Should Chefs Get Involved in Cocktail Programs?

Spago cocktail by Caroline on Crack
Spago cocktail by Caroline on Crack

Spago cocktail with, yes, a sugar rim.

I constantly ask myself this question but it came up again last night while I was checking out the cocktails at iconic L.A. restaurant Spago. Executive Corporate Chef/Managing Partner Lee Hefter is the man behind the cocktail menus at all of Wolfgang Puck’s restaurants. So when the Beverly Hills restaurant reopened last year after its redesign he did that one, too. Back then it had 16 cocktails. Now it has 22, which includes three or four variations of the same tea-infused vodka/gin cocktail.

Yup, 22 cocktails and nothing to drink. But I’m not the type of girl who’s into the sweet and frou-y. The cocktail called “Toi et Moi…Ce Soir?” might have been a variation of a Sidecar but it took things too far with its addition of pineapple juice and a sugar rim. I might have enjoyed it as a tiki drink served over crushed ice and minus the sugar rim. Even my beloved Negroni, called a “Bespoke Negroni” here and made with Hendricks gin, Campari, Aperol and Carpano Antica, was undrinkable — too much going on with that uber fragrant Hendricks AND a lemon twist. And there’s even a Hello Kitty cocktail with Parrot Bay Passion Fruit rum, passion fruit puree, orange juice, cranberry juice, chili syrup and ginger. I mean, maybe the drinks appeal to the Beverly Hills crowd? All I know is that they didn’t appeal to me. And I like drinking.

Such a shame considering the restaurant has that beautiful bar lounge area as well as a new bar menu and late-night happy hour. To save the night I asked for a plain ‘ol Negroni. It was a little overdiluted but I’ll take it.

I know it’s sacrilegious to call out an institution like Spago but sitting there looking at the fallen soldiers of my previous orders, I was perplexed (and sad). Why couldn’t the restaurant hand the cocktail reins over to a dedicated mixologist? The best chefs may have highly developed palates but bar folk live and breathe for this stuff. Cocktails are their thing. You wouldn’t expect barman Sam Ross to go into Chef David Myers’ kitchen and start dictating how to put a hamburger together. I mean, I’m sure Sammy makes an awesome burger but it’s just not his forte.

And nowadays a well-put-together cocktail program in a high-end restaurant holds as much importance as a carefully curated wine list. Many restaurants with big-name chefs like David Myers’ Comme Ca, John Rivera Sedlar’s Rivera, Josiah Citrin’s Melisse and Tal Ronnen’s Crossroads knew to hire dedicated mixologists to create cocktails that not only complemented their cuisine but could stand on their own, too. It’s a show of quality. The chefs are involved but hands-off about the process. At the very least they’ll participate in the tastings and at the most they’ll collaborate. And everyone is happy about the results, most importantly the guests.

I’d love to see Spago join those ranks. If it can allow a master sommelier to create its award-winning wine program, why not also hire a renown mixologist to overhaul its cocktail program?

7 Responses to Should Chefs Get Involved in Cocktail Programs?
  1. Food GPS
    July 17, 2013 | 11:41 am

    Interesting question, Caroline. There’s no reason why a chef shouldn’t be able to develop quality cocktails. There’s certainly enough resources and information available. Hell, the sheer number of cocktail apps alone should ensure that they at least get the classics right. Still, maybe you’re right; it might not be the best use of their talents and time, especially when they’re already employing bartenders (who should be able to handle those duties themselves).

    • Caroline on Crack
      July 17, 2013 | 11:47 am

      I’m down for the chef contributing a cocktail but only under the supervision of a pro mixologist. I’ve just seen and tasted too many cases that show they can’t do it on their own.

  2. mattatouille
    July 17, 2013 | 5:05 pm

    this is great Caroline. yes, chefs shouldn’t dabble unless they’re actually really good at making a cocktail program. I’m honestly not sure why Spago wouldn’t have a guy like Sam Ross do their program unless…they’re just being cheap. Or they really don’t think their clientele will care. I haven’t tried the drinks at Spago, but I honestly haven’t had the interesting because they don’t have a real bartender/mixologist making the drinks.

    • Caroline on Crack
      July 17, 2013 | 5:11 pm

      Yeah, that would be awesome if they had someone like Sam do their cocktails. That’s my dream.

  3. FrogPrincesse
    July 18, 2013 | 1:09 pm

    That’s really disappointing, especially for a restaurant of that caliber. They don’t seem to take their cocktail program seriously at all. But you could pretty much tell by looking at the menu that their cocktails were not going to be up to par (I still cannot believe that Hello Kitty cocktail – if you hadn’t posted the photo on twitter I would have thought that you were kidding). I guess most people must be ordering wine?
    Was the food good at least?

    • Caroline on Crack
      July 18, 2013 | 1:17 pm

      Yeah, definitely everyone opts for the wine, which I can’t blame them for. The food I had was meh. Loved the desserts though.

  4. Derek
    July 24, 2013 | 8:47 am

    We had our anniversary dinner there and agree with you on the food being meh. Providence and even The Royce when Chef David Feau was there was way better than Spago.

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