Saturday, July 2, 2022

:: the ego and the bartender ::

My coworkers enjoy mentioning to my bar guests – both in front of me or behind my back – a variety of facts about me ranging from me being the author of two cocktail books to having a doctorate in biochemistry that they have procured from my Facebook or from working with me for all these months. Aside from my stating it here, it is usually something that takes a bit of time to tease out of me in conversation, and I think that my coworkers do it partly to embarrass me. Guests have asked why I am so humble about my accomplishments as if I should be boasting while working and wearing my accomplishments on my sleeve. And that got me thinking.

It took me a day or two of mulling over the proper response. What I came up with was the thought that regardless of any accolades and accomplishments, each guest is a new challenge that I need to prove myself to them and to the bar. True, prior experiences offer confidence, knowledge, and a depth of tools to make the next guest’s experience better and to make that moment matter. In my mind, it is the only moment that matters. No guest will be consoled that their mediocre (or worse) night out was handled by someone who on paper should have been above average. Guests did seem to understand that when I began to reply that all those facts would be meaningless if the drink was not balanced or to their liking and the service was lacking.
During the beginning of the pandemic, one of my quarantine reads was The Book of Ichigo Ichie: The Art of Making the Most of Every Moment, the Japanese Way. Ichigo ichie is a tenet of Zen Buddhism, and it is often used as a greeting or a goodbye. It conveys that the moment is unique, special, and once in a lifetime. In martial arts usage, it means that there is no “try again” in life-or-death moments, but in casual usage, it is a means to focus on the moment at hand for it will never happen again. That guest sitting at your bar will never have a first greeting, cocktail, or night sitting at your bar ever again. They will be celebrating that birthday, anniversary, or promotion only once. They may return, but that special moment has fled. The book quotes Heraclitus who declared, “No man ever steps into the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” Ichigo ichie will lead to greater satisfaction if one is not weighted down by the past or anxious about the future; if one can live fully in the present, the journey can be an unique and once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Subtle self promotion does have its value especially in gaining the confidence in the guest, but this needs to be backed up with action eventually if not first. At my bar Drink here in Boston, we have no menu, and I am able to offer up hundreds of recipes and their histories and why they work in a glass given the guest’s description of what they want to be drinking that moment. I am frequently asked how I know so much about drinks, and at that point I will reveal that I have been writing about drinks for 16 years. I am more likely to mention my Instagram or blog than my books or other accomplishments, especially if the drink they were served was written up there. It also describes the personal research that I do at home every night by making a new drink to post and later write about. I am not without an ego for sure, but I try to put it on a back burner for most of my shifts unless the guest begins to inquire.

The concept of ego reminded me of my bar backing experience and how I describe it to new hires at the bar. I declare that we are laying the foundations of becoming a good bartender by learning the basics; however, we are also breaking down selfish tendencies in order to work better as a team. Recently, a clip from the Mayans MC show appeared on my Facebook feed. One of the members spoke to a new prospect and paraphrased Carl Jung to encourage him through the difficult and seemingly abusive process. Member EZ explained, “Look man, I know it’s tough. But don’t give up all right. Become the mass and a particle in the mass… It means that being a prospect is about destroying the ego. Learning to exist for the great good of the group. There is freedom in that. Giving up your own wants and desires for the benefit greater than yourself.”
Self-aggrandizing perhaps has its place to some extent in reassuring a guest as to why that moment is unique. Many have a curiosity as to why this interaction feels different and special, and they desire an explanation. Without prompting, that same story reveal is unnecessary and pretentious, and it could across as insecurity and seem like a way to make up for shortcomings by resting on laurels or worse – acts of fiction and delusion. Micah Solomon in The Heart of Hospitality: Great Hotel and Restaurant Leaders Share Their Secrets wrote, “The heart of hospitality, for me, is the ability to focus completely and totally on one person, even if only for a matter of seconds, yet long enough that you’ve got a clear connection, a channel between the two of you.” Working towards that connection is the goal with many ways of getting there.

In thinking about other bar mentors in the industry, I wondered what would legendary NYC barman Sasha Petraske say about all this since he was a bit of an iconoclast. In his Regarding Cocktails book, he instructed “Do things not for applause or personal gain, but simply because it is the right way to do things.” Indeed, Sasha promoted the idea of hospitality over self-needs other than the need to choose the best path possible for the guest. Despite many famous drinks coming from him or his establishments, in Class Magazine, he had similar things to say about the drink itself. He declared, “Cocktails are not worth intellectualizing, they are just something to be experienced. The fact that people talk about cocktails like one might talk about like wine, which you have to grow, is laughable. A cocktail is a simple thing – what matters is if you make it right.”
Finally, I considered what Gary Regan would say, so I sought out my notes and PDFs from the Cocktails in the Country retreat that I attended in 2015. He harkened things back to mindfulness and to service by offering up, “A mindful bartender trusts her intuition. She is primarily focused on what the customer in front of her is doing or saying, or upon the drink she is making, but she is also aware of what’s going on at the other end of the bar, and in the entire restaurant. She keeps tabs on the atmosphere of the place, and she constantly monitors the events, actions, and people that might affect the mood at the bar or within the restaurant. A mindful bartender pays attention to the personal preferences of her guests, and she makes each person’s drinks accordingly. A mindful bartender leaves her personal shit at the door... A mindful bartender sets her intentions to be of service to her customers.” Gary towards the end of the PDF packet handled the accomplishment part by explaining, “You’re a person who has attained recognition, you influence many others with your words and your actions, you make more dollars than most others in your line of work, you are hailed as an innovator, a creative genius, a mixologist at the top of your game, and as someone whose passion and perseverance has paid off well. And that’s absolutely fabulous. Good for you. Remember, though, and this is very important: You are No Better than Anyone Else. You are no better than the rookie bar-back you just hired. You are no better than the dishwasher. You are no better than the liquor salesperson. You Are No Better Than Anyone Else. If you can embrace that fact—and it is a fact—then this will help you to stay grounded, and that’s very important to anyone in your position.”

Given this all, there is a noble path to success and to continuing to provide good experiences for our guests if we stay humble and grounded. One step at a time, one guest at a time, one moment at a time. Every so often, look behind and see the wake of positive effects that have been generated before mustering the energy and enthusiasm to continue on that journey forward.

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