Bartenders Are The New Chefs

Bartenders Lucinda Sterling Middle Branch NYC
Lucinda Sterling, Middle Branch, NYC

An Interview with Lucinda Sterling, Middle Branch, NYC


Bartenders and Mixologists are more frequently reaching for fresh ingredients, making their drinks with the same complexity and seasonality as the dishes prepared by chefs. So, these days, foodservice distributors are finding increasingly more of their weekly orders come from the bar in addition to the kitchen.

We reached out to Lucinda Sterling, an early adopter of fresh ingredients in a craft cocktail program, to share her own experiences and philosophy on drink creation. She is the managing partner and bartender of Murray Hill’s beloved cocktail den, Middle Branch.

On a cross-country road trip in late 2005, the Colorado native arrived in New York City and became a regular at the speakeasy-style bar Milk & Honey. When Owner Sasha Petraske told her that several employees were leaving, Sterling joined the team even though she had no bartending experience. She trained on the job, and became inspired to hone her skills as the mixology movement took off. In 2012, bartending led to a full partnership at Middle Branch.

Hospitality industry maven Francine Cohen noted of Sterling, “Lucinda’s approach at her intimate cocktail bar equal parts pioneering and the way of the future. The entire chain – from farmer to distributor to bartender to consumer -benefits from this practice of introducing fresh ingredients to bar programs here in New York City and around the world. It adds a layer of quality and creativity to cocktail making that a bar can tap to set themselves apart.”

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  • T&S Brass Eversteel Pre-Rinse Units
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  • RAK Porcelain
  • Day & Nite

Why are bartenders reaching for fresh ingredients one normally would find the chef ordering and storing in the kitchen walk in?

Having a large array of fresh herbs, spices, fruits and vegetables to use in cocktails allows the bartender to be more diverse and original. Many cocktails these days are being paired with food on the menu.

How does this shift to fresh impact a cocktail program?

Bartenders Lucinda Sterling Middle Branch NYC
Bartenders Lucinda Sterling Middle Branch NYC

Seasonal ingredients may limit the life of a cocktail on a menu if it requires only fresh ingredients, and it may increase the cost.

Does it change how you design a menu?

A seasonal menu can offer fresh and interesting ingredients; conversely, menu design is time-consuming, and would keep a bar/restaurant on its toes.

Does it, or how does it, impact the costing of drinks?

Ideally, seasonal ingredients are less expensive when they are purchased at peak time. If the seasonality is short, or the items are sparse for a particular reason, such as a shortage or allocation, the cost of drinks would certainly go up. During the lime crisis a few years ago, many venues removed lime from their menus to substitute lemon.

How can distributors help you be more creative?

If Baldor Foods, Sid Wainer or others were to let us know about a savings opportunity because of seasonality or surplus, we could begin locating compatible spirits. If a liquor distributor offered a food pairing in their description of spirits, similar to the way some wines are described, bartenders could open more doors to creativity.

How does the bar maximize using fresh ingredients?

At times, it makes sense to make a syrup/preserve to prolong the life of a fresh ingredient with a short shelf life. Additionally, using one ingredient alongside another can create a new flavor profile while expanding that ingredients total volume.

With labor costs rising to a $15/hour minimum in the N.Y. tri-state area how do you juggle labor and ingredient costs and remain as creative as your chef counterparts are?

I think making a limited menu with fewer ingredients is a practical way of managing a menu that requires fresh ingredients.

What sorts of ingredients are you reaching for and how are you getting them? (E.g. a daily/weekly visit to farmers markets, growing on rooftop, using distributors, etc.)

Often we will look to chefs and restaurants to follow trends. Naturally, we must visit other bars to observe their techniques and application of various ingredients. Visiting the farmers market and locating items on the websites of distributors allows us to see what is seasonal and cost-effective. Our bars are implementing the use of an Aerogarden to grow fresh ingredients year-round.

In a small cocktail bar environment what percentage of your drinks include fresh ingredients?

100%

In a larger environment, whether it’s a big arena or special event situation when you’re batching, can you and how do you make a drink with a culinary twist?

Use a fresh garnish, such as mint, thyme, or rosemary.

What are today’s drinkers expecting from bartenders?

Fresh, unique and approachable. More people are making cocktails at home.

How do you approach your drink creation so that you surprise and delight guests and bring them back for more like a chef creates a destination dish that everyone flicks to enjoy?

I believe that a drink must look beautiful and taste balanced. If it doesn’t taste as good as it looks, it won’t be reordered. One ingredient listed on the menu for a cocktail must not be more or less represented than another and should be a fresh ingredient whenever possible.

Is there anything else about fresh ingredients and being creative behind the bar that is worth noting as we think about bartenders being the new chefs? (Not including notorious egos.)

Too much garnish can take away from the aesthetic appeal of a cocktail. Balance applies to appearance as well as taste.

What haven’t I asked you about chefs being the new bartenders that you think is important to share?

Ice is a very, very important ingredient in a cocktail, and the quality of the water is the first step toward that end. Freezing fresh ingredients in the ice is a form of preserving seasonal items for later use. Also, watering down a crafted cocktail by over-shaking, or not pouring off immediately after shaking diminishes the cocktail.


Bartender Michael Neff at Cottonmouth Club
Bartender Michael Neff at Cottonmouth Club

An Interview with Michael Neff, The Cottonmouth Club, Houston, TX


Borders are blurring as spirits like Pisco, Cachaça, and Aquavit regularly land on drink menus while bartenders seek ingredients for perfect pairings. Through this culinary approach to fusing fresh ingredients with heritage and classic spirits that delight guests and media alike, bartenders are becoming celebrities in their own realm.

Inarguably, Michael Neff is one of the first bartenders focusing his cocktail ingredient search beyond the back bar.  Known as the trendsetter bartender, entrepreneur, and spirits professional whose purpose in life is to make great bars and entice people to drink well in them, Neff’s colorful and creative cocktails complement the menu and serve as a great starter or nightcap.  These are the hallmarks of his high volume bar programs.   

Neff recently moved west to run programs in LA and Houston like the Cottonmouth Club.  Back in New York City his breadth of experience stretches from founding partner of Ward III & The Rum House, bars famous for bespoke cocktails and finely curated spirits selections, to helming the revival of the iconic Holiday Cocktail lounge in the East Village. Far from remaining in a curated drinks-den role, Neff recently tackled a more vast, and public, project— cocktails at Madison Square Garden; making fresh, culinary balanced cocktails available to thousands at once.

We sat down with Michael Neff to discuss fresh ingredients’ role in today’s cocktail menus.


Why are bartenders reaching for fresh ingredients one normally would find the chef ordering and storing in the kitchen walk in?

There are a lot of reasons, the first of which is that the public is paying for us to do so. Cocktails are part of both the culinary and popular cultures now, both in the US and around the world.

The public is expecting a higher-level quality in more places now than just fancy cocktail bars. Fresh juice has become much more of the norm, for example, and the cost of that is assumed in the price of a drink. It’s much more fun and interesting for bartenders as well, and thoughtful, delicious cocktails have become part of the ineffable internal algorithm the public uses to choose spending their money in one place as opposed to another.

How does this shift to fresh impact a cocktail program? 

It makes it more expensive, for sure, both in time and money. But as the expectation becomes more pervasive, the public has shown itself willing to absorb at least some of that cost. It also becomes much more difficult to find qualified staff, and to train new people. Gone are the days when bartenders needed to know a few generic recipes and could fill in the rest on the fly. Training, both for new bartenders and seasoned bartenders in new positions, takes a fair amount of time.

Does it change how you design a menu?

Menu concepting and design is an entirely new game. The public is high-information spenders in a way that would have been almost impossible 20 years ago.

New bars and restaurants are expected to have their own take on how their cocktails fit into the wider culture. Some places do that more acrobatically than others, but there is a general expectation that each place has to try something unique. Over time, this builds over the entire culture. What is happening in other cities or countries is publicly available, and one program can have an outsized influence well outside of its orbit.

How can distributors help you be more creative?

Awareness. We at the bar have always been an afterthought to food distributors, but we are using a growing number of techniques to tame the flavors of the world for use in our cocktails.

A distributor who knows my intention can bring me new ingredients that fit into what I might be planning for the future. Inviting bar managers to food shows, for example, can create a wonderful collaboration between suppliers, distributors, chefs, and bartenders.

How can distributors better serve you and make your life easy?

Most distributors don’t talk to me as a bar the way they would to a restaurant. I call and ask if they have something, they say yes or no, then tell me what it costs. Few take the time to sit down with me the way they would with a chef to tell me what they have and really get to know the things I want to work with.

They almost never meet with me on a regular basis, and I am rarely aware of their entire portfolio. I don’t relish having to comb the world to figure out where I can acquire different ingredients, so an active distributor rep could easily keep me off of Amazon if they made themselves available as a resource for finding new things.

How does the bar maximize using fresh ingredients? Does having them on hand drive prices down?

When do prices ever go down? That said, there are many bar programs that are designed specifically to reduce waste, in both the bar and the kitchen. For example, I once worked with a chef who made fresh ice cream. She separated out her egg yolks and gave the whites to the bar, which we used in a number of house cocktails.

Nothing got thrown away or wasted, which is good on a number of levels. If a chef and bar manager work well together, it can at least mitigate the impact of bringing in more expensive ingredients to the bar.

What sorts of ingredients are you reaching for and how are you getting them?

Teas from around the world, different fruits in different applications, house-made replacements for common liqueurs. I try to use seasonal flavors in new and unusual applications, preferably in a way that is as shelf-stable as possible. As for where I get my ingredients, it’s a combination of distributors, traditional and specialty groceries, farmers markets and things we grow ourselves.

Online shopping has become much more important, both in my time and my ability to acquire esoteric ingredients in a reasonable amount of time. Amazon is a real thing, as is Instacart.

In a larger environment, whether it’s a big arena or special event situation when you’re batching, can you and how do you make a drink with a culinary twist?

Often times, the “culinary twist” is all in the intention and presentation. But there are many ingredients, like shrubs, that lend themselves to presenting fresh ingredients in a bulk setting.

What haven’t I asked you about bartenders being the new chefs that you think is important to share?

There is a big push to do with bartenders what they did with chefs twenty years ago, namely “elevating” us to the point where we’re on television, in magazines, and generally singled out for media attention. This is creating a culture that can be a driver of business but can sometimes be detrimental to the bar scene in general.

Think about a young cook who wants to become the next Top Chef. Gaining the skills for that is admirable, but if your love of cooking is based on your love of wanting to be famous, then you have an inherent disconnect between what is good about food and what is good for your chosen career. Bartenders are starting to experience a similar phenomenon with similar results. As things change, it will be interesting to see how it all plays out.

  • McKee Foodservice Sunbelt Bakery
  • Day & Nite
  • Simplot Frozen Avocado
  • Atosa USA
  • Easy Ice
  • RAK Porcelain
  • AyrKing Mixstir
  • Cuisine Solutions
  • T&S Brass Eversteel Pre-Rinse Units
  • RATIONAL USA
  • Imperial Dade
  • DAVO by Avalara
  • AHF National Conference 2024
  • BelGioioso Burrata
Joyce Appelman
Joyce Appelman is the SCOOP News Editor and Senior Contributing Writer for Total Food Service and previously the National Communications Director for C-CAP, Careers through Culinary Arts Program. An industry leader supporting education and scholarships, she has been instrumental in opening career opportunities for many young people in the foodservice industry. Email her at joyceappelman@gmail.com
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