The Evolution Of A Scene, And A Bartender

By Matt Sorrell
In Food

There’s so much going on in the St. Louis culinary world these days that it’s becoming hard to keep up. It seems like every time I log on or pick up a local publication, there’s news about another place opening up or an old favorite being rediscovered or reimagined.

Photo by Leeroy/ StockSnap

Photo by Leeroy/ StockSnap

This certainly hasn’t always been the case. When I first started writing about food in St. Louis, folks looking for a white tablecloth experience had a choice of just a handful of places—most of them located either Downtown or in Clayton. On the more casual side, no one was really trying to up their game and incorporate elevated techniques and ingredients. The city’s ethnic eateries were hardly known outside the communities they served and there were next to no farmer’s markets doing business. In short, there wasn’t much to get excited about.

But over the years, we’ve seen a complete turnaround as consumers have become passionate about what’s on their plates, and chefs have responded with scores of stellar restaurants and multitudes of creative dishes, while area purveyors offer the best products available anywhere. It’s now almost a foregone conclusion that St. Louis will be represented at major awards and on national best-of lists.

I got into writing about the food scene inadvertently. I was just a freelance writer looking for a gig. Sauce Magazine happened to have an assignment, and it took off from there. But it was pretty fortuitous for me, as I’d harbored a bit of a secret for a while, before I ever wrote a word about food: I’ve always wanted to work in a restaurant.

I’ve long been fascinated by the controlled chaos of commercial kitchens. There’s nothing quite like seeing the back of the house firing on all cylinders, all of the players in complete sync with each other, from dishwasher to line cook to expediter. The heat of the stoves, the relentless chatter of the ticket printer, the sound of clanging cookware—it’s intense and thrilling and more than a little intimidating.

Unfortunately, it became quite clear to me early on that I would never be able to be a part of this milieu. Cooking is, let’s say, not intuitive for me. I can look at a pantry full of ingredients and see nothing but pain and suffering. Technique? None. And let’s not even talk about my knife skills. I resigned myself to watching from the sidelines.

But eventually I discovered a way to participate in this world. Over time I found myself talking more and more to bartenders in the course of my writing assignments. The art of the cocktail was burgeoning locally, and suddenly there were bartenders who were reintroducing classic drinks on their menus as well as coming up with their own creations, using all manner of strange and exotic (to me anyway) spirits and ingredients.

As I became more and more involved in this world, I began to realize that this was something culinary that, maybe, I could do too. In front of a stove, I felt like a little kid playing dress-up in one of his dad’s old suits, clunky and awkward, but I felt at home behind a bar. The heft of the shaker in my hand was comfortable and right. The mysterious elixirs in the myriad bottles on the back bar begged to be mixed and experimented with.

So about five years ago, I decided to become part of the industry itself and not just an observer. I read as much as I could, practiced at home (not a real chore for sure, but still … ) and took my first bartending “class,” the online Bar Smarts course. Then, I took the plunge and took my place behind the stick, first at the late, lamented Root, then on to Salt, another favorite that’s sadly no more, and finally to Planter’s House. Along the way I also started Cocktails Are Go! with my wife Beth, conducting intimate cocktail parties, classes and tastings for a variety of clients.

Since then, I’ve attended more classes and seminars, worked more shifts and recently finally became comfortable with calling myself a bartender. I’ve learned a lot about the craft and more importantly, I’ve made some great friends along the way. The bartending journey has given me an even deeper respect for the people who toil everyday in the front and the back of the house, making sure that the dining public has a great experience—oftentimes with little recognition and zero fanfare. And by pulling back the curtain and stepping into this world as a participant, I’ve gained a unique perspective on the St. Louis culinary scene. What we have here is truly special. It’s not just an industry, it’s a community, and I count myself lucky to be part of it. Cheers!

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