Behind the Bar is a new series by Thomas Máthé, featuring his adventures rising from bartender to bar manager, and the sights, sounds and lessons from the journey.
When I was 21, I frequented a bar called the Pickled Onion in Beverly, Massachusetts. The bar had a neon yellow and green sign with Gaelic script on it, and a diminutive Irish owner who would chat with the 20- and 30-somethings who called the bar home, and keep an eye out on all of the college students who came in from the three nearby college campuses. My friends and classmates would meet there to drink beer, have conversations, watch sports, or throw darts. Once a week we’d go to hear Adam or Russ close out open mic with a cover of Ryan Adams’ “Come Pick Me Up,” which had been a tradition before any of us newly-legal drinkers had arrived.
One night I had a bit of a shine on and I found myself watching a bartender named Mark tear through orders. Mark was rail thin and had a raspy voice that could boom, but he didn’t use it without warranting. He also had this specific dexterity I had never before considered where he could pour two beers at once using his forefingers to open and close the taps without spilling a drop of beer. Seeing him pour and take orders over a raucous crowd, in fluid motion, was captivating.
I was standing there watching, in part, because I had nothing else to do. I’d thrown my way off of the dartboard my friends and I had controlled for a good portion of the evening and last call was imminent. I found myself at the cornered-off end of the bar, in the one place where I could see behind the bar and almost get a glimpse of what the bartender saw, without being in anybody’s way. I watched as Mark got mobbed by thirsty guests wanting to tie the night completely off before time ran out. My friend Phil took to standing alongside me because it was an advantageous spot to get the bartender’s attention and grab one last beer, and with a bit of wonder I said, “That looks fun.”
“What?” said Phil.
“Bartending. I think I’d like it a lot,” I said, “but I have no idea how to get in.”
“You should ask Mark.”
Impossible. I didn’t talk to people. The only reason I knew Phil was because I made a movie that I screened in the arts building of my college’s campus and his band, Caspian, had provided the soundtrack. If that sounds impressive, I should say that the driving factors for writing the movie were loneliness and my inability to share interests with new people through conversation. I had to make a whole big production to get around my fear of speaking up, so I wasn’t just going to just ask a bartender something. Especially at a crowded bar so close to last call.
Phil ordered us another round of hefeweizens and reiterated that I should talk to Mark. I pointed to how busy it was. He said, “It’s cool. We’ll wait here for things to mellow out.”
“How do you become a bartender?” – Thomas Máthé
“Sure,” I said, and braced myself in the same way I had before when I wanted to do something drastic like ask a girl out, or answer a question out loud in a classroom. I told myself that bartenders talk to people all the time, so if I was going to be a bartender I should probably be okay with asking somebody a question. I started taking larger than normal pulls from my beer.
Last call came and folks did their best to ignore it. The lights came on, and a few polite people pounded their beers and left. To the others, Mark yelled, “Let’s go! Drink ’em up!” with a ferocity and cadence that made the first declarative order run longer than the second one.
I was nearly done with my beer when my anxiety faded over from a fear of speaking up to a fear of being disobedient. It got to the point where just saying something would emancipate me from my stress. I said, “Hey Mark,” because I knew his name. He didn’t know mine.
“Yeah?” he said with a look on his face like he wasn’t expecting to hear something so meek in the middle of pushing for dozens of at least semi-drunken people to please leave now, thank you.
And then I asked him the same question I’ve been getting for nearly eight years now. “How do you become a bartender?”
Wanting to sound like I had even the faintest idea of what I was talking about, I said what everybody says: “Do you, just, like, go to bartending school?”
Mark gave me the same answer I give everybody that asks me that question.
“Bartending school is a scam.” He then went on to patiently – and in between shouts of “Let’s go people!” and “Time to leave!” – explain that I should get a door gig, then maybe start serving, or maybe become a barback. “Whatever you do, it’s going to take a little time,” he said.
Earlier this year I was in the middle of a shift at the cocktail bar I was running in the Upper East Side of Manhattan when my barback Owen, a smart, trustworthy, strong, and friendly doctor of art history said in an amused way, “I think barbacking is one of the only true apprenticeships left in the world,” as he grabbed a crate of liquor he’d stashed on top of the service bar so he could duck underneath the drawbridge and return to his rightful place behind the bar as a stocker and re-stocker of my supplies.
I had been working as a barista at a Starbucks in New Hampshire for three months when I answered an ad on Craigslist for a brewpub that was seeking a host. I still didn’t have restaurant experience since that conversation with Mark three years prior, but I was reaching the end of my grace period for paying back student loans, so I had that going for me.
I got the hosting gig and quit Starbucks while the Boston Celtics were winning the 2008 NBA Finals. Things were good. Now it was only going to take two of my weekly paychecks to make the minimum payment on my monthly student loans instead of nearly three. During my second interview, I asked the hiring manager if I could ever become a server. I wanted to test what Mark said against the rest of the world, and also see how close I could get to paying those loans with one paycheck. The manager was honest to an extent. It would take a lot of hard work, and even then it would take the right timing. He didn’t mention that in the restaurant’s 17-year history, no host had ever been promoted to server.
I learned the tables, the quirks of the service staff, and that I was in control of the flow of everything. If the kitchen or the service bar got backed up with tickets, I was at least partially to blame. If things went well, I probably had a hand in it too, though I only seemed to get any semblance of credit when things went south. That was OK.
“I had gone from the lowest person in the meeting at the brewery, just scratching down my notes, to one of the people leading.” – Thomas Máthé
Eventually, folks noticed that the smooth nights happened more frequently when I was around. I felt proud of the mental math I was pulling off to make the nights run smoothly, but I was still broke.
I started bussing tables to make my way into gathering tips. Running around was less tiring than standing still. The restaurant had five sections on two floors in three different rooms. I tirelessly kept them clean, followed every health code regulation I knew, and listened attentively during pre-shift meetings and beer tastings so I could answer any questions the guests had if their server was occupied. I was setting myself apart.
When I became the first host to become a server in the establishment’s then-18-year history, I had been there for a year, grinding and learning.
Serving was another animal. Now, instead of physical responses to cues of need, I had to find the social ones. The key was simple: Know all of the answers. If I didn’t know, I’d ask somebody who knew, and then I’d answer the question for the guest and I wouldn’t forget. I felt liberated from the bumbling, scared person I had often been before. Also, life was getting a little bit easier. I could go out for beers and buy groceries. Loan payments were on time instead of a week and a half late.
I kept learning as I worked the floor. I started to feel like a professional.
Then I started grilling the bar. It was my area of weakness. I knew a few questions to ask when people ordered certain things, like how dry they liked their martini, and the garnish they preferred, but I didn’t know enough to feel comfortable. I got along well with a bartender named Christian. We would joke around with each other during service, and he would show me the ropes on cocktails like the Manhattan or the margarita, and he would tell me how two of our regulars really liked espresso beans in their sambuca, and that there was a reason for it. “Make sure it’s exactly three beans,” he’d say. I would sometimes get in trouble for hanging out at service bar, chatting with Christian and asking him questions as the night mellowed, but it quickly became the time on the job where I was learning the most.
When Christian was poached by another bartender on the team to go open a bar in a more rural nearby town, they asked if I’d be interested in coming along as a bartender. I knew it was going to be a risk, and that I would be the fill-in guy for undesirable shifts, but I had also learned that having experience mattered.
The job didn’t go well. Soon after opening, the operating owner managed to get blacklisted by the state. In New Hampshire, the distributors are all state-run, and all sales go through the government, so if you miss your payments to one distributor, you get blacklisted by all of them. That’s what happened to us for a while. It was brutal.
My finances fell back into disarray. The only reason I survived at all was because of the fact that I had started attending a low-residency MFA program for creative writing. I didn’t have to make payments for a while because I was a full-time student. I could survive for long enough to get some real experience to bring somewhere else. I remembered what Mark had told me, that it was going to take a little time.
I spent the days reading and writing and the nights bartending, or watching the door, or running the soundboard. Once we started getting kegs of beer back in I started practicing my one-handed beer pours and my free-pouring skills. That first bar didn’t have a jigger in sight, but I picked up the tricks that had impressed me as a drinker and that made me look more seasoned than I was.
Then I caught wind of a new restaurant opening up in a nearby town in Maine, and I jumped ship. The new place had a brick oven for pizza and a full back kitchen run by a pro. It also specialized in craft beers, just like I did, with 20 lines to fill. I had learned quite a bit about beer from my time at the brewery, and, to my surprise, folks at the new place didn’t seem to know as much as I did. I had presumed that what I was learning in my two years at the brewery was related to some kind of zeitgeist, but it turned out that I was gathering specialized information. By the time the restaurant opened I was consulting with the owner over which niche American and European beers to buy and educating the staff on the selling points and tasting notes on all of the beers every morning at pre-shift. I had gone from the lowest person in the meeting at the brewery, just scratching down my notes, to one of the people leading.
The other person leading meetings was Chef Ben. Chef was a local boy from Maine whose parents had decided recently to start raising pigs on their farm. He came home from running a kitchen in Boston to help. Chef Ben was the kind of guy who wanted to mentor the whole staff into excellence. He had interned at the French Laundry, and he had a kindness and openness with us that he said was fortified by a deep talk he’d had one night as a blue-aproned intern with Thomas Keller. If we ever had any questions about process, Chef would take us aside and show us the answers in a way that communicated both the ideas and his passions. He is a teacher as much as he is a marvel with food, and damn is his food delicious. He also started meddling with the house’s liquor, infusing bottles of spirits with other flavors. He had a sous vide circulator he would put to use on a bottle of whiskey and some rendered bacon fat we’d had lying around. When I asked him how he did it, he took me downstairs into our prep kitchen and showed me how to use all the tools, the vac-packer, the circulator, he even let me use his burners during the mellower hours of service to try out some ideas I’d drummed up for syrups. I even spent a couple dozen shifts in my time there on garde manger.
After creating and coordinating regularly occurring special events together like “Beer School,” which I hosted for crowds of upwards of a hundred, (Public speaking? Where did that come from?) and a “14 Seats” private tasting dinner where I selected the beers to go with his food, Chef Ben gave me something I still cherish to this day: a copy of The PDT Cocktail Book by Jim Meehan. The well-worn edition he gave me is sitting next to me as I write this.
I loved my job, but nobody, especially not Chef Ben, seemed surprised when after two years of work and after a year of commuting to Maine from the home I had reclaimed in Beverly, Massachusetts, I left to take a new job as a bartender at a craft cocktail joint in the much closer Salem, Massachusetts. On my last night in Maine, I took an after-hours seat at the poured-and-polished concrete bar with a housemade charcuterie plate, house pickles, and some cheeses selected and presented to me by Chef Ben while I drank an Oxbow Farmhouse Pale Ale and watched Shane Victorino hit a Grand Slam for the Red Sox to take the 2013 ALCS. I wondered what joys were in store for me.
In Salem, I learned most of what I know today about cocktails. I went from having a repertoire of something like 20 cocktails to well over 60 in a month. I went from describing the flavor profiles of beer to making my own taste combinations with spirits and liqueurs that were then foreign to me, but are now old friends. I tasted everything that reps brought in along with my beverage manager and true bartending mentor, Ramona Shah. I made fresh partnerships with a new kitchen staff and led more intense trainings on all of the spirits and drinks I was researching, and some of the bar-related books I was devouring. I pushed my cocktail game to the point where I felt like I was creating something that I could call my own. Everything I’ve learned from running the host stand in a small seaside brewery to bartending behind a 37-seat glowing yellow bar in Salem, Massachusetts, led me to the positions I hold today as head bartender and cocktail menu developer for a gorgeous and massive bar in the middle of Manhattan and as the house mixologist for WNYC’s live podcasting and events venue, The Greene Space.
In the latter days of living in Beverly, I would see Mark around town – at the café, at the bar – but I never told him about how I’d held onto that incredibly brief conversation I’d had with him. He seemed like a gruff dude, and having had that conversation about how to become a bartender countless times since with guests of my own, I know that citing myself as one of the people who once asked him that question wouldn’t be a good way to start a conversation. Still, I knew that all of this, the write-ups, the late nights, the joys of service, the artistry I feel like I’ve been able to achieve with my cocktails, the friends I’ve made, the experiences I’ve had; none of it would have been possible if I hadn’t asked an annoying question, or if Mark hadn’t taken the time to graciously offer me more than a just a shot and a beer and a, “Get out, it’s last call.”
I aim to be as helpful to anyone who has ever summoned the courage to ask me that question since.