I used to belong to a national club that held occasional guest bartender nights in its Cleveland location. It was always fun, even if the guests weren't always actual bartenders.
But here in Chicago there's more going on with the guest bartender thing. I talked about this recently with David Flom, owner at The Local Chicago, where last month they kicked off a series of such monthly events. Their first guest bartender was Justin Cochren who just started at Celeste (formerly of J. Parker and previously did stints at Tavernita and The Gage). His special drink, The Tickler, raised money for his favorite charity, Children's Memorial Hospital.
Flom did a Q&A to explain.
Q. Why did TLC decide to start this series?
A. Restaurants used to be seriously overly competitive. Maybe not such a great strategy. We have a lot of frequent diners in Chicago. Since they'd be very unlikely to eat at a single restaurant 7 days a week, restaurants can benefit by introducing each others’ places to them. Plus as I've studied how these mixologists come up with stuff, it’s a pretty serious level of creativity going on. It's truly an art. And, like any artist, they need a showcase. They don’t get enough credit. These events are a great way to highlight their skills, share customers, etc.
Q. How do you choose the bartenders and the benefit recipients?
A. We chose bartenders based purely on skill and creativity. We built a list. And we said to each bartender, you pick your personal charity.
Q. During what hours do patrons get the donation-for-cocktail?
A. All day when they order a special cocktail. Breakfast, lunch or dinner, or just drinking – we don’t discriminate.
Q. You've just introduced an industry discount. How does that tie in with the benefit series?
A. Service staff from hotels, restaurants, and so on have been the biggest facilitators of growing mixology in our industry. Lots of restaurants - half in our category - give a discount to service staff. We’ve never done it, but we’re doing it now. And it makes sense since bartenders respect their peers and like to get together. Makes for a real party atmosphere.
Q. How long does TLC expect to continue the series?
A. So far on our list we have 9 months pre-arranged with a different restaurant and bartender. We may at some point do it more than once in a month. We let the bartenders drive the cocktail list, because each has his/her own favorite liquors.
Q. What else would you like to say about this trend?
A. The restaurant community - 25000 restaurants in the Chicago area with 8000 or 9000 downtown, is really a relatively small community. I started when I was 12 and things were so fiercely competitive, if so-and-so got Mr. Jones’s birthday party, you were mad. Now it’s becoming much more open and friendly. Great to see this evolution and this new respect for bartenders. They’re getting recognized as artists – they’ve got syrups, smoke, flames, infusions, etc. to make their cocktails artful. We like to give them the recognition they deserve.
Next guest bartender up at The Local is Paul Bastien on March 10. Paul is from Drumbar and his drink is called The Highway Man ($13). It features Apple Brandy, Averna Amaro, Lemon, Raspberry Simple Syrup, Creole Bitters and Peychaud Bitters, and is garnished with cinnamon. A portion of sales from the cocktail will be donated to Paul's charity of choice, Big Shoulders Fund Chicago. And hey, you can keep the fun going at a Drumbar afterparty from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.