Wednesday, March 6, 2013

:: this must be the place ::

While preparing for my first bartending gig last month, I read various treatises on the vocation in order to mentally prepare myself for the night. In reading Gary Regan's Annual Manual for Bartenders: 2011 about the mindful bartender, I was struck by a quote taken from This Must Be the Place. That book was a biographical number penned by Morrill Cody about bartender Jimmie Charters' time in the Montparnasse area of Paris when it was a vibrant artist and literary enclave after World War I that fizzled out shortly after the onset of the Great Depression. During Jimmie's time behind a few of the bars there, he served literary giants like Ernest Hemingway, artists like Marcel Duchamp, and models like Kiki. The following quote moved me enough to find the book and read it:
Almost anyone can learn to mix drinks accurately and fast. That is the least of it. I have always believed success behind the bar comes from an ability to understand the man or woman I am serving, to enter into his joys or woes, make him feel the need of me as a person rather than a servant.
Regan expounded on that quote by trying to figure out why a person is there at the bar and what they are trying to get out of the experience. From that, a mindful bartender can determine how much or how little interaction is desired and of what type. Likewise, Jimmie spoke of trying to size up a customer to determine if they want to be alone or are really looking for companionship. Jimmie also made observations on the effects of alcohol on people:
Liquor always has one of three effects on people. Upon a few it brings a deep depression, because, I suppose, there is some sorrow there already. On the normal person, though, the effect is either to make him amorous or belligerent, and he or she can jump from one state to the other without difficulty.
This is an added dimension to the earlier point -- it is not just why a person is there at the bar, but how the experience can shape the side that comes out that night. Jimmie offered tales and tactics of how to diffuse fights, introduce people, and offer free drinks and other distractions to make the evening go smoothly. "Diplomacy," he explained, "is a first requisite, without which a man can never be a success in anything but a very formal bar." Moreover, keeping the customer satisfied is part of the game both with the bartender experience as well as with the fellow clientele. In dealing with drinkers, Jimmie learned to handle drunks from being drunk himself. His tactic was, "I have sympathy for them, and they respond to that treatment like no other. Criticism always makes them worse." Regan took it a step further by explaining certain phrasings that avoids the criticism aspect, such as "I wonder if you could think about lowering your voice just a little, please" instead of telling them bluntly to quiet down and stop annoying everyone.

Throughout the book are glimpses of life in Paris during that time -- everything from the art students and their gala events that were captured well in William Morrow's Bohemian Paris of To-Day to the surrealists including André Breton and Man Ray. While the book does delve into quite a bit of gossip of the day, the text returns to the art of the bar with some amusing anecdotes. One cute one was where a customer ordered a Port Flip, and after Jimmie had made that, he proudly presented it to the waiter in his best French "Porto Flip." A bit later, the person who ordered it got a bit peeved and wanted to know where his drink order was. Upon Jimmie asking the waiter, the waiter explained, "Porto flip? I thought you said porte au flic (take it to the cop)!" at which point Jimmie peered through the window at a police officer on the street corner enjoying his gift.

In my night behind the stick, I certainly did not see the wide spectrum of people and experiences, but it did help going into it somewhat prepared. Part of that experience got described in a BostonChef's Drink Like a Pro article, but many of the details and moments never made it in there.

1 comment:

Dagreb said...

"Home - is where I want to be but I guess I'm already there."