Duggan McDonnell of Cantina on Stardom



Duggan McDonnell is a partner in the Latin cocktail lounge Cantina, educator, consultant, as well as a candidate for an MFA in Writing from the University of San Francisco.
           
A few weeks ago I taught a cocktail class at Cantina for friends of La Cocina. Our theme was savory & spicy, and the cocktails I chose to demonstrate provided balance as well as counterpoint to the flavors in the food prepared by a trio of chefs. Really, the evening was a discussion, an experience in flavor. And for me, the event served as a great reminder to why I love creating cocktails and also to the experience of a singular joy in my life: flavor. 

Today marks the beginning of the 2nd Annual San Francisco Cocktail week. It is a timely event as cocktail culture here in the City and across the country has been booming, and as one might expect, has been experiencing growing pains to match its great success. Constant cocktail competitions have sprung up, while new consulting opportunities arise everyday. Bartenders are earning a delightful dollar, and in some circles have become mini-celebrities, so to speak. Mixologists. Bar chefs. Cocktailians. Bartenders. All of it, nomenclature for a motley crew whose members are found in every major American city. And this includes me--a San Francisco saloonkeeper, who's been labeled all of the above.

I'm wondering, on the cusp of this great celebration and all of its figurative fireworks, why do we stick out the late hours and borderline alcoholism and how it is we became closer to sommelier and chef than soda jerk?

"The massively important milestone in the cocktail movement was when Food & Wine magazine declared 2006 to be the Year of the Cocktail," Gary Regan, author of The Joy of Mixology, says to me. "Now an authority comes along and says to the foodies, cocktails are legitimate." 'I know, Gary,' I'm thinking; 'I know.' I was in that issue; I was featured in that article as one of the 'Leaders of the American Cocktail Revolution.'

I remember one night shortly after that issue of Food & Wine came out--I'm bartending at Frisson, hammering away at drink orders in the front service well, plus handling the guests directly in front of me. I'm feeling rushed, a bit nervy at all the activity around me. A woman arrives before me, plants herself in front of my well. Oh no, I think to myself, she's got the magazine--"Can I have an autograph?" she says... My jaw drops; a single sweat bead from my forehead pitches itself into the margarita I'd just made; a cocktail server taps his finger as he waits for his glass of Barolo to be poured. This is not happening to me. But her smile is sweet, I'm thinking. And she is waiting. "What's your name?" I ask, removing the permanent marker from her hand.

*

"I think the whole 'celebrity bartender' thing is a bit overblown," says Jeff Hollinger, author of The Art of the Bar: Cocktails Inspired by the Classics. "There's no doubt they're famous in their own right, especially to those of us in the know... but when I've talked to people who read food and wine magazines and newspaper articles, they have little to no idea who any of the famous players are... Put that test to Emeril, Bobby Flay, Rachel Ray, and you'll get different results." Jason Wilson, who writes a spirits column for The Washington Post, was more realistic in his blunt assessment: "We're using 'celebrity' in quotes. It's not like George Clooney is your bartender."

True, Jason; true. But I recall being a kid and desperately wanting Tony Hawk to autograph my skateboard, and also being thrilled to actually meet Pauly Shore, of all people. Celebrity status and affection can exist on many levels.

On a recent Saturday as I closed the bar I was thinking more and more about all of this. I'd returned earlier in the week from Miami where I was awarded a Rising Star at the Cheers Beverage Conference. I'd worked and traveled all week; and this night, I'd been on my feet for fourteen hours. I sat and looked around the place, at my back-bar full of bottles, several hundred strong, shelves lined with boutique and imported spirits, and there I sat with the lights all up, the saccharine scent of crushed citrus and burnt wax in the air; broken glass, matches and mint underfoot. And I recalled Toby Cecchini's words from Cosmopolitan, A Bartender's Life: "There is an ephemeral hour then when the bar, like a woman d'un certain age, cleverly cloaked in evening light to conceal flaws she knows are beneath consideration, glows with an imperfect, hard-used loveliness." This was not that hour.

The Cantina had performed well, but now both of us were beyond tired; I felt like a used ballerina, after having danced a matinee's Nutcracker, soaking her corns in a tub of salt and tears.

"Most people who come in here have no idea what you do," Tony Abou-Ganim recently said to me. Tony is the Joe DiMaggio of cocktails, a middle-class kid with a great smile and a humble heart come up because he's got talent. To look at Tony is to recognize guts; his build is that of a classic prizefighter, his gaze direct--there's no need for a bouncer at Bar Milano, the new restaurant he's just opened on 24th and 3rd Avenue in New York.

Tony and I have met again and again over the years. Cocktail competitions. Seminars. Las Vegas. New Orleans. Aspen. But we don't know each other well. Our portraits and recipes have appeared side-by-side in magazines, but this is the first private chat we've had together. So, it's nice.

Tony was in San Francisco for one day to promote his DVD Modern Mixology: Making Great Drinks at Home on local television. And, Tony is by most experts' estimation the most recognized bartender in the country. He's appeared on Iron Chef: America, hosted the show Cocktail Kings, and been in more television bits and editorial features than even he can remember. In spite of all this, he admits the DVD is selling poorly.

Ryan Magarian, a samurai-esque bartender and guru behind Liquid Relations beverage consulting, relays Tony's contribution: "Tony has separated himself from the Industry. His celebrity has crossed over the industry line and into the public eye." And Tony, humble as ever, is slow to agree with Ryan. Tony is an entirely self-made man who understands the many opinions, the responsibilities and nuances of his career. In fact, when I asked him what was the most important factor critical to continuing his work--post Bellagio, post large consulting contracts with global spirits' conglomerates, and on the eve of opening his own joint--he replied, "The Brand." That is, the brand of Tony.

Gary Regan, ever the salty stalwart of American cocktail culture echoes Tony: "You don't open a shop to sell shoes and not tell anyone about it." Which I take to mean: it's stupid not to promote the quality of one's work. And allow me to add--after opening Cantina nearly one year ago, I am constantly telling the tale of its brand.

*

So, here I sit in Cantina in the too-bright light on a Saturday night and wonder how these seemingly disparate factors of work and culture and drink and branding come together in a meaningful way. And as a guy who makes his living caring about just that, I'm looking for answers.

Toby Cecchini published his memoir of a bartender's life in 2003. His star had risen quickly in Manhattan's bar circles after his stint at the Odeon and then opening Passerby in Chelsea. But it wasn't until Cosmopolitan: A Bartender's Life hit the press that bartenders and cocktail geeks across the globe knew his name. "Suddenly I was that bartender guy who writes about drinks," he said. For a time, Toby was the brightest star in bartending. The Passerby is still a must-stop for drinkers visiting Manhattan, as are speakeasies Milk & Honey and P.D.T.; and the tranquil cocktail hubs Pegu Club and Little Branch--all of which are run by cocktailians famous in their own right.

So famous are they that few full-time bartenders remain at any of these establishments--most spend their hours consulting for spirit brands and handling the beverage needs for special events, airline companies, and cruise lines. "I don't consider myself in that same company," Toby said. "I can do anything that those guys do. I make great drinks. But the Passerby is the antithesis of that. I like the mice and the cockroaches. I like running a bar's bar."

"There's a lot of different ways to skin an apple," Tony said to me when referring to how Bar Milano operates. "We don't want to be another Pegu Club; we want to be a great restaurant with a great lounge and we certainly don't want the cocktails to be intimidating."

And I agree with him.

Sometimes it's best to keep things simple, and also, forget trying to be the best and earning another buck, and do something for nothing.

San Francisco Cocktail Week is a not-for-profit love affair with cocktail culture. We've organized all of these events because we love the work we do. And tonight, up in the grand Starlight Room, we honor our hero Tony Abou-Ganim for his great contributions to San Francisco cocktail culture.

I am still a saloonkeeper who sits alone at the end of a night's shift. I sit in the glare of the post-cocktail light, and find myself thinking of Nick Carraway thinking of Gatsby; "He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night."

It wasn't that long ago that I was a mere barback, a bartender's lackey hustling up and down flights of stairs with cases of whiskey atop my shoulders stooping in walk-in coolers to change kegs while burning my hands beneath the squeezing of limes over blood-cut fingers as bartenders dropped and smacked eggs in my pockets only to fool me again and again. Every night I tasted something new; every night I found flavors that ultimately informed how I was to live my life. That was when I fell in love with work. That was when I knew I wanted to be a bartender. Then, none of us were famous.

Especially me.