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Some restaurants have breached the wall between bar and kitchen, as mixologists and chefs are sharing ingredients, techniques and inspiration for creating cocktails, nonalcoholic drinks and food dishes.
Cross-utilizing versatile ingredients between the bar and kitchen can spur creativity while also benefitting inventory management, waste reduction and cost control.
“Part of the reason for the increased collaboration between kitchens and bars is that cocktails have gained a lot more credibility,” says Chall Gray, co-owner of Little Jumbo, a cocktail bar, and Slings & Arrows Consulting, a boutique hospitality company, both in Asheville, N.C. “They are much more accepted companions for dinner than they were 15 years ago.”
Retreat Gastropub and Yellowbelly, a pair of St. Louis restaurants with extensive bar programs, both focus on sharing ingredients between their kitchens and cocktail bars. Co-owner and bar manager Tim Wiggins is known for cocktails with complex, often savory flavor profiles. Taking cues from the kitchen’s produce inventory, he crafts unique syrups and cordials for drinks by juicing ingredients such as bell peppers, tomatillos, carrots, ginger and horseradish.
One example is The Golden State, a cocktail that features turmeric- and curry leaf-infused coconut syrup spiked with gin and orange liqueur. Wiggins says it recreates the flavors of coconut curry soup in cocktail form.
“Pretty much any dish can be morphed into a cocktail, if you find the right spirit and the right sweet-sour balance,” he says.
From bar to kitchen
Spirits, syrups and purees from the bar may also shine in both desserts and savory dishes. Retreat’s Amaro Affogato, a dessert of vanilla ice cream splashed with amaro liqueur and cold brew coffee, is one example. In another sweet collaboration, pastry chefs have incorporated the bar’s curry coconut syrup into rum-laced popsicles.
On the savory side, excess fresh ginger juice from the bar may be handed off to the kitchen for clam broth, and surplus rosemary shrub can be mixed with olive oil and vinegar to make house vinaigrette.
Cross-utilization also promotes cost savings. “Often, there are things that the bar might throw away that the kitchen can use, and vice versa,” says Gray. “For instance, if you sell a lot of Old Fashioneds, you make a lot of orange garnishes. It can be hard for the bar to go through all that orange juice, but the kitchen may be able to use it.”
At Retreat, snap peas that are too far past their prime to put on a plate are fine for use in cocktails.
“Once they hit two or three days old, I can juice them,” says Wiggins. “In a restaurant this small, we need to use an ingredient in more than one way. We can’t use something in just one dish or one cocktail.”
The opportunity to share ingredients promises to increase as consumers open their minds and palates to a wider array of flavor profiles. Gray notes that as consumers’ tastes mature, they move away from sweet concoctions toward drinks that are more balanced and nuanced. One of the trends gaining momentum is spiciness.
Take, for example, the Spicy Dead Lady, a medley of smoky mezcal, bittersweet Italian aperitivo, falernum liqueur and habanero chili tincture that is popular with Little Jumbo patrons. “It has a spicy burn,” says Gray. “And people have asked for more spicy drinks.”
The appeal of spiciness is rising in cuisine as well. “Whether it’s Nashville hot chicken or Mexican street food, it’s more of a thing that people are into now,” says Gray. “They want flavors that are authentic, not watered down.”
Make, versus buy
Operators with ample labor budgets and skilled staff may pride themselves on making bitters, tinctures, shrubs, syrups and purees in-house. Others may find it more practical and cost efficient to use high-quality prepared products. Many options are available, including unsweetened fruit concentrates useful for layering flavors into drinks without raising sugar levels.
“There are good reasons to make certain things in house, but cost savings is typically not one of them,” says Gray. “Nowadays, you can buy great orgeat, grenadine and tonic syrup, for example.”
“I am always of the approach that if you can’t make something better than someone else can, buy it from them,” says Wiggins.
Working hand in hand
The need to manage inventory, reduce waste and control costs argues for collaboration between bar and kitchen. “Chefs and bartenders should be, and usually are, best friends, because they deal with a lot of the same things,” says Wiggins. “If they’re not working hand in hand with products and techniques and waste management, then they’re doing something wrong.”