinking establishments throughout the country, anywhere you go. How about a 401K and retirement benefits ? Some ideas like this that can hugely motivate the valued and tenured workers in the industry with career considerations, giving people the feeling of a more cohesive bond or group of individuals working together as professionals, instead of an endless sense of detachment and insecurity just as a job. The industry takes care of one part of its own, but not the other part. They want us to be professionals. We are. This is what we need.
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