Nominee: Outstanding Bar Program
This is your first James Beard Award nomination. How did you react when you heard the news?
I was in Paris at a bar show. My wife was monitoring the announcement of the nominees from Las Vegas and texting them to me. I had no idea what to expect since this is the first year for the category, and I was thrilled to hear we made the short list.
You’ve been vocal about your goal to see cocktails acknowledged as a culinary art. Do you see the creation of a cocktail category at the James Beard Awards to be a banner moment? A past-due concession?
A banner moment for sure: The most prestigious culinary organization in the country is now recognizing the value of a cocktail program alongside the achievements of our greatest chefs. I’ve always hoped for the bar and kitchen to have a more collaborative relationship in restaurants with cooks and bartenders standing on similar footing. The award incentivizes this, dangling a carrot that we’re all eager to pursue.
What is the relevance of a Beard Award these days? How does it compare to a Michelin ranking, a StarChefs or Spirited Award?
I suppose it all depends on whom you ask. As honored and humbled as we are to be bestowed with awards and accolades, we work in a city that evaluates its bars and restaurants on a “what have you done for me lately” basis. I’d be lying if I told you the awards didn’t matter to me, but I’d be cheating my staff and our customers if I let those distinctions, or the pursuit of them, go to my head.
New York is often name-checked as the cradle of the modern cocktail movement, but only two bars from our fair city were short-listed. Do you feel pressure to be an ambassador for NYC?
It’s a national award and there are a lot of great cocktail bars in this country. I’m not quite sure how the nominees were chosen, but I believe geographic diversity was important to the judges. Regardless of the protocol, I’m always proud to represent this city: I wouldn’t be where I am professionally without it.
Among your conominees this year is one of your mentors, Audrey Saunders of Pegu Club. You’ve been down this road before, in 2009, when you were both nominated in the American Bartender of the Year category at the Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards. Does competing with a mentor change the nature of the awards for you?
To be honest, I don’t feel like we’re competing and I’ve never once felt that an award made me, or my bar, better than anyone else’s. I’m friendly with all the operators of the bars nominated and will be genuinely pleased to congratulate the winner this year. When Audrey, Toby Maloney, Thad Vogler or Craig Schoettler wake up in the morning, I can guarantee you that they’re not worried about how they rank among other bars and bartenders: They’re 100 percent focused on refining their approach to the craft and communicating that to their staff. Toby left Pegu to open Violet Hour and I left to open PDT: I feel like Audrey and Pegu’s accomplishments have been duly recognized regardless of who wins the award this year.
We’ve talked about the legacy of PDT, and the role it played in the rise of less formal cocktail joints. What other qualities does PDT have that helped catch the Foundation’s eye over other New York bars?
The judging process is a bit of a mystery to me, and I’ve done my best to keep it that way. With that said, it’s tough to determine what qualities distinguished PDT among the cities top bars. My best guess would be that I worked in restaurants before cocktail bars and have always sought out opportunities to serve cocktails at culinary events, which have afforded us the opportunity to work alongside great restaurants and chefs. I’ve relished the opportunity to accommodate chefs as guests at the bar, so perhaps this is just a little of what goes around coming around.
What’s something you’re doing now that you don’t think you could have pulled off in the early days?
Where do I begin? I suppose the biggest difference between me now and then is my willingness to accept our shortcomings, individually and collectively, as an opportunity. Danny Meyer once told me that perfection isn’t the goal, it’s excellence. For many years, I pursued that personally, arguably to the detriment of the teams I worked alongside. Nowadays, I spend my time scheming up ways to bring everyone into the fold, even if it creates chaos in the short term. I was too focused and immature to operate like this in the beginning.
The PDT Cocktail Book told the story of the evolution of a beloved New York bar. But, coupled with other standard-bearing books, it also helped codify the lineage of bartenders and their recipes—a hot topic in the bar community right now. What’s your take?
I’ve had the privilege of editing the last six editions of Food & Wine’s annual cocktail book with Kate Krader. Our latest guide should hit the stands this week. For me, theFood & Wine book has functioned as a yearbook of sorts, chronicling the latest trends, documenting the growing community and featuring recipes from the country’s most celebrated bartenders.
I had to check myself when I started compiling recipes for the PDT book. Unlike Food & Wine, or the four editions of Mr. Boston’s Bar Guide I worked on with Anthony Giglio, the PDT book is not about bringing the most talented bartenders into the mix: It’s a historical document about what a handful of people did between 2007 to 2010 on St. Marks Place. Ironically, most of them have moved on.
Whether I’ve canonized anyone’s recipes or not, I’ve never worked with a better group than the one I have now, and even though many of them aren’t featured in the book or famous for a particular recipe, if any of them want my lineage, they’ve earned it.
What’s next for you?
I’m taking a Bill Belichick approach to my career right now: complete with the hoodie! I’ll be in Austin for the Food & Wine Festival before the Beard Awards, then, I’ll be participating in the Manhattan Cocktail Classic, Aspen Food & Wine, and Tales of the Cocktail a month later. I’m still concentrating on promoting my book and taking things one day at a time with the bar. I haven’t accomplished everything I’d like to at PDT. When I do, I’ll start thinking about what’s next.
If you win, how will you celebrate?
I’m planning on losing to avoid any disappointment. I asked Wylie Dufresne how to approach the awards, and he told me he’s been up for one for eight years now: the longest running annual contender. Whether we win or lose, I’m going to relish being there.