I started my career as an engineer. But as an intern, I needed something to pay the bills, so I got myself into a restaurant just busing tables.
That’s when I found myself hanging out after hours and learning how to do things like shuck oysters. One day, I ended up volunteering in the kitchen to wash dishes because we had someone call out. They asked me to come cook for a day and eventually they told the front-of-house they couldn’t have me back.
Once I got hired by the engineering company, I was still spending 40 hours a week at the restaurant. Even though my engineering job was a cool work environment, I just found myself feeling stuck and not interested. While with my cooking job, I was showing up sometimes as much as an hour early to try to learn a little more.
I eventually realized that my technical expertise would work just as well for me in food as it would in engineering. When I worked in engineering, I always loved to process. I loved seeing how things worked and how things were built and getting down to the science and the basics of beverage and cooking really caught my interest. So I made the move to the food industry full-time.
I began bartending and fell in love with craft beer–the artisanship of it and the beer industry as a whole. When I had been bartending for about three years, I started working toward becoming a Certified Cicerone, second in the list of four certifications: Certified Beer Server, Certified Cicerone, Advanced Cicerone and Master Cicerone. It’s a copyrighted title from the Cicerone Certification Program out of Chicago, whose whole goal is to further beer education.
There are a lot of people getting the entry-level Certified Beer Server certification. It goes over some basics and provides you with some resources on basics in beer distribution and beer styles.
For my certification, those who get it typically work in breweries or distribution, but I’m seeing more and more bartenders pushing for it and trying to learn more. There are currently six Certified Cicerones in Rhode Island, and only two work in a bar. And as far as I know, I’m the only Certified Cicerone working in a barbecue restaurant, Durk’s Bar-B-Q in Providence, Rhode Island.
‘As far as I know, I’m the only Certified Cicerone working in a barbecue restaurant.’
I had to pass a lengthy written test with multiple choice, fill-in-the-blanks and essays, along with the tasting. It’s a pretty rigorous process that required a lot of studying. I work part-time at the Grad Center Bar in Providence, and a bunch of other bartenders there decided we wanted to do it.
We would get together on a day off or after a shift. We’d all be responsible for brown-bagging a beer and working our way through a blind tasting, reviewing everything after the fact to see how close we were to the exact specs of the beer and the traditional style. That process actually helped us a lot.
And it’s paid off for guests. At Durk’s, I sell completely different beer than I was able to sell when I first started this process. I was sticking to these wonderful, large dark beers, those really interesting complex Belgian beers, but now I find myself able to talk about really wonderful fashionable German beers and really esoteric English ales, and present them to people in a way that they try them with a fresh perspective or with a food they haven’t had it with before.
We have Schlitz on our menu. The sweetness pairs really well off the acidity and the richness of our food, so it was a no-brainer for us to carry it. But a lot of people laugh when they see it on the menu because they’re used to it being in their neighborhood dive bar, but it works for us. We also carry the Aecht Schlenkerla Eiche Oak Smoked Doppelbock, which is essentially a beer smoked with oak. Our barbecue is mostly smoked with oak, so the pairing really works well together.
The best thing about any type of certification like this, is that it helps you across the board. My understanding of how beer is put together, its flavor and fermentation, helps me better understand wine and spirits. It’s all really useful to just get into the basics of these things. Going through the basic steps, getting the entry-level studying done, makes you infinitely more comfortable in a guest situation where you have to talk about product.
I use a lot of the science and the techniques to try to infuse flavor and get a better experience for our guests, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be flaunted. When people see technological terms, like adjusted citrus or adjusted cider, on a menu, oftentimes it just puts them off. It doesn’t intrigue them.
We’re about to put a drink on the menu from one of our bartenders, Ben Terry, that’s a variation on a Mai Tai. Instead of using lime juice, he’s using cider to be more with the season and to complement the complexities of the rum in the drink. We’re taking a cider that we have in-house, and adding citric acid to make it as acidic as lime juice. The drink still reads like a Mai Tai, but then it has all these beautiful apple flavors. And it just says “cider” as an ingredient on the menu.
It has to be making sure the guest has something they’re truly going to enjoy.
With the everyday experience of dining as a bartender or as a cook, you need to think about, “Is this going to be enjoyable? Is this going to be something that everyone would want to approach and enjoy?” You can bring out all the science and all the technology behind it after the fact, but first and foremost, it has to be making sure the guest has something they’re truly going to enjoy. It makes for a really great drinking experience.