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A chat with Steve Schneider of “Hey Bartender”

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Celebrity chefs are old news. Even so, the idea of a celebrity bartender will strike many people as odd, even if you use the increasingly popular term “mixologist.” Nevertheless, celebrity bartenders are well on their way.

29-year-old Steve Schneider isn’t remotely a household name, but that can change. He is clearly one of the world’s best known mixologists, with more than a little rock star flair. He also pretty much walks away with the new documentary, “Hey Bartender,” which opened in New York recently and began a slow nationwide roll-out in Southern California, Seattle, Denver, Columbus and elsewhere this past Friday.

Directed by Douglas Tirola (“All In: The Poker Movie”), the film is a charming, rough around the edges, information-rich treat for anyone who’s interested in the idea that cocktails might be more than a matter of pouring booze into a cup. Such famed cocktail mavens as Dale DeGroff and my personal favorite, David Wondrich, are featured, as are many of the nation’s best bartenders. Yet it’s Schneider who dominates the film with his journey from downtrodden former Marine – his career was cut short by a severely traumatic training accident – to the multiple-prize winning principal bartender of New York’s supremely acclaimed Employees Only bar.

It’s a bit much to call Schneider the Bruce Springsteen of bartenders, but his salt-of-the-earth, bridge-and-tunnel mixture of sincere pride and humility feels very familiar, and he does not lack for showmanship – he even sports a hammer that might remind some of a certain Norse thunder god. “Hey Bartender” captures the man’s skill, bravado, and iron-clad work ethic, but it doesn’t quite capture the generosity or enthusiasm that I encountered when I got to talk to him via coast-to-coast telephony not long ago.

Bullz-Eye: Congratulations. Everything seems to be going right. Aside from the movie, I understand you’ve won another contest.

Steve Schneider: Yeah, I just won a competition a couple of weeks ago in Chicago with Anthony Bourdain. It was fun. Anytime you get a chance to go to Chicago, it’s fun.

BE: By the way, I’m not sure. Exactly where are you from, originally?

SS: I was born in Bergen County, in Jersey.

BE: So you’re basically a Tri-State area boy.

SS: Yes, I am.

BE: Boy, I have so much to ask and I’m not sure what to start with.

SS: Let it ride, you know. Whatever you need.

BE: Okay, cool. It’s actually to the credit of the film, they don’t make a big deal about your hammer, but I think people want to know about the hammer anyways.

SS: It’s more of a symbol than it is a tool. I mean, it’s a great tool to use. It’s used to crush ice. We have a machine to do it. It’s good for a home bartender or a bar that’s a little slower. You can afford to put ice in a canvas bag and crush it and make juleps or swizzles or any other types of drink that require crushed ice to make it really cold.

I got the idea from David Wondrich, who’s a cocktail historian. I was standing at the bar at Employee’s Only; he was shooting some video. And I’m not really sure what [the video] was for, but he was making a gin julep and he pulled out a money bag and a carpenter’s mallet and he started to crush ice. I thought it was awesome, you know. It was funny, it was cool. It was six, seven eight months – something like that – before the “Thor” movie came out. I used it in a kind of cocktail competition, which I didn’t even win, a couple of weeks after.

I went online and bought a bunch of larger obnoxious mallets. I busted them out in the competition. The judges stopped and looked. Everybody started taking pictures. It sort of took on a life of its own, where I’d sort of show up with a big hammer. In the movie, they say it’s a tool to build or a weapon to destroy. A big hammer – there’s no stopping it. It’s a symbol of strength. Overcoming adversity. For me [it's kind of a reminder] of what I had to endure, when I got injured. Coming back from nothing and build a future for myself; everybody loves any kind of show like that.

About a year a half ago. A buddy of mine, he’s a carpenter. He’s got a big shop. He offered to make me a hundred hand-made mallets that I designed. Then I sold them for charity, for rescue dogs. I sold out all 100 in one week in 12 different countries. People kind of got on board. It’s sort of taken on a persona of its own. It’s a symbol of “never give up,” join together, and…crush anything that stands in your way, metaphorically.

BE: It obviously reflects on your own amazing story. It’s a good movie, but you sort of walk away with it in a lot of ways. I do a “Drink of the Week” feature where I learn to make a new cocktail every week, but I always tell people I could never be a bartender. Taking maybe five minutes to make a martini just wouldn’t fly in a bar — and I’ve never had to have brain surgery! You’ve overcome some pretty serious adversity here.

SS: I did… Nobody gave me anything. Half of it was luck; half of it was just determination. I never give up. I couldn’t do it alone. I’m no different than any other bartender out there. I’ve just been able to take every opportunity and make the most of it and really just do things the right way. I couldn’t do it alone. Now at Employees Only and the guys I worked with growing up — friends, family, loved-ones. They all help through the way just by little things, little moments. Little bits of love and little bits of support.

BE: One thing they talk about a great deal in the movie is how far back this history goes. I can’t help but think about your handlebar mustache [you wear in the movie]. Is that kind of a nod to the past?

SS: Yeah, but it’s just a look. It’s New York City. There’s a lot more weird things in New York than a crazy mustache.

BE: No kidding!

SS: [Laughs] Yeah. it’s just a classic bartender style. I have trimmed it. It’s really kind of small [now]…but I’ve got the pointy beard going. It’s just fun facial hair. You can’t take yourself too seriously. You’ve got to have a little fun with what you do. When people come to the bar and they see some kind of character there, they want to learn more. “What in the hell are you thinking about with that crazy mustache? You’ve got a lot of balls, kid.” [Laughs]

BE: They talk in the movie a little bit about how [Employees Only] is kind of a “sexual” bar. It’s funny. I always knew that being a bartender was a good way to meet people, but it never really occurred to me that you guys sometimes have groupies.

SS: I don’t know how to talk about this other than, yeah, it’s pretty awesome. That’s where the whole “rock star” comes into play. Of course, you want to create a barrier between you and your guests. You want to flirt to a certain extent…You want [people] to feel like I have your back as opposed to I’m just trying to get mine. It can be difficult, and sometimes it can be a little much.

But, you know, it’s a great place to meet people for everybody. A lot of times I try to make sure the other guys in the bar are having a good time. And, sometimes, I feel like I should make a move…I’m very happy right now but I’m going to be lying to you if [I don't admit] I haven’t taken home my share of women at the bar.

BE: Now, one of the things that’s interesting about this is that the craft cocktail scene is that it’s growing but it’s still kind of far from being universally well known. Do you find that people who you meet outside the bar really understand what you do, or do they just think you work at a Friday’s?

SS: As much as it’s growing – it’s tremendous, it’s growing, it’s growing – we’re still in the minority, big time. I still get people that look at me weird when I crack an egg open and pour it in a whiskey sour. I’ve still got people who ask me questions like “isn’t absinthe illegal?” “No, dude. It’s been like 10 years now.” They don’t know – it’s not their job to know.

When I go home, it’s kind of weird. I can’t really talk about what I do to friends from back home. I tell them I have a great job but – I didn’t go to my high school reunion. How am I going to explain to them that [I'm not] some kind of asshole bartender on the corner in our home town that life didn’t quite work out for him? In actuality, I don’t know how to tell these guys that I’m doing pretty damn well for myself. I’m probably making more than [most people in] my graduating class…I just tell them “I’m in the restaurant business.”

BE: [Laughs]

SS: My best friends know exactly what’s going on in my life and they know how successful I am and how much fun [I'm having]. I’m talking about the people I haven’t seen since high school. I’ve got nothing to talk to them [about when it comes to mixology and the bar business] as much as I care about them. Part of me wants to have a little validation where it’s like, “Hey, I have an amazing career and this is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time” but…I’m doing fine, I’m sure they’re doing fine. Let’s be happy.

BE: They don’t make a big deal about this in the movie, but I was just reading one of your other interviews, and I did notice that you free pour. In my experience, when I go to craft bars, they usually don’t, and it usually tastes better when they don’t. Now, you win these contests, you guys were named the best bar in the world. I’m sure you know exactly what you’re doing. What’s the secret to [high quality] free pouring?

SS: There are no secrets for this one. Number one is practice: practice, practice, practice. We don’t just go behind the bar and throw some shit in the glass and that’s it.

BE: No kidding.

SS: We use all our senses. We have to work on it. It’s kind of like you can’t read a book and become a pro skateboarder. You’ve got to actually put your time in. Keep failing. Keep doing the flips. I compare bartending to extreme athletes only in this regard – you can’t just pick up a book. Whereas, you can pick up a book and read a cocktail recipe. You’ve got the measurement devices, you make the cocktail, and your done.

BE: Right.

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SS: But to do it at a high level, consistently, and to do it fast, it takes a long of work. You’ve got use your eyes, your nose, you’ve got to taste what you’re doing…There’s a lot of things that come into play…It provides a personal touch. You’ve got to learn how cocktails should taste and balancing cocktails as opposed to just an ounce and a half of this and a half ounce of this. To each his own. Whatever style that works for you, but we don’t have time to sit there and use those.

I love the thrill of being able to [know that ] “I could fuck this drink up.” It’s a thrill. Sometimes I screw up things, but I’ve got to be able to fix it. I love that thrill. I have my mixing glass in my hand. I pour my ounce; I pour my half ounce. Other bartenders sometimes [ask] “How do you guys do it like that?”

My mentors, before they even started, they had to pass a pour test before even going to work, before they were even allowed to work behind the bar. That was going on awhile ago, and that’s kind of died off. There’s a man named Tobin Ellis. He has a great training program, Barmagic out of Las Vegas. One of his partners was my original craft cocktail mentor. He taught me how to do all this stuff; his name is John Hogan. They have a great free pouring methodology [that gets into] the science of it. “Technical freepouring” they call it. If you know how to do that, your speed increases so much [and so does your] efficiency….I’ve been doing this 11 years. I know how to pour an ounce of booze. [Laughs]

BE: I think a lot of people can make a good drink and a lot of people can make drinks fast, but to be able to do both is the real art here, isn’t it?

SS: Of course, but you also have to think about the intangibles. It’s not only about making drinks and making them fast, but you’ve got work alongside somebody. You’ve got to be able to move, too, with them; you’ve got to be able to feel them. You’ve got to be able to listen to everything that’s going on.

[I'll be] fucking with the garnishes or whatever, and I’ll hear an order for a drink and I know the garnish is right there in front of me. I’ll just pick it up and I’ll hand it to the bartender without even saying a word. We have one goal in mind that’s fill the register, fill the tip bucket, and make people happy. Those are our goals.

[We want to provide] some kind of positive experience no matter where they’re from and who they are. You know, one thing about New York is that there’s people from all over the world who live in this city. They might all live on the same block and they all have different upbringings, different tastes, different everything, different customs. You get to know all these different people. That’s such an awesome part of the job.

BE: I had an experience recently I’ve been thinking a lot about at a famous bar out here you’ve probably heard of, Musso & Frank. [This was during the 2013 TCM Film Festival in Hollywood]. They’re not really a craft bar in the way you guys are at all. I had a Sidecar there that was extraordinary, made by a guy – I think he might be nearly 80 years old – named Manny Aguirre. [He was ] using almost the cheapest possible ingredients. I’m sure they use fresh lemon juice, probably. He used Christian Brothers brandy, I think it was DeKuyper triple sec. I don’t know why, but I think it was the most amazing Sidecar I’ve had. Can you account for something like that?

SS: There are some good bars, some bad bars. Everything has its place. When you think about good drinks – good anything, food and drinks – it’s not only what you can taste and also what you can smell, but there’s that X factor that makes something truly remarkable and even better that you’d think. An old man’s making drinks like that and it’s delicious; it makes it even more delicious.

When I have a mixing glass in my hand, I’m dancing with my partner. I’m pouring ingredients right in there; I’m eyeballing stuff. It’s just such a personal feel for my guests. It’s not just recipes on a sheet…Cocktails are like people. We’re all made up of different parts [and it involves] all our senses. They all come together and reconnect, you know. I connect to my guests so I can make drinks like that. It’s part of that X factor where it’s like, “Wow, he just did all that in 45 seconds.” He wasn’t even moving fast, he was moving efficiently. You know where all your stuff is. When I first walked into Employees Only, that’s what I saw. [I'm sure] you’ve had [a similar] experience in L.A. yourself, you walk into a place and you’re just like, “Man, I’m in New York.” You get that vibe, that fantasy of New York vibe, that pulse we all talk about?

BE: Yeah.

SS: I got that when I walked into EO. I thought it was a different world, through those curtains. I saw the guys in the white coats, shaking and moving together and helping each other out without even having to talk to each other that much. I saw how much fun they were having and how much the people engaging with them were having. There’s no TVs, they were just watching the bartenders. I was like, “I wanna be these guys.” I didn’t say I wanted to be like that man right there.

Now, five plus years later from the first time I walked in here. To be able to work, every Wednesday, next to the guy that I first saw in here, it almost brings me to tears. I’m the most grateful bartender on the face of the earth. I might be in this movie, I’ve got a story, but I’m one of many, many stories of great success stories of bartenders. Great stories of hardships; we all have them in life. I’m just fortunate in that I follow the rules that I’ve been taught, and that’s to treat everyone right. When [director Doug Tirola] came in I didn’t know who he was. I treated him to the best of my abilities and, lo and behold, he was a filmmaker and, four years later, here I am talking to you. I treated the man with respect. “Please” and “thank you” goes a long way.

BE: That’s very commendable. You know, usually at this point something interrupts me and tells me to stop, or well before this point. So, I appreciate you really giving me time, but I’m going to ask you one more question before we go. We ask this question a lot of actors and other people, about movies they’ve made that they’re very proud of but that haven’t gotten as much attention as [they] should. So, I’m asking you, do you have a drink that you make that you wish people would order more? Either something you’ve created or something you just love?

SS: I hate to say it, but not really, man. I don’t really have one of those. I hate to give you nothing on this one but there’s not really a recipe where I was like, “I love it; everyone hates it.” I make drinks for other people, I don’t make drinks for myself. I make drinks with people in mind, for people I love. People I want to make proud… I’m a bartender. I don’t really have any huge artistic ego where if I come up with something I want everyone to love it. If people don’t enjoy it, I don’t take it to heart. I take it as a learning tool. Maybe it’s not you, maybe it is me. [Laughs]

BE: For you, it’s like an act of communication. It’s not really complete until the customer enjoys the drink.

SS: Yeah. I consider myself more of a pro, a professional, than I do an artist.

BE: Sure.

SS: There’s a huge element to creating cocktails that involves art….For me, the daily grind behind the bar is the work of a professional…Calculating, being able to have your stuff set up nice but also have a great time doing it. If I worked in an office, answering phones all day, that’s going to be my day. I know the phone’s going to ring; I know I’m gonna answer it. Being behind a bar, you knew know what’s going to happen.

You know you’ll be serving people, but you don’t know who you’ll be serving. You don’t know how the weather’s going to affect everything. I remember little moments in my ten year career. There’s moments that happen that are nice that I’ll just never forget. I’m pretty pumped that I can talk to you that my career is based on these moments. I’m very proud of what I do, but on the other side of that coin, let’s have a good time, you know? This is a fun job.

BE: I’m glad you’re enjoying it and you’re doing well, Steve. You’ve been great. I really appreciate it.

SS: If I may, can I say one more thing?

BE: Sure, go ahead!

SS: I’m sorry, I like to talk.

BE: [Laughs]

SS: When I’m bartending, I’m actually a very good listener, believe it or not.

BE: Uh-huh.

SS: I talk about how much I value the whole team and how much I owe everything that I have to the guys I work with. The bartending competitions are where I can show off what I do personally. I’m nominated for American Bartender of the Year this year. That’s something which I’m very proud of. I just won this competition in Chicago. I won the World Championship in New Zealand. That’s where I can put the whole team thing aside. That’s were I can do stuff that I want to do personally. But every day, I clock in at Employees Only, this is us, as a team; what can we do, as a team, to keep our doors open longer and longer. It’s a cool contrast, that’s the one thing I love about bartending competitions. It’s you; be yourself. I’m not a perfect man. I’m not a perfect person, but that ain’t going to stop me from trying.

  

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