Last January, when Michael Simon was last in Chicago, he seemed to be at the top of his game. He received critical praise for the beverage programs at Carriage House and The Bedford and at Acadia, where he worked previously. He had even just been nominated for a Jean Banchet Award for Best Mixologist (which Benjamin Schiller won). With all this success, what happened next was most surprising.
He left Chicago.
For Simon, the path to his current role at Charcoal Bar has been a long and interesting one. He first entered the industry as a server at Graham Elliot. He was more interested in wine at the time and Elliot let him work in that field. He slowly worked his way up from wine steward to experimenting with spirit and beer pairings on the restaurant’s tasting menu alongside Clint Rogers, now at the Dawson. After Rogers left to work at Henri, Simon took over as beverage director and general manager. His focus was still on wine, but he was also responsible for managing the bar that was being run by Matty Eggleston (now at Nico Osteria).
With Eggleston, Simon learned more about the mechanics of making cocktails. When Eggleston left to open Bangers & Lace, Simon began to make his own creations. Over the years, he’s worked at other Chicago establishments like NoMi, Naha and Nightwood.
After his abrupt departure from Chicago, there was much speculation about how and why he left and where he would turn up. Not many would have guessed that he would end up in Austin, Texas. In March 2013, he started to work on the opening of Paul Qui’s new restaurant, Qui.
After he was at Qui for six months, Simon decided to move back to Chicago. "I never planned to, honestly, but then again I've stopped looking at life in such a linear fashion," he explains. "I love Austin dearly, [but] the universe made it abundantly clear I wasn't finished here in Chicago."
At Charcoal Bar, Simon embraces the Japanese style of bartending that focuses on skill and dedication. The 11-seat bar will give him an opportunity to work on that craft and give each guest a unique cocktail experience.
We talked with Simon more about Japanese cocktail culture and how it fits into the aesthetics of Charcoal Bar, his move back to Chicago, and why Game of Thrones fans will appreciate his cocktail names.
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You moved to Austin in March of 2013 to run the bar at Qui. What did you learn there and how are the Austin and Chicago cocktail scenes different?
I learned to be more thoughtful, organized and precise, not just in my work, but overall. It's much more effective to hone creativity if you're organized, and you're really selling yourself short if you aren't. Austin is straight up magical. It's somewhat marginalizing in attempt to isolate the cocktail scene without mentioning how rad Austin is. Genuinely speaking, I feel Austin and Chicago are companion cities; very like-minded but each retaining something very special the other will appreciate very much.
What were your goals when you took over the program at Charcoal Bar?
To honor Chef [Gene] Kato's vision of Charcoal Bar while embracing the Takumi spirit with full commitment.
What is Takumi? What can western bartenders learn from Japanese cocktail making?
Takumi is the Japanese spirit of craftsmanship. Takumi is a confluence of skill and dedication that informs a work culture set out to create beauty and functionality all in one. I could sub out Takumi in the previous sentence for Grace, because I know it's their ethos, and that's beautiful whether or not they've heard what Takumi means; they are already embodying it. Moreso the Takumi spirit is the foundation of Sumi Robata Bar, and I'm very inspired observing chef Kato's unrelenting dedication to the ideal.
What’s your approach to making cocktails? How do you incorporate that style with Charcoal Bar's menu?
[My] focus is on the process, the alchemy, the allure of flavors and why they work, or how they could work better and see their full potential. I don't have to incorporate any of this into Charcoal Bar per se because it already exists, inexorably woven with the craftsmanship inherent in Japanese cocktail culture.
What is your cocktail-making style in in three words?
Everything in motion.
What is the most important skill a bartender should have?
To be thoughtful and introspective about themselves and their craft. Be honest, but with humility and grace. Going out of your way to appear opinionated on everything doesn't make you wise nor does it bolster your professional experience. The guest deserves truth.
What was a drink that you made where you thought it would be a hit but it didn't catch on?
At Acadia, my Corn Flakes Flip merged whiskey with Momofuku Milk Bar's Cereal Milk Recipe. Guests enjoyed it quite a bit, but, it was ripped by a few critics [Editor’s note: including us]. [To them,] it appeared gimmicky and was an easy target despite a lot of work going into the drink. I used a few different white whiskies specifically because they reminded me of Corn Flakes, otherwise a sub-genre I'm not fond of. It was no big deal in hindsight, and I learned some new techniques making the ingredients. I'd rather learn than everything is perfect and unanimously praised. I got an "A" for Effort.
Tell us about one of your cocktails that you've added to the menu that you think people should drink now, why?
The Mother of Dragons (that's a Game of Thrones reference): Yamazaki 12-year whiskey with Satsuma Hozan (sweet potato) Shochu and demerara sugar [that I] fold in with black plums, mirin, rice wine vinegar and togarashi.
Your cocktail names, like the Mother of Dragons, are different. Where do the names come from? Is there a method to pairing up a name with a drink?
All the names on the [Charcoal Bar] list are Game of Thrones references. There were some (Game of Thrones) references at Qui as well, in tandem with my favorite cocktail name I've ever thought of: Lena Dunham's Super Nightlife Mule (a Moscow Mule variant with a celery-lemongrass-ginger beer and lemongrass swizzle stick I made). The method is a case-by-case basis, and just as important I feel is to look at one's entire menu as gestalt entity.
Complete this sentence: Malört is...
Karl Malone played for the Utah Jazz…. Oh, I've read the question wrong. Answer stands.