Brian Roberts, Head Bartender at Chef & the Farmer, and “A Chef’s Life” Family, On Moonshine
Brian Roberts, Head Bartender at Chef and the Farmer, and “A Chef’s Life” Family. On Moonshine.
I often view life through the lens of cinema. Much of what I experience in “real life” is a reference point for something from film or television. Cocktails are a prime example. I think “cocktail” and my mind – for better or worse – goes immediately to Sex in the City; to Carrie Bradshaw & Co. in all their Jimmy Choo, Prada-clad glory, convening at the latest hotspot in the Meat Packing District to gab and dish over cosmopolitans. You mention moonshine and my mind conjures up Carol Burnett’s inebriated Mrs. Hannigan from Annie. She of ill-fitting lingerie, disheveled hair and smudged make-up, trying unsuccessfully to woo Daddy Warbucks while paddling in her bathtub full of illicit, and most likely lethal, homemade brew. In the real world, in real time, it turns out that there is a whole cocktail renaissance going on, a revival of the traditional cocktails that harken back, in my mind, to the Madmen era. Smoke-filled rooms with men in suits, drinking Manhattans & Old Fashioneds, wheeling and dealing and sexually harassing the closest women in their vicinity. The introduction of the term “cocktail” actually dates much further back, to the early 1800s, defined then as a combination of “spirituous liquor of any kind, sugar, water and bitters. ”
To quote Brian Roberts, the head bartender at Chef and the Farmer, “the old is new again.” Vivian credits him for revolutionizing the cocktail menu at the restaurant and this New Jersey boy, in turn, takes his cue and inspiration from Vivian and the Chef and the Farmer kitchen to create an eclectic and seasonally-driven menu that is equal parts homage to the past and nod to the present, both sophisticated and whimsical. Whether shaken, stirred, muddled, or with a twist of lime, Brian’s libations are delicious. I’d recommend a “Walk on the Wild Side.” For one, it’s a tribute to the late Lou Reed, and for another, it’s one hell of a palate pleaser. Read below for Brian’s take on cocktails, moonshine, and what the Chef family refer to as “Briantology.” Then keep on reading to find out what folks at A Chef’s Life are drinking these days. Brian has been kind enough to share two recipes from the bar at Chef and the Farmer. You will also find those below.
I want to end by thanking all of you on behalf of everyone at Team Chef for watching and reading and tweeting and eating. It has been an incredible season. And it feels right that we should end with moonshine. May we all shine on! Season’s Greetings and until Season 2!
How did you come to bartend for a living?
When I was going into college, my dad’s advise to me was “find something that you love and make you’re career out of that, rather than trying to love your career.” I don’t think he meant for me to take that so literally. I grew up in New Jersey on the Jersey Shore, but not the Jersey Shore you see on the TV show – it was a really nice Jersey Shore. My dad was schoolteacher and later a principal, but during his summers, he would bartend. So I was kind of drawn to it partly because of him. I remember being 13, 14 years old and see my dad and recognizing how much everyone loved him because he was the bartender. It was also a great way to make money while in college. I don’t know if I chose bartending, so much as it chose me. I started working at Chef and the Farmer when I got laid off from selling wine about two and a half years ago when the company was sold off. It was kind of like falling back on a trade. I always looked at bartending as a trade, like electrical work or construction or plumbing. I was looking for something to hold me over until I moved onto the next phase of my career, but as it turned out, this was the next phase of my career. I just really enjoy working with Vivian and the whole atmosphere at Chef and the Farmer. I didn’t know I was going to be here this long. Since I’ve been working here, I’ve never looked for another job. It’s been a good fit.
What is it about Chef and the Farmer that makes it a great place to work?
There’s just a lot of opportunity to create and experiment and grow. Ben and Vivian are always open to ideas. It’s not like “We are doing things our way.” No. They want input from everybody, so it’s more like working for the restaurant, for a common goal rather than working for Ben and Vivian, working with them. I’ve worked in places that operated similarly and I remember those places very fondly. It’s an atmosphere where I want to learn, but also want to educate. It’s a very professional environment.
What is your approach to cocktails?
I was trained on classics way back when. I started working with people who were really particular about how to make a Martini and a Manhattan and an Old Fashioned. So I have that as a foundation. When I started working here at Chef and the Farmer, I was definitely inspired by the dinner menu, that seasonality and the constantly changing – just keeping everything fresh. So our approach to the cocktail program was one that echoed what the kitchen was doing. I would stroll through the walk-in, take stock of what produce we had in at any given moment, and work with what we had in-house that was local and spoke to the area. So that’s been our philosophy, seasonal drinks and sprinkling in some of the classics here and there that have been forgotten about. It’s been fun to revive them.
Can you speak to that revival? It seems to be a national phenomenon, not just something that is specific to this region.
There is certainly a global cocktail renaissance going on. It’s definitely more prevalent in big cities. Some superstar bartenders got things going and everyone has kind of taken their lead. It’s about bringing back dinner cocktails with classic ingredients like vermouths and bitters, sherry, and rye, ingredients that were a lot more en vogue decades ago. We are getting away from store-bought mixes - sour mixes and store-bought grenadine and syrups. It really has taken shape around what the culinary world is doing, where people are making things from scratch, rather than using store-bought and processed ingredients. That’s the kind of renaissance we’ve been experiencing, moving away from the syrupy, sticky, sweet cocktails that were in fashion in the ‘80s and ‘90s and bringing back the cocktail where you can really enjoy the various levels of flavors.
What do you think accounts for that revival? Do you feel like there are other reasons why this is happening now, other than simply echoing what is going on in the kitchens?
I guess there’s a burgeoning interest in bringing things back that were forgotten. Techniques and styles and flavors and definitely the atmosphere of a cocktail bar. I don’t really know what accounted for the drive behind it. I think people were just looking for something new, and new just happened to be old.
What kind of atmosphere do you try to create at Chef and the Farmer via the cocktail menu?
A vibrant, friendly atmosphere. We are happy to engage our guests in what we are doing. People can see what we are doing and we enjoy preparing the drinks in front of guests, connecting with them in that way.
Moonshine certainly seems to be having its moment.
I’m not from around here so when I thought about moonshine, I always thought about kerosene. Just as something that is strong, overbearing, with a really high alcohol content. But the Broadslab, an NC moonshine we use at the restaurant is just really well made. It’s artisanal. There’s a mineral quality to it that you find in a lot of Old World white wines. You can pick up on the texture, there’s a bit of weight to it, but also a silky mouthfeel. You find some citrus notes to it that’s really cool.
What food would you accompany with moonshine?
It’s something that works really well with seafood, like a white fish, maybe like a grouper. We had a black grouper that worked really well with it. I think moonshine by itself with some raw oysters is amazing. The Broadslab Sour, our take on a whiskey sour, would probably pair more with something like white fish or Vivian’s fish stew, which was made with red drum.
How do you feel about this term “mixologist”? Is that the modern-day, fancy-schmancy term for “bartender”?
I’ve never referred to myself as a mixologist. I’m a bartender. Mixology is a component of bartending. And there are mixologists who are also bartenders. I think mixology is one of the things that we do. But I think bartending as a whole is about being able to engage with guests, working fast and multitasking, which I think mixology doesn’t really seek to do. They are more about the chemistry of the drink.
So what’s this “Briantology” business all about?
I have a degree in philosophy and that is something that comes out in the work place, in the course of doing my job. I guess it’s me waxing poetic about one thing or another. One of the servers said it sounded like “Briantology,” you know, like Scientology – not as opposed to mixology. So whenever I have an idea about something my co-workers have gotten into the habit of referring to it as “Briantology.”
What would be one of the tenets of Briantology?
Well, one day Danny was talking about how something didn’t go well, as is often the case. And I said “Danny, if everything went well, wouldn’t it be even more surprising?” We got into a conversation about the idea of expecting things to go wrong and being prepared for them when they do. A lot of times it’s about calling things on the fly in the restaurant business; about expecting that things are not going to work perfectly and having that front of mind and being prepared with a Plan B.
What is your favorite cocktail?
It’s tough to say what my all-time favorite cocktail is. I don’t have an all-time favorite movie, or book, or album either. I’m definitely drawn to more classic and bitter flavors rather than sweet. Like a really well made Manhattan. That’s rye, sweet vermouth, and bitters, garnished with a brandied cherry. It’s simple but it’s something that’s been around forever for a reason. Also, I’m a big fan of Scotch. I like a Scotch, neat. One of my favorite cocktails we’ve done here was something we called the Vín Berr, made with rum and muscadine juice, Dolin Blanc vermouth. My wife is Icelandic so sometimes I pick up some things, and Vín Berr literally translates into “wine berry.”
I have to say, I love that muscadine juice in cocktails. It works so well.
It works great and it’s real versatile too. And it’s like with the moonshine. A lot of people aren’t familiar with the taste in a cocktail like that, in that kind of expression. So sometimes it’ll blow people’s hair back.
A Chef’s Life Family’s Favorite Cocktails
Justin, (server): Oh Lord. I really like the Bloody Mary over at the Boiler Room. It’s made with tequila that’s been infused with jalapenos. It burns in every which way, but it’s the good kind of burn. Being from the South, I really like spicy food so it’s a given that this would be my favorite. I wish I could drink it every Sunday, but unfortunately I have to work. Too bad cause the Boiler Room has half-priced Bloody Marys on Sunday.
Kim, pastry chef: I really don’t drink. If I do, I like a glass of Moscato D’asti, an Italian wine. It’s very sweet. I like the sparkle in it. It has to be really, really sweet.
Jamie Cash, server: My poison is bourbon and ginger beer. I like ginger anywhere and the ginger in this drink helps bourbon open up. I like the spice and age-iness of it. You want about a two-to-one proportion of bourbon to ginger beer. Add a squeeze of lime. That acid helps to lighten and brighten.
Justise Robbins, sous chef: Oh man. I have to think about that and text you . . . . Brian makes a drink for me that’s delicious, either with rum or vodka. I also love a Riesling.
Mike Waterman, chef de tourant: I like gin and tonics. Tonic water with Hendricks, my favorite kind of gin. I also like an Old Fashioned. That’s whiskey, sugar, dash of bitters, and a twist of orange rind. I don’t discriminate in terms of bourbon.
Lilly Grey, sous chef: I used to work at a restaurant that made what we called a Tennessee mojito. Basically, it’s made with whiskey, instead of tequila like in a classic mojito. Then you add lime juice, simple syrup, muddled mint, and crushed ice. That ice is crucial and you want an equal amount of ice to liquor. That’s what makes it good. This is a porch-sittin, hanging-out-with-your-friends drink.
Allan, butcher: I don’t have a favorite cocktail. My favorite drink is dark beer. I like Guinness or Dark Cloud from Mother Earth Brewery. I feel good about Dark Cloud because it’s a local beer from Kinston.
Jamie King, host: I am simple when it comes to cocktails. My go-to is a Seven and Seven. Seagram’s Seven with 7Up. There’s a cocktail at the Boiler Room called the Bluegrass Honey Buck made with honey bourbon, with a splash of lime. It’s the honey aspect that I love the most about it.
Susan, server: I’m a champagne whore. Everybody knows that. A total bubblehead. I like seasonal. Right now, my favorite at Chef and the Farmer is A Walk on the Wild Side. It’s Absolut Madarin Orange Vodka, ruby port, Carolina Wild Muscadine juice, Spanish bitters, and lemon. Not only is it delicious, it captures the spirit of the holidays. It looks Christmasy. And don’t forget - Christmas is a great time for champagne!
Ms. Scarlett: I don’t drink. Sweet tea is my favorite. And it should cost the same as always: less then $2.00 (note: the current cost for a sweet tea at Chef & The Farmer is $2.50. Ms. Scarlett does not approve.)
Ms. Lillie. Whiskey sour. They are so good! I like that little tangy taste that they’ve got to them, a little sour, with the little cherries in it. I love the cherries in it! I drink them over at my brother’s house, and when I go to Atlantic City, I drink a lot of those.
Warren Brothers: My favorite cocktail flips and flops around, seasonally. Right now it’s a nice hot ginger beer and some good bourbon with a splash of ginger ale in it. In the summer, I like a Gin Rickey. If you make it by the book I don’t like it. My version is a double shot of gin, half shot of Cointreau, you know, orange liqueur, half a lime, and little bit of simple syrup. If you wanna be more accurate, it’s more like a martini with cucumber and mint. You throw all that in the shaker, shake it up, and then pour it into a little martini glass. It’s more like a Gin Rickey Cucumber Martini. That’s a mouthful. But I’ll tell you. It’s real nice! As far as moonshine . . . there’s not a real good way to drink that. I tend to like the more refined liquors. In the old days you would drink moonshine with Nu-Grape soda but it’s been a long time since I’ve had any.
Ben: A Negroni. I prefer it chilled. I like the bitter aspects of Compari with the gin. It’s very refreshing, but it’s an acquired taste. Cocktails are like coffee in that way, where people start off with lots of cream and sweetener, then you gradually work your way to black, or in the case of cocktails, you work your way from sweet to bitter.
Vivian: A Negroni – Compari, gin, and sweet vermouth. It’s usually something people have before a meal. It wakes up your palate and it’s a nice kick in the pants. A Negroni also fools people because it’s very pink in appearance so people think it’s like a fruity cosmopolitan. Then it blows your mind because it couldn’t be further from it.
Recipes courtesy of Brian and Chef and the Farmer
1 1/2 oz Broadslab Moonshine
1/2 oz citrus syrup*
1 oz fresh lemon juice
1 oz fresh orange
1/2 oz orgeat
1 egg white
Shake ingredients sharply and strain into a coupe glass, garnish with orange peel.
*for citrus syrup: muddle zest of 1 lemon and 1 orange with 2 oz of sugar until sugar dissolves into citrus oils. This is also called oleo saccharum.
Walk on the Wild Side:
1.5 oz Absolut Mandarin
1/2 oz fresh lemon juice
1/2 oz ruby port
3 oz Carolina Wild Muscadine Juice
2 dashes Spanish bitters
Shake all ingredients except bitters and strain over ice into a Collins glass. Add a splash of club soda, and the bitters. Garnish with sprig of mint and lemon twist.
Un Kyong Ho grew up in Cincinnati, OH and now calls Cary, NC home. Her favorite cocktail is the mojito. “It takes your whole mouth to drink it and your whole mouth to say it.” She is also a big fan of both Broadslab Moonshine and Carolina Wild Muscadine Juice. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @unkyong53.