Crazylandia Twelve

The night at Flower started in earnest around 8. We had quite a rush and it stayed busy for an hour or so. By 9:30 things started to taper off, and I took my break and had some much needed dinner. Next time I plan to pack a snack for the BART ride over.

Amusing moment: The first time a vodka order came in with the waitress comment, “Cosmopolitan,” E. said, “I’m making that. I don’t want you writing that you came to work here and made Cosmos all night.” For the record, there were three or four orders for Cosmos and, even more amusing, one order for a Long Island Ice Tea.

Personally, I think the Cosmo is a bit unfairly maligned. Especially if it is made with a decent citrus vodka, fresh lime, Cointreau, and just a splash of cranberry. I mean, sure, it would be better with tequila or rum instead of vodka. But, it’s not a horrible drink.

The LIIT, on the other hand…

Amusing moment: “Where have you worked before?”

By 8:15 or 8:30, I started to feel pretty good about it. It was busy, I was finding a rhythm, and I didn’t have to ask how much citrus was in every drink. By 9:15 I was fried. Really needed some food to get me through. Took a break around 9:30, and came back to finish out the night. Never really got my groove back, though, and when L. wanted to play around 10:30, and trade off making drinks for each other, I could only come up with one drink before my brain seized up.

Figured it was about time, then, to switch sides of the bar, so changed back into my street clothes, and came down to chat while they finished out the evening.

Ended up hanging around until about midnight. Caught the 12:10-ish BART back to San Francisco and headed home.

So what’s the moral of the story?

I was really happy to be given this chance to work behind the bar with these talented men. It was a tough, but fun evening.

I know I exceeded my expectations for myself. My drinks were good and consistent all night. I never freaked out or panicked. I kept the tickets moving. E. and the other bartenders were impressed with my performance. It was also good to get out of my normal routine, meet some new people and do something different.

When you work in Information Technology, you seldom get praise for things well done. No one says, “Oh thanks for the 300th day of un-interrupted uptime,” or, “Wow, that migration was so seamless, I didn’t notice.” Really, people only notice when things are broken, “Why can’t I access my e-mail today?”
It was really satisfying to do something well and get direct feedback from customers or co-workers.

As I rode home on the BART, I felt excited and energized. The time I’d spent at Flower was one of the most satisfying work experiences I’d had in a few years. Somehow, I almost felt less tired after working 8 hours of my normal job and 5 hours at Flower than after just working a day of my normal job. Achey, sore, and burned, it must be said. But still, somehow more alive.

Having worked in food service, I didn’t have a particularly romantic notion about the nature of working as a bartender. Working behind the bar, and watching the other bartenders interact with the customers and each other, I began to get a much better idea of what could be satisfying in that career.

Crazylandia Eleven

The only remaining detail I haven’t covered was the dress code. White shirt, black pants, black socks, black shoes.  I really didn’t have was black shoes that I could imagine standing in all evening. Quick trip to the shoe store and I had a pair of kind of ugly black new balance walking shoes. Well, they are comfortable.

That’s it, enough of the authorly procrastinating.

After my “day job” I hopped the SF MUNI N Train to Embarcadero, and the BART to 19th Street, Oakland. While in transit, I read over my collection of recipe cards one last time.

Nervously walked the block or two to Flower.

I said, “Hi,” to E. who showed me to the office where I could get changed. (I’d read it really isn’t wise to travel on public transit at night wearing waiter-like garb. Plus, given what other people wear in my office, showing up on Friday morning dressed in service clothes would inspire more questions than I felt like answering.)

By my estimate, Flower’s dining room seats about 75. There are an additional 20 seats at the bar. On Friday, they are open for dinner service until 11:00 PM, after which they serve a limited menu until midnight. I would describe the food as modern upscale comfort food. On most Friday nights there are three bartenders on duty. One specifically handles the drink orders from the dining room. This position is called “Wheel” or “Service Well.” The other two bartenders work the bar and sometimes help out with the dining room tickets if there are lots of drink orders at once.

After I got changed, I sat down with E. and he gave me the low down.

He said, and I’m paraphrasing here, look, this isn’t going to be easy. Usually a new bartender would get two training shifts, and then start working on a less busy night than a Friday. But, you’ll be an extra person, and if it gets to be too much, just tell us, and step off. No pressure. Since you don’t know the POS (the electronic system for placing orders), wine, food, or beer list, I’m going to put you on the service well and will work with you there. This way you won’t have to put in orders or handle cash. You’ll just be making the drinks for the dining room.

“Any questions?”

I couldn’t really think of anything salient, so we made some small talk and headed down to the bar. E. re-introduced me to L., who I’d met the last time I was at Flower, and P. who would be working the other end of the bar, where patrons waiting for tables placed orders.

The evening started a bit slow, which was nice. It gave me a chance to get used to where things were and E. a chance to critique any bad habits I might have. Mostly, my bad habits amounted to a tendency to guide ice into the mixing glass with my hand over the scoop and measuring with the amount in the jigger flat to the top, instead of slightly over pouring. “You want to see that Meniscus,” said L. I said, “What?” Damn college kids and their thesauruses.

Bartenders are Cool

Well, you know, I suppose not all bartenders are cool, but I just have to pause and mention how great and supportive the men and women who work behind the bar in San Francisco (and elsewhere) have been regarding my little obsession with the Savoy Cocktail Book.

I mean, really, I’m just another cocktail nerd with a blog.

Mrs. Underhill, who really has more experience with bartenders and their late night world than I do, always tells me, look out for these guys, don’t take it seriously. Whatever happens, don’t take it personally.

And, fair enough.

I don’t really live in that world.

But here’s a funny story…

I grew up as an adopted child in the Midwest. For whatever reason, my adoptive Mom never allowed us in the kitchen to cook or even really do dishes. We didn’t go to bars or really know any bartenders.

A few years later, while at college, I found myself working in kitchens, doing dishes, and eventually cooking.

I really enjoyed cooking and did it for a number of years. After cooking, I discovered I had talent for technical problem solving, i.e. QA, and found a career in Information Technology.

Many years later, last Christmas actually, through a bizarre series of coincidences, I met my genetic Father.

As it turned out my real parents met while my genetic Dad was working as a bartender. They didn’t really know each other. Really. My genetic Dad doesn’t remember my Mom at all. After they split, my genetic Dad later worked as an engineer and problem solver for an automotive company in the Midwest. When that fizzled, he started working in food service, and has been working in it for the last 30 years.

At over 70 he is still helping a friend of the family open a cafe in northern Wisconsin.

I’m sorry if this is giving my adoptive parents, who I love, short shrift, but what the fuck does this all mean?

Am I not too old to be worrying about this sort of shit?

Why am I here, finding the very career which literally spawned me, interesting?

And to bring this all the way around…

While I have had nothing but good experiences with San Francisco bartenders, it seems like my Dad, at least back then, might have been one of those bartenders Mrs. Underhill always warns me about.

Crazylandia Ten

Earlier in the week, I had sent a note to a friend, Trott, asking if he or anyone he knew might be interested in dropping by to act as “guinea pigs” for a little drink mixing experiment. I figured I should give making these drinks for other people a shot.

Trott brought along the lovely Humuhumu, upping the ante a bit. When I sent him the drink list, he assured me I would be making a Queen’s Park Swizzle.

Unfortunately, after a bout with food poisoning, Humuhumu was not up to too much imibibing. Nonetheless, we ordered pizza, Nepalese food, and had a good evening of it. Of course I did see them again on Saturday, at which point they asked for the same again, so I guess it didn’t go too badly! In fact, I think I may have Trott addicted to the Carter Beats the Devil.

Speaking of making drinks for people, one of the things which worried me most about bartending was the service aspect of the job. I’d mentioned to E. that I was a bit nervous about the job.

But then I thought about it a bit…

Earlier in this series of posts, I’ve mentioned that my first job in food service was at a Brat und Brau. My first actual job there was taking orders at the counter. I would take the orders, accept the cash, and then the patrons’ food would be delivered to their tables. At the end of my first, or maybe second, night it was noticed that the till was off by a ridiculous magnitude. Now, a little would be OK, as I was just starting out, and never have been that great at handling money. But this was a couple hundred dollars! Needless to say, I was quickly moved off of the till. However I have always suspected, even then, that the manager was using my green status to steal from the till. Sorry dude, wherever you may be, but there is no way I was that far off. In any case, I was a sincere, hard worker, so was given a job doing set up and prep. The job payed the same, was less stressful, and I was better at it. No big deal. The experience, however, soured me a bit on working with money and customers.

On the other hand, the next time I did work with money and customers was at the coffee shop. If it wasn’t that busy, we would work both the cash register and the espresso drinks. Now that I think about it, this is probably the closest I’ve ever gotten to bartending and I remember quite enjoying it. We had some regulars who we got to know. They would come in to chat and make small talk. We’d make them their order or ring it up without them really having to tell us what they wanted. It was nice. And I remember no unfortunate accidents or incidents involving my till being off by a ridiculous magnitude.

I mean, sure, the drugs bartenders and espresso jerks serve are a bit different. At the coffee shop, you don’t usually have to eject a customer because they are getting too jittery or wired!

Still, the jobs aren’t altogether different, and I remember it being the highlight, (other than meeting Mrs. Underhill,) of that period of my life. So maybe I do make too much of that first experience at Brat und Brau.

Crazylandia Nine

If you’ve read the post “Homework“, you’ll know I made it through all 18 drinks more or less according to the recipes from the Flower drink book.

I did forget to pick up the Gosling’s at the store, which was a major mistake.  To me, (sorry Cameron,) the Cruzan Blackstrap Rum just did not make a good Dark and Stormy.

But on the whole I was really pleased.  The drinks were really good.

One thing to make drinks all night.  Another thing altogether to be proud of not just your technique, but also the drinks you are serving.

The main problem this evening being restraining myself from drinking too much of them!

I did save the old-fashioned and put it in the freezer until I had finished making the other cocktails.

I needed some sort of reward for myself anyway and I just couldn’t bring myself to throw an old-fashioned down the drain.

At this point, however, I just did not know how well I would work out behind the bar.

Would I be hopelessly slow at making drinks?

Even though I have made a point of purchasing more or less professional level bar tools for my home, not having pour spouts in the bottles, squeezing juice as I went, and not really having a kitchen organized like a bar, made it really difficult to judge how making drinks would go behind the bar.

Well, like E. said, if it got to be too much I could step off.  No pressure.

That said, damn it, I don’t want to seem to be some tourist or dilettante.  I’ve still got enough pride in having been a line cook that I don’t want to screw this up.  And I don’t want to let E. and the other bartenders down after they have invited me in and given me this chance.

Crazylandia Eight

In preparation for making the drinks, I made up a little shopping list of the ingredients I needed to pick up:

24 Limes (1 oz juice per lime)
1 dozen Lemons (2 oz juice per lemon)
2 Bunches Mint
Ginger Ale
Martin Miller Gin
Ron Pampero Anniversario
Black Seal Rum

That should be enough to make all the drinks twice, with what I already have in house. I’m going to cheat slightly on the brands of Tequila and Mezcal called for. Those spirits are too expensive to get more bottles in addition to the ones I already have.

Damn that’s a lot of limes. Just thinking about how many limes they must go through at Flower boggles the mind.

It must be literally tons.

Crazylandia Seven

So in agreement that I would work the next Friday night, E. sent me the drink book and service document.

I’m kind of a student cocktail mixing and technique, so I didn’t have too much trouble with the service document. My only worry was that Erik the slightly mean, grumpy, and foul mouthed cook might show up when I got stressed. But haven’t really seen him around for a few years, so maybe I’m in a different place in my life these days. I tried not to worry too much.

Flower’s drink book, on the other hand worried me a bit.

A lot of them were classics and I probably had made more than 75% of them at some point or another. Still, to be expected to know exact recipes for all of them seemed like a lot. It was like 75 cocktails. So I sent a note to E. asking about it.

In the meantime, I copied them all down on 3×5 cards, and started trying to memorize them by reading out loud, and going through them over and over on my commute.

A few days later, E. replied and told me not to sweat the list too much. I’d probably mostly be making the drinks on the menu.

Carter Beats the Devil
Clover Club
Pegu Club
Corpse Reviver #2
Singapore Sling
Trailer Smash
Whiskey Cocktail
Dark and Stormy
Old Cuban
Floradora Royal
Sloe Gin Fizz
Queens Park Swizzle
Satan’s Soul Patch
Widows Kiss
Last Word

The amusing part being, that to make all 18 of these recipes I only needed to buy perishables, one bottle of slightly obscure rum, and a specific brand of a gin I didn’t currently have around.

Next mission: Make and try all 18 cocktails in one night.

Crazylandia Six

About this time, I thought it might be good to mention this little idea to Mrs. Underhill.

She was a bit skeptical. Her exact analogy was, “You don’t have to be in a band to appreciate music!”

Fortunately, due to the fact that she knew and liked E., she eventually conceded. But I knew I’d have to be on my best behavior. She made it quite clear that the first time I came home drunk at 3 AM, the jig would be up.

About this time, E. sent me an idea, “So how do you feel about working with me for a two or three evenings at Flower. What’s the kitchen word for not getting payed? ‘Staging‘? I was trying to figure out a way you could take a half way step and have some fun. You would be an extra body so you could step in and make drinks for the wheel when you liked, help guests when you liked, take a break and step off when you wanted to.”

Holy Crap! I had in my mind maybe having E. over to a BBQ and making drinks with him or working something like a catered party. I was totally honored and flabbergasted that he would even suggest an opportunity like this.  I quickly fired off an email agreeing to the experiment.

Crazylandia Four and a Half

To go back a bit…

When I was working at the Italian restaurant there was a worldly piano teacher who worked in the building.

We bonded over Contemporary Classical Music (Cornelius Cardew) and 20th Century literature (Samuel Beckett).

Some nights, after lessons, he would come down for dinner. If it wasn’t too busy, we’d chat about music and literature, and I’d make him dinner.

I think one of the first times I was left alone to run the line, probably a Tuesday or Wednesday night, he came down.

It was spring and we had just received a shipment of beautiful morel mushrooms. The special that night was a morel risotto.

He asked me to make him a plate for dinner.

I was really pretty excited to be making a dinner for someone as worldly and sophisticated as he, so I did my best. At that time, I thought the best thing to “improve” the recipe and make it special would be to make a whole lot of it.

So I sent out a heaping plate of morel risotto.

Afterwards I asked him to be honest, I was after all just a learning cook, and tell me how the risotto had been.

He replied it was good, but the portion was too large. There was too much rice and not enough morels.


To be trying to impress someone with your cooking, and have the very thing you thought to do to make it special be pointed out as its flaw. And to see instantly that they are right. And worse than that, to have disrespected such a beautiful and special ingredient.

Yep, that smarts.

But, you learn the limitations of your knowledge, take the lesson, and move forward.

As Beckett writes in Worstward Ho, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Crazylandia Five

After a few days of thinking about what I had said and written I sent a note to E.

“Yeah, I suppose, if I’m going to continue spouting off about bars and tending I probably should at least have some experience behind the bar…If you can think of some gentle introduction to the job, let me know. Have to be evenings or weekends.”