Co-Principal Bartender at Employees Only in NYC
Steve Schneider is the youngest of the five principal bartenders at Employees Only. He loves what he does, but bartending wasn't his first career choice: Steve was a member of the Marine Corps until a training accident nearly killed him. Mr. Schneider recently was awarded title of “Star of the Bar,” at the 2013 NRA Show. Total Food sat down with Steve in this one-on-one interview.
Where’d you grow up? What brought you into this business?
I grew up in Bergen County, NJ. I enlisted in the US Marine Corps after the attacks on September 11. While I was in, I picked up a part time shift in a dive bar in Washington DC. When I was to be deployed overseas, I had an accident on leave that left me unable to continue my career.
I then embraced my new life behind the bar. After winning some speed bar tending competitions, I got recruited to learn under a man named John Hogan (Formerly of Bar Magic, Las Vegas). He taught me proper free pouring techniques and the basics of proper cocktails and infusions, etc. This opened a door for me and when I met Dushan Zaric, Jason Kosmas and Igor Hadzismajlovic from Employees Only, my career went to levels that I never thought possible.
Where did you learn your craft? What sets you apart from your peers?
My many mentors and peers taught me so many lessons about my craft and about life in general and helped me become the man I am today. However, I did put the time in. I never gave up. Every opportunity I had to make myself and my team better at our job, I did it. I always gave it my best shot. I'm no different than anyone. I show up everyday and work hard. I don't believe in limits. Our understanding of teamwork at EO and mentorships make us stand out as a group.
Fresh juices? Do you make your own or purchase them? What about ice, how important is ice to a signature cocktail?
We juice all of our juice fresh. Ice is important, as it's featured in some capacity in about 99 out of 100 cocktails that I make in a given night. (not including spirits served neat or hot drinks). You can get by and make great drinks without an ice program.
Moving forward, a decent ice program makes the guest interested in what you're doing and can provide that “wow” factor.
It can take a drink from good to great. On the other hand, if your drink is unbalanced or doesn't taste good for whatever reason, even the mightiest of craft ice programs can't save you.
Who is the greatest bartender influence on your chosen career?
Dale DeGroff – obviously. He's at the top of my lineage.
What’s the process and research behind creating a signature cocktail for a menu? Are some of your cocktails a spin-off from the classics or completely created from scratch?
If you want to break it down, everything is a spinoff of a classic in some way. The classics are the keys to the piano.
We as bartenders turn these keys into chords and make our own music. There are a lot of bartenders who create cocktails and cocktail menus to impress other bartenders, while we try to create cocktails that impress our guests. We have a blend of classics, originals, and we have a handful of those cocktails that our fellow bartender brethren will find amazing. Balance is everything. I love our menu.
Do cocktails seem to be a pre-warm up to meals that are usually served with wine? Do you develop cocktails that can be paired with a meal from the restaurant’s menu?
Personally, cocktails before and after dinner – wine with dinner. Strong drinks early, weak drinks late. That's just my style.
How did you sharpen your craft of bartending?
Practice. Bartending at our level at EO is not a skill that you'll always have. You can't read a book to become a professional skateboarder. It takes repetition. It takes a lot of trial and error. It takes a lot of failures but if you never give up and learn from your mistakes – you're golden.
Is there an “in season” for certain cocktails? If cocktail trends change, is it possible that there’s also a change in what the different generations are thirsting for?
I have no problem making any cocktail at any time, but I wouldn't order a hot toddy when it's 90 degrees out. Feel free to though – it's just a little silly and counter-productive. Do whatever you want, though. Drinking should be fun.
Congrats for bringing home the title of Star of the Bar at the 2013 NRA Show! What was that experience like, how did you get involved, and what was the cocktail that wowed judges like Anthony Bourdain?
Thank you! I made a riff on a classic Gimlet (old keys, new chords) with American Harvest, Organic Agave Nectar and Fresh Lime. Fresh grapefruit and Campari provided accentuating flavors. As far as the judges, I know how to talk to people and carry myself on stage like a champ – it's not my first rodeo. Anthony Bourdain is famous. Guess what? So am I.
What advice would you give to an aspiring bartender?
Never Give Up – Find yourself a mentor and learn all you can. Take care of your fellow bartenders. Learn from those before you and pass on information to those who come after. Keep the lineage of great bartenders going. Surround yourself with winners and you'll be forced to win. Be a member of the band before you try to be a rockstar. Make your bosses happy. Learn the business. Learn how much cocktails cost to make in comparison to how much you sell them for. Carry yourself like a champion at all times. I can keep going forever. I'll let you know when we have an opening for an Apprenticeship at EO if you'd like to learn them all.