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Naima Green
Setting The Bar: John deBary
A conversation about seminal cocktail books and the challenges of working in hospitality with bartender, author, and RWCF co-founder John deBary.
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John deBary is not a judgemental sort of bartender. If you want a whiskey ginger, for example, he’ll make you one, and he won’t point out the fact that there are infinitely more interesting things that you could be drinking. And that’s exactly the sort of attitude you expect from someone who just wrote a cocktail book called Drink What You Want , which is full of recipes for everything from a weed-infused absinthe punch to a Lazy (Fancy) Vodka Soda and a fennel-infused Old Fashioned variation called the Mountainside.

Before his writing days, John made a name for himself at the now-classic NYC speakeasy Please Don’t Tell. After, he moved on to Momofuku, where he trained staff, developed cocktail lists, and helped open 10 locations over the span of nine years. John’s also the co-founder of the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, a non-profit providing grants and resources to people in the restaurant industry, so we thought we’d sit down and discuss everything from seminal cocktail books and working at an iconic bar to the challenges of existing in hospitality at present.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

You started out as a bartender at PDT, which is kind of like starting out as a server at Eleven Madison Park. Take me through that.

I mean, it was the right place at the right time, but also the right connections at the right time. I went to college with Don Lee, who was an industry bigwig and kind of one of the opening team members for PDT, and he and I had been friends for a long time. He invited me to PDT for drinks, and I thought, “This is the coolest thing ever.” Then I was traveling, and I came back to New York, and I didn’t really have much in terms of a clear job idea. I just emailed him and said, “Hey, this bar looks really cool. Are you hiring?” So I got to sort of do a stage thing for a couple of nights. After my first shift, Don was like, “Read these books,” and I bought them immediately and read them furiously. I knew that I was wildly unqualified, so I had to catch up really, really quickly.

When I started, PDT was still kind of a neighborhood place. It was this chef-y hang where Wylie Dufresne would be shooting the shit with you, and it wasn’t this huge thing that took hours and hours to get in. It was still pretty casual and truly kind of a speakeasy in a sense that not many people knew about it. But also you can’t ignore the fact that I’m a tall, able-bodied white dude who talks nice and went to a nice school. People just tend to take my word for what I’m saying. So there were a lot of things that came together to try to make that happen. A lot of luck.

Yeah, you do talk pretty nice. So how’d you link up with Momofuku? There isn’t a connection between PDT and Momofuku is there?

A little, actually, in that Dave [Chang] came in a lot. Momofuku was also still very small. It was like two and a half restaurants in the East Village. We also had a hot dog called the Chang Dog that was a bacon-wrapped deep-fried hot dog with kimchi, and we got the kimchi from [Momofuku] Noodle Bar. So there is a sort of informal connection between the places. Then Don Lee actually went to establish the bar program at Ssam Bar, and I kind of followed him there. I was looking to kind of broaden my experience, and, from there, my role grew with the group. I went on to open 10 restaurants for them and worked there for nine years.

That’s wild.

There are actually people who have been working at Momofuku longer than I have, which is pretty astonishing.

I’ve been reading your book, and I love the approach. I would describe it as casually nerdy. Is that correct?

I might use that. That kind of encapsulates me as a person pretty nicely, I have to say. So, yeah.

Does this title, Drink What You Want, tie into some broader philosophy of yours?

Yeah, I guess. For me, it’s the ultimate lesson of the book. My dad’s a huge wine nerd, and one of the things that he’s always been big about is that it doesn’t really matter if it’s right or wrong, if you are getting pleasure out of it. If you’re enjoying your experience, who the fuck cares. Don’t yuck someone’s yum.

I was that bartender with the suspenders and bow tie who was like, “We don’t have any vodka drinks, fuck off.” That was sort of part of the culture. It was part of the growing pains of establishing legitimacy and saying, “No, we’re the authority here. We’re not going to make you your lemon drop.” Someone would come in and ask for a whiskey and ginger ale, and I’d be like “Actually, there’s a cocktail menu.” Then after a few months, I was like, “Why am I making it harder myself? Just give this person what they want.”

But what if you’re working at PDT, and I come in ask for a Long Island Iced Tea?

It’s funny you should mention that. I actually love that drink. If you make it with nice ingredients, and you’re not throwing off the balance or using a poor sour mix, I think it’s tasty.

Were you trying to fill a niche with your book? Was there something lacking in other cocktail books that you wanted to do?

Yeah, a little bit of all of that. I found it was kind of an arms race to see who can get more and more elaborate and technique-driven, which is cool and interesting - but there weren’t a lot of casual books out there. I thought it would be fun to write to a person who doesn’t know a lot about cocktails, because that’s what my background was. At Momofuku, I had to explain a lot of esoteric and intricate cocktail concepts. If you’re trying to get a manager up to speed on a cocktail list, how do you do that in a 10-minute meeting? So I got a lot of practice doing that, and I thought that would be the most exciting person to write to - someone who’s maybe a little intimidated. I also wanted it to be a book that people enjoy reading, whether or not they’re interested in cocktails.

When you mentioned technique-driven cocktail books, I was thinking of Dave Arnold’s Liquid Intelligence.

I love that book. I think that book is amazing - but I also kind of wanted to make the opposite of that book.

But you didn’t really make the opposite. Your book is just more approachable, and it has more fun. Although Dave Arnold still has fun.

Yeah, I mean he’s probably one of the most fun people I know, and I’m really sad about Existing Conditions closing. But I’m sure that whatever happens, there will be a place to get drinks that he’s responsible for in the future.

What were your formative cocktail books? The most influential ones.

The PDT Cocktail Book was a really significant one. It wasn’t the first cocktail book I ever read, but - and maybe I’m biased because I worked there and love Jim [Meehan, one of the founders of PDT] - it’s the first book I read that was hospitable, easy, approachable, and just really straightforward.

I think I have two copies of that book, for some reason.

I do not. Sorry, Jim. Also, David Embury’s The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks. It’s kind of a problematic book, like, it was very much written by this guy, and this guy happens to be a sexist asshole - but the style of it was influential for me. It’s still that model for a book that can introduce you to a person as well as a way of thinking about drinks.

Imbibe was also a really cool book for me to read. As I was starting out, it wasn’t super cool and professional to be a bartender. When I told people that I was going to be a bartender they were like, “What do you mean? Aren’t you going to go to law school?” And the story of Imbibe was this guy Jerry Thomas who was one of the first celebrity bartenders. It showed that the professional bartender is a real thing, and it’s been going on for a long time. People have this image of bartenders as being uneducated, but it’s actually a job that requires a great deal of skill and study.

Right. In your book you talk about how when you were starting out, you were hesitant to become a bartender because it didn’t seem like a “real job.” Which is something I’ve heard as well. Have you seen the perceptions around that change?

Yeah, absolutely. This is kind of strange to say, but I have a geeky family. We’re a lot of academics, so it was kind of a given that I would do something academic and scholarly. To me, bartending was kind of like, “OK, I’m going to do this now because it’s a really cool job.” But I was still practicing for the LSAT. Then I saw it for what it was. It was a real job with a lot of study, and it’s not just something anybody can do. I also saw success pretty quickly. I started bartending at one of the best bars in the world right off the bat, and I got pictures and quotes in the New York Times within months of being behind the bar. So I was like, “Huh, I might be onto something.” But I remember back when I had regulars who had known me for years, and they were like, “So what do you really want to do?”

Yeah, exactly.

And I was like, “You know me, and you come here all the time and love this. Who else is going to do this?” There’s still a very interesting bias against bartending as a permanent job.

Speaking of taking people in the hospitality industry seriously, what’s going on with the RWCF these days?

This year has been the culmination of a lot of things that have been many years in the making, and the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation is one of them. Our first official year was 2019, and our primary function was to raise money and give grants for solutions to issues in the restaurant industry like low wages, sexual harassment, mental illness, substance abuse, exploitation of immigrants, and racial justice. We raised $40,000 last year, and we had budgeted that we were going to raise $130,000 for 2020 - and that was our huge goal. Then in March, we saw what was happening to the restaurant industry, and we knew we had to have a response to that.

Since March 15th, we’ve raised just over seven million dollars. Which is staggering. We’ve done three rounds of grant-making, going out to organizations like Ben’s Friends, RAINN, and other local and national organizations. Direct financial assistance is through Southern Smoke, and they’ve been doing grants to people in crisis for a few years now. Then the last piece of the fund is the zero-interest loan program, and we’re also partnering with an organization to roll that out. The loan program is going to be announced, I think, in November.

What specific systemic change in the restaurant industry are you working towards with RWCF?

There’s broader legislative change that we’d like to see, like limiting the tip credit for tipped workers. In states that don’t have higher credits, they can pay their workers as little as $2.13 an hour, with the rest made up in tips. And that sounds nice on paper, but it leads to all sorts of things like wage theft and power imbalances that really shouldn’t be there.

I don’t think tipping is necessarily the worst thing ever. There are a lot of problems with it, but I think there’s a way to reform the system so that there’s an alignment with busier people being paid more, like a commission-based model for compensation. So that’s a big one. Also, raising the minimum wage and universal health care, because only about 14 percent of hospitality workers receive employer-based health care.

We’re focusing on retaining and advancing workers, and skewing things away from existing inequalities. Walk into a restaurant, and it tends to be the whitest people at the front. And the farther back you go, the darker people get. That’s a reflection of the way we value people in society, and we see that the restaurant industry is a place where a lot of our structural problems in society play out at a very high degree. So attacking those problems is a way to enact broader change.

But at the end of the day, we’re not necessarily trying to scold anyone. It’s more about: Are you aware of the laws in your state? Are you aware of all the tools you have to run restaurants properly? A lot of people who own restaurants don’t necessarily have business backgrounds, and they don’t have the tools to be able to run the restaurants the way they would want to.

Why do you think it’s taken so long for these issues to be resolved in the restaurant industry?

It’s a complicated issue for sure, but there are a few things I can think of. One is that, traditionally, service work was generally seen as something that was done by women or people of color. And so the value of that work was suppressed by systemic inequality, racism, and sexism. The idea that people should be paid according to how much they’re working is not that prevalent in society. People have no problem with extraordinarily well-paid movie actors making millions of dollars, but then the idea of raising the minimum wage is unconscionable. I think it’s about society imagining who deserves to get paid what and how racism and sexism are baked into that.

So that’s a big one. And also I think that the beauty of restaurants is that the work, when it’s done really well, isn’t visible. It doesn’t look like it’s very hard to do, but behind the scenes, people are working furiously. And so it seems like it’s all very effortless. But you’re not seeing the dishwasher working a 12-hour shift, you’re not seeing the cooks, and you’re not seeing the managers working tons of hours to get their staff trained. It’s all very invisible to people, so it’s hard to get them to understand why they’re paying what they’re paying.

What about barbacks? Can I get a shoutout for barbacks?

Yeah. Barbacks are a perfect example of how people who work the hardest are sometimes paid the least.

We need to cover some cocktail things before I forget. Favorite bars in New York. We’ll start with that one.

First off, I have to qualify this by saying that I’m pretty boring. Lockdown life isn’t that challenging to me because I’m sort of a vampire hermit, so... I’m not a big going-out person. But like I said, Existing Conditions was always great for me. I was a big fan of Pegu Club too. I thought it was one of those bars that did cocktails in a way that’s reverent but not stuffy. Mother of Pearl was another favorite of mine. Donna is always great.

What’s your go-to order?

This is also kind of revealing of how boring I am, but I love sparkling water. It’s my comfort drink. But I wouldn’t order seltzer at a bar. At a cocktail bar, I always think it’s professionally nice to order something from the menu - whatever has a high degree of citrus or acidity in it. That’s my thing. I like long, crushable drinks, like a Collins or Singapore Sling.

Yeah, you seem to have a lot of opinions on highballs in your book. That was just an observation. Your book also has a recipe for something called Weed Punch, and you tell the reader to put some weed in a saucepan, then put that saucepan in the oven for an hour. What does your house smell like after that?

It smells like weed, yeah. To me, it was important to show that you have to decarboxylate the marijuana. But if I had to do it again, I’d just say, “Fly to California, get a dropper bottle of tincture, and do it that way.”

The oven thing sounds cool. I’m definitely going to try that one day.

Want to try one of John’s signature drinks? Check out his Guest Bartender tutorial for a cocktail called the Mountainside.

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