In the latest cinematic tribute to our bottle gatekeepers, Hey Bartender—screening at Village East Cinema starting June 7—filmmaker Douglas Tirola looks at the evolution of modern mixology through the eyes of its biggest players, like pioneering legend Dale DeGroff, and editorial heavyweights, including TONY’s own former Food & Drink editor Jordana Rothman. The action centers on a pair of bartenders trying to keep up with the changing times: Steve “Carpi” Carpentieri struggles to stay afloat at his Westport, Connecticut pub, Dunville’s, while marine-turned-barkeep Steve Schneider ascends the drink-shaking ranks at West Village hot spot Employees Only. TONY recently caught up with EO’s Schneider.
You were a marine before becoming a bartender. How does your military training come into play behind the bar?
Discipline, first and foremost. Serving drunk people is kind of hard. It’s like being at the post office or DMV: a bunch of strangers in one room, but there’s alcohol involved. You make sure you keep your eye on what you need to do to make everybody happy.
Your counterpart in the film is Steve Carpentieri. What was it like seeing his side of the story?
It’s completely different. He left his fancy white-collar job at Citigroup because he loved this business and wanted to be a part of it. A corner bar is [just as] important for bar culture. What he serves is what his clientele wants.
The film talks a lot about mentorship. What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from Employees Only boss, Dushan Zaric?
Anything that relates to actual cocktails is on the back burner. Making cocktails is not very difficult. I can teach my dog to make a Negroni. It’s dealing with people. If you give proper service and tell a few jokes, they’ll be happy, and that goes beyond any drink you can possibly make.
Your hammer makes a brief appearance in the documentary. What’s the story behind it?
I was watching David Wondrich, a cocktail historian, crushing ice for a julep with a hammer and thought it was cool, so I went on the Internet and got myself one. It was around the time the Thor movie came out and me being a comic-book guy, I took it out during a competition and started crushing ice. I’m maniacally smashing this canvas bag and it was different. You know you’re onto something when the judges stop what they’re doing and they take pictures of you. It took on a life of its own.
Sounds a little crazy.You’re a regular on the bartending competition circuit—do you always add theatrics?
Cocktail competitions can be very boring. It’s borderline embarrassing if I’m sitting there and I’m talking to Dale DeGroff about why I added lemon juice. This guy knows why you’re putting ingredients in that drink, so I have some fun with it.
What’s your drink of choice when you’re off shift?
It all depends on the time of day and who I’m with. If it’s 3:30am, I’m not going to drink a Manhattan; it’s a little too boozy. I’ll drink something easy like a Pimm’s cup.
Have you checked out any great bars recently?
I don’t go to a craft cocktail bar on my days off. I go out to a bar like Dunville’s, a place on the corner where the guy behind the bar is an owner-operator. It’s a place where I sit down and the bartender knows my name and knows what I drink.
Are there cocktail trends you wish would just go away?
The trend where the bartender is super serious about what they’re serving. It was huge a couple of years ago when Hey Bartender was being filmed, but that’s kind of stopping now. You couldn’t order a fucking gin and tonic or vodka soda, because they’d get so offended. That’s completely stupid. But in another way, the craft cocktail movement had to make a stand for a second and say, “Okay, this is the way we make drinks. These are cocktails.”
Since you finished filming, you became bar manager at Employees Only. What’s next?
You have to constantly evolve in this business. For me, the next step after I got my [principal bartender] jacket was setting records in speed competitions. My career goal is to own restaurants and bars all over the world. Everything I do from now until then is part of a plan. It starts every time I clock in, when 6 o’clock comes around and the lights go down.