Foodista Five: Warren Bobrow, Mixology Expert and Cocktail Whisperer

March 16, 2012

This week's Foodista Five interview is with Warren Bobrow, a master mixologist and connoisseur of cocktails. Warren writes about cocktails for Foodista, Williams-Sonoma and the Tasting Panel Magazine. Read on to learn more about Warren's food and mixology background, his creative inspiration and his favorite places to have a drink.

1. How did you get involved in mixology and the beverage world? What's your food background?

I got into mixology about 30 years ago. I was working as a dishwasher up in York Harbor Maine after college. I was working in television for WNET-13, engineering. My stepfather, who was chief of engineering, helped me get a job doing production and editing. It was a union job, so I could earn a month's pay in a short amount of time. I lived in York Harbor and as much as I liked being a TV engineer, it wasn't my passion. I was partially raised in Europe. During these years of traveling with my parents, I was keenly aware of cooking and drinking on a very high level. In Europe, cooks don't graduate from culinary school and suddenly become chefs. They start at a very tender age, often before the age of 10. I was immediately reminded of how hard it is to become a chef if you don't start at the very bottom of the brigade.

So, after college at Emerson in Boston -- and making a fantastic wage working in television -- I decided to pitch it all and start at the bottom. Scrubbing pots and pans. Then I graduated to dish-dog. From there to cold station, hot station, grill, saute and then the sous chef to eventually the executive chef. I've worked as a cook for nearly 30 years, attended Johnson & Wales and completed the ACF apprenticeship program. Mixology, bartending... I've always been interested in drinks.

I moved from Maine where I was cooking for Jim Ledue at Alberta's -- a truly locavore restaurant doing complete menu changes daily -- to Charleston, South Carolina to attend Johnson & Wales. It was in Charleston that I met a brilliant cook, Joann Yaeger. Joann drove me to all kinds of creativity within her restaurant named the Primrose House. We also changed our menu daily, depending on what was fresh. It was around this time that I started bartending. Until recently, South Carolina had very restrictive laws regarding liquor. If you wanted to buy a drink, it came in a mini bottle. The state taxed every portion -- not the drink, just the portion! Sundays, you couldn't drink until 2:00 p.m. People would come into our restaurant and order pots of tea with their brunch. Tea is a very gentile form of enlightenment through liquid means. However, the tea that was served at the Primrose House for "special" customers known to the restaurant, did not steam. It was bourbon. I learned my first lessons in "mixology" by serving tea for two on Sundays.

I'm a classically trained saucier. Soups, stocks, sauces and getting sauced on mint juleps, using an ancient recipe from Charleston. Sterling Silver Cups with a copper core are a must.

My food memories go back to childhood. I was raised on a farm in Morristown, New Jersey. My first food memory is of bacon, clutched in my fist.

I owned and founded the only manufacturing corporation of fresh pasta in South Carolina, Olde Charleston Pasta. I lost my business in Hurricane Hugo along with everything else. Moved to Scottsdale to work in the hotel biz, not a good fit, then back to Frenchtown, New Jersey to be a sous chef -- again, not a good fit. I've worked as a private chef/wine cellar manager for 20+ years.

2. What inspires you to create?

I am driven to create. It is my passion. I photograph, cook, don't bake, write. It's my tao. I get nervous if I'm not writing or creating. My senior year of college, I attended MIT. It was as a research assistant in Visual Thinking at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies. I dream in color and can taste and smell food in my dreams. Lucid dreaming? Perhaps.

3. What is your favorite thing to prepare?

My favorite thing to prepare is the most simple: Roast chicken. I've reviewed restaurants for New Jersey Monthly Magazine. Never do I order the "special," nor do I order the most expensive thing on the menu. I feel that you can get a real idea of the prowess of a chef by how he/she prepares a roast chicken. If they truly have passion for food, that roast chicken will knock your socks off. Perfectly seasoned, crunchy skin, herbs in the carcass, maybe a lemon zest and some roasted garlic. Really simple. If the chicken is poorly prepared, there is no love in the kitchen. A failure in my eyes.

Quickly, about failure in kitchens: Very few restaurants "get it" about the Roast Chicken. It is the simplest thing to make, yet the most complex. I don't award points for perfect, but I certainly take away for failure.

4. What's your fondest food or beverage memory?

My fondest food memory was on the Spanish Steps in Rome. I was about 12 years of age, spending a month in Italy. Men and women dressed in perfectly cut clothing were sipping little glasses of liquor on the steps. The day was one of those brilliant Rome days when the smog has vanished and the sky is azure. I can smell crusty bread and cured meats. Negroni cocktails are all the rage, but what I wanted to taste was the Amaro in those little glasses. Why Amaro? Because they represent life itself. Bitter and sweet.

5. You sit down at a bar. What drink do you order?

Well, I don't normally go to bars. As a professional cocktail consultant/mixologist, I have a plethora of professional samples at home. Pappy Van Winkle features into the bar right now, with the 20 and the 15 taking up much of my time and memory. Drinking out is expensive. I have everything at home. But in reference to the question, again, I like to see what a bartender can do with simple ingredients.

A few months ago I was writing for a local newspaper. I was doing a story about local mixology and who gets it, who doesn't and why. The day happened to be International Rum Day. With this thought in my mind, I found my way over to a local bar named the Grasshopper off the Green. They are always packed. People say they make excellent Martinis. (Their idea of a Martini is some sickly sweet vodka concoction.)

I went up to the bar and asked the bartender what she did with rum. Deadpan, she said, "Malibu and Coke is really popular." Instant failure.

Usually local bars are a disappointment. Sure, we have a few cocktail bars that "get it": SM23 is one and The Side Bar is another. Pazzo Pazzo does a decent job too. The best Bloody Mary in town is the Grand Cafe. They roll their Bloody Mary using Sacramento tomato juice and Boru Vodka. Class act.

That's about it. Morristown, New Jersey is a wasteland of beer-and-shot places. Not my style.

In NYC, I love PDT, Death and Co., Lani Kai and, of course, PKNY. Balthazar always is lovely, as is the Ear Inn for a perfect pint. Clover Club in Brooklyn for something unique from another era with the best ingredients money can buy. Dutch Kills for perfectly cut ice. Ice is very important to me. I'd have a 5-pound block around for experimenting if I could.

So, what do I order? Depends on the place. If it's a tiki bar, I order a 1934 Zombie. If it's Clover Club, I order something like the Marguerite cocktail.

If I'm at Balthazar it's a French 75 with extra bitters.

If I'm at PDT, it's a secret.

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Kathleen's picture

Warren is the consummate writer for nourriture et des boissons. He dedicates his true talent to what we eat and drink, so I feel lucky to have his guidance and look forward to his next review. Thanks for keeping me interested Warren - Kat :)