Monday, July 13, 2009

Ah, New Orleans: Part I

Disclaimer: Yes, I know it's been a while. But these next few postings should well make up for my silence. This bit will be in at least three parts, there is that much to say. It was only 5 1/2 days, but somehow I lived more during those days than I have in as many years. Enjoy. I sure did coming up with the material!

So I spent most of last week in New Orleans for Tales of the Cocktail, which is a huge industry convention for all things spirits-based and what to mix them with. The days are filled with tastings as well as seminars, and the evenings are all about the parties. I was there as the unofficial third mistress of LOFT liqueur (see last post), and was partially sponsored by them to do this, but also to obviously meet new people in the industry and hopefully plant the seeds to grow much needed job fruit.

All the events center around the French Quarter and specifically, the Hotel Monteleone, which I will from here on out refer to as "ground zero." I was not staying there, but rather in the Prytannia Park Hotel, just inside the Garden District about 15 minutes away. At first I considered my choice to do this, both for monetary reasons as well as having a place to escape to from the Cocktalians and the tourists, a bad one since it was a little inconvenient and meant that I didn't have the option to freshen up before the evening's events. So most days, after walking around in the steam bath (each day it was in the mid 90s in like 90% humidity, and rained HARD in the afternoon for about 10 minutes, that kind of rain can actually bruise a person!), I wasn't exactly fresh, but then no one else was all that much either. By day two I had very much come to appreciate my decision. It was good to get away and the people who run the hotel are sweethearts, even if it wasn't exactly the lap of luxury like the Monteleone or the bargain of a $50 a night stay at the more streamlined Marriott.

I arrived Tuesday afternoon, along with LOFT vice-mistress, Sabrina. After settling in at our respective residences (the mistresses were staying at ground zero), we all met in the Carousel Bar at the hotel, named thus because it revolves, but kinda quickly. Which makes it impossible to order a drink if it's crowded because the bartenders are essentially in the same places, but if you don't have a seat, you are forced to keep walking around to maintain the same space where you found a way in to the bar itself, till they notice you are thirsty, and continue to earn your drink, elbowing around the crowd, as you wait for it. Anyway, the first round of cocktalians were already there, and drinking. LOTS. I noticed quickly most of these people were not going to even attempt to pace themselves. Great. Oh, that first drink? Sazerac. When in Rome.

We had to find a vegetarian friendly spot for Lisa, and luckily, my good friend John has a pal there I could consult (more on that later). In New Orleans, that's not such a big easy, as vegetables are mainly incidental ingredients used to thicken the butter, seafood and pork. But he recommended a great African place about 10 blocks from the hotel called Bennachin. We had to wait for it outside in the heat, but well worth it.

After dinner and a sultry night time stroll back down Royal, we went to our first party, sponsored by Benedictine, at Latrobe's. Amid the glitz and human statues, all the bartenders were wearing monk's robes and had to take and deliver drink orders in mannerisms that I guess were intended to be "pious," which meant a lot of exaggerated bowing and hand sweeps. Of course there were only 3 cocktails to choose from and they were all sickly sweet, but people drank them anyway. It was pretty dang loud. DJ monk was spinning lots of Michael Jackson and assorted 80s and 90s dance tunes as we all tried to gather for our first schmoozing opportunity. The only cool schtick was a "spirits reading" where we were then given a goblet that would befit our chosen prophecy and place in society. I, of course, was a peasant. But I love the wooden goblet I got to keep. After making the rounds once, we all decided to leave to rest up for the next day.

Day two, the mistresses and I had to work a Fresh Market event in the tasting room all day, focusing on organic liquor brands. We were disappointed to learn that we would not be serving our featured cocktail, peach puree with lavender liqueur, ginger and mint (yeah, not so much, but I didn't say it out loud) all day. But instead, each featured brand would only get two hours, but we had to represent all day anyway. Which meant we had to stand around and constantly explain that, while pouring out our flavors neat to anyone who wanted to sample them. However, it was under these circumstances that I initially met the most people. I ended up skipping two of the seminars I was to attend that day so I could keep greeting the crowds.

But I did attend one seminar that day, The Art of Banging Out Cocktails like a Maniac, led by bar owners/tenders Philip Duff of Bols and Bar 74 in Amsterdam (though he is Irish) and Dushan Zaric (originally from Belgrade) of Employees Only and Macao Trading Co. What a way to start! Philip and Dushan, neither of whom I have previously met, gave a meaningful, hilarious talk about essentially cutting the bullshit and just making good drinks, enough to turn a bigger profit for your bar business. Stop talking about the colors of Jerry Thomas' ties and adjusting your stupid bowler hat and make the damn drinks. Have your work station well prepared, use good but not too expensive ingredients and learn to judge how many of them, especially the perishable ones, you really need based on sales, which will vary throughout the week. Oh, and no matter what, they're BARTENDERS. Not mixologists. Not bar chefs. But bartenders. Main job is to make drinks and make sure people are having a good time while earning money. This was heartening, a couple of weeks after having drinks at a new, trendy and expensive cocktail establishment in the East Village (this one focusing on one main spirit from South America, I will say no more) where John and I were treated like thirsty vermin by totally unfriendly and pretentious staff. It depressed me, made me think the art of bartending was going the way of the newspaper. I also enjoyed little asides from Philip, like when he accidentally dropped the mic and chalked that up to an overdeveloped right hand... from making "too many presentations!" And that a bartender must be a swan. I.e. "...paddle like a bastard below, but be graceful up top." They also made a short film about a typical prep day at Employees Only. It put me in a great mood. Over by 6:00, ready for a real night out.

Since I didn't have tickets to that evening's Plymouth gin event (my main complaint about Tales, incidentally, is that after everyone has shelled out all that dough, the parties were ticketed and somewhat tough to get into even if you came with important people), I met up with my best gal pal Stephanie Moreno, spirits buyer and floor manager at Astor Wines, (where I worked for two years and got my real entre into the spirits world) who had just arrived, along with Jen Smith, the program director at Astor Center. They were staying with a former co-worker, Erin Toomey, who had just moved to town with her hubby Craig, who's in the Coast Guard. We went round the corner to the Chart House on Chartres St (pronounced "charters" as I was corrected into saying). An awesome local joint, that like everything, was a bit rough around the edges but so much fun. My first bottle of Abita while in town. Great bartender. Yep, friendly, makes people feel special, sense of humor and quick. This became our local throughout the trip.

The three ladies and I went to Cochon for dinner, a place my parents had said they didn't take a shine to (that was years ago), but that everyone else seemed to give high praise. Well, everyone was right! Amazing meal. We pigged out in every sense. Charcuteries, fried pigs ears that came with a rum mustard sauce I could utterly mainline, home made boudin (fried), fried alligator in cajun sauce, chicken liver crostinis with another yummy sauce. For dinner I had a rabbit stew with dumplings and also very much enjoyed my tastes of everyone else's entree, which ranged from beautifully prepared fish to an oyster and bacon poboy. We shared a gorgeous blueberry lemon custard tart with buttermilk ice cream and this AMAZING chocolate and chickory pudding, as well as some cocktails, my favorite being rye with Clear Creek loganberry liqueur and lemon. In attendance throughout the restaurant were main cocktail historian Dave Wondrich and bartender Jim Meehan, who was eventually named best bartender for his work at PDT at the closing awards dinner, which I didn't get to attend. We were all so full, no way there would be more drinking, so we all retired. Not so for the other cocktalians around the city, as I later learned. Oy.

New Orleans is a great compliment to my self esteem. Not only am I incredibly thin compared to most locals, but I am the picture of moderation compared to many of my drinks colleagues.

The next day, the real Tales of the Cocktail began to be told. More on that later.

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