Mixologist or bar chef? Oftentimes bartender suffices

IT WAS ONE of those social gatherings where everyone stands around holding a glass of white wine in one hand while simultaneously balancing a small plate of pasta salad and cocktail shrimp in the other.

I had done my best with the shrimp and had almost secured a mouthful of pasta salad when a woman asked me what I did for a living.

“I bartend,” I said between sips of white wine.

“Oh,” she said, her glass and plate in constant bobble. “You mean like a mixologist?”

“No, like a bartender.”

“Oh, so, sort of like a bar chef?”

“No, just like a bartender.”

She seemed displeased with my answer, but in my off hours I sometimes spend less time trying to make other people happy than I do during my paid time. Call me discerning.

Two of the most overused terms in modern bartending are the terms mixologist and bar chef. Ironically, they are used by people who don’t quite get the craft. Here’s my take on the two.

Bartending is not a science, it is an art. For argument’s sake, I say baking is a science and cooking is an art. If you don’t believe me try using a “dash” of baking powder next time you bake or a “pinch” of yeast and just see what happens or doesn’t happen. Baking requires precise measuring. Cooking, on the other hand, depends on interpretation and so does bartending. But don’t call it mixology.

Let us consider the martini. If bartending were a science then every martini would be the exactly the same (at least everyone using the same brand). Exact measurements of all the ingredients would yield exactly the same drink. It’s simple scientific method — a system of repeatable experiments that yield the same results. However, anyone who has ever drunk martinis will tell you, they are not all the same.

Tom’s martinis are different than mine, mine different from Bobby’s and so on. Furthermore, we bartenders are at the beck and call of our patrons. It’s not necessarily what we bartenders want, it is what we along with our patrons create together. Even the most scientifically inclined artist of all time, Leonardo da Vinci, was subject to his patrons’ whims, ergo his two different versions of the “Virgin of the Rocks.” One could say the first version “had a tad too much vermouth.” And if it happened to da Vinci, it can happen to any Tom, Dick or Harry who sets foot behind the bar, too.

So having made the point that bartending is more art than science by using cooking as a metaphor, how does one refute the term bar chef? Two words: Gordon Ramsay. Chefs are notoriously egocentric. The word “chef” means “chief” in French, and that should tell you all that you need to know. Chief of what? Chief of everything.

Imagine telling Ramsay that your drink isn’t cold enough or that your margarita is too tart or your mai tai is too, well, whatever. You will probably be barraged with enough F-bombs to make a porn producer blush. Chefs are not usually known for their interpersonal skills. If they were, then Ramsay would be out one show. Perhaps that is why many restaurants make a clear distinction between the front of the house — servers, bartenders, bussers, etc. — and the back of the house — cooks, sous-chefs, etc. Never the twain shall meet.

Recently, I had the good fortune to be interviewed by two food media insiders, Christopher Kimball of “America’s Test Kitchen” and Joel Riddell of “Dining Around.” Both indicated that they were less-than-enthralled by the current mixology/bar chef idea. Not the creative aspect of it — which both love — but the arrogance aspect. Both relayed stories of mixologist/bar chef types lecturing them on their drink selections or their ordering terminology. One told Kimball, who had sent his drink back, “That’s how you make a Manhattan.”

This, whether science or art, bartending or chefing, is still terrible customer service. But that kind of makes my point, doesn’t it? Once you lose sight of the customer it doesn’t really matter what you call yourself.