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Mutineer Interview with Dale DeGroff


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DID YOU SEE THE SUCCESS OF THE RAINBOW ROOM BEGIN TO INFLUENCE BARS IN OTHER PARTS OF THE COUNTRY?
Within three or four years, I’m down in the [Greenwich] Village and I see Between the Sheets on a menu, and I know it didn’t just come from nowhere. I had pulled that out of a book from the twenties and I knew that no one knew about that drink. In other parts of the country, I started seeing a little this and little bit of that, because our thing got written up over and over and over again.

WHAT WAS THE INSPIRATION FOR YOUR FIRST BOOK, “CRAFT OF THE COCKTAIL”?
“Craft of the Cocktail” is a book that I wish I’d had as a young bartender. Period. It had everything that I needed and couldn’t get. It’s a handbook. It’s used as a textbook at Johnson and Wales; it has become sort of a go-to book for young bartenders, which is why it still sells.

You know who was my agent? Have you ever seen the PC & Mac commercials? You know the guy that plays PC, John Hodgman, with the glasses? John was an agent at that time, and he was a friend. He was a regular at Blackbird, this place I sort of co-owned after Rainbow Room. John’s sitting at my bar one night, and he says, “You know Dale, it’s time. I’m at Writer’s House. I’ll make the project happen. It’s time.” I said, “I don’t know John.” “No no, you gotta do it. What you need to do is you need to take everything you did over the last twelve years and print it.” You know how John sold the book? He said, “We’re not going to set foot into a publisher’s office. We’re going to bring everyone down, you pick a bar, and we’ll bring everyone down to the bar, and you’re going to stand back there and make drinks and tell stories. And then we’re going to turn in this treatment to them.” Five people bid on the book. It was brilliant, and we had this great time.

“So they ended up using the same shot, only without the explosion of light, just my hand holding a match and an orange peel. It looks like some asshole holding a match and an orange peel over a glass.”

The cover that I had wanted was an explosion of fire, but you’ve seen it and it’s just my fingers holding the match. There was some big executive at Random House that said, “We can’t use that picture. You know, this isn’t a book about magic, it’s a book about cocktails.” And I said, “Don’t you get it? That explosion of light sums up what we did at the Rainbow Room. The flaming orange peel over the Cosmopolitan…that was the deal. That was the word of mouth and what brought a lot of people out.” So they ended up using the same shot, only without the explosion of light, just my hand holding a match and an orange peel. It looks like some asshole holding a match and an orange peel over a glass. But in London I got to use the actual photograph, in the London edition.

AND WHAT ABOUT THE FOLLOW-UP BOOK, “THE ESSENTIAL COCKTAIL”?
The Essential Cocktail filled in the holes and also added all of my new recipes I had come up with in the seven years between books, and it had tons more art.

WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR ASPIRING BARTENDERS LEARNING THE CRAFT?
The thing I learned from the old cats I worked with was how to treat people and I’m so glad I had that opportunity at Charlie O’s; Pat and Mike were two lovely guys that really knew how to treat people. They were absolute gentlemen behind the bar. They never made a Mojito or anything like that, but the drinks they did make they made very well, but they weren’t into that. They were into guest service. It was an education, and I learned that it’s not about the drink. It’s not about the food. Granted, it’s nice if you’ve got a good drink and good food, it’s nice, but people don’t go there for that. They really don’t. They go for the experience and they go for the ambiance and they go for the people. And these guys, Pat and Mike, kept this bar jolly and loud and full, and they really knew how to handle people that were difficult, as Joe would later rely on me to do. Joe would say, “Dale, you see that guy over there? He’s a difficult guy. See if you can make him a friend of the house.” So my job was to take difficult people and turn them into friends of the house in a clever way.

With a bad bartender, in a year you can close a joint. No one will go in there. When the only good bartender at a joint left, that was the last time I went there. I would go there only when he was there. Granted, if you’re lucky enough that the whole staff is great, fine. That’s a great place, but once in awhile there’d be a place where you really loved a guy and you’d go there during his shift and that was it. I never went to bars, I went to bartenders. I mean it.

Dale DeGroff on Joseph Baum

Joseph Baum is widely regarded as one of America’s great restaurant innovators and a big part of Dale DeGroff’s journey towards becoming King Cocktail. He is the genius behind a long list of New York’s most legendary bars and restaurants including Windows on the World, Tavern on the Green, The Four Seasons Restaurant, and of course, The Rainbow Room.

“He was just a genius in the business, and his genius was details and returning to real. Real ingredients and real food. In 1969, when I came to New York, the four-star restaurants were all French and Italian. There were no great American chefs. There was no great American cuisine. There was regional cuisine, but it was in the region only. So this was the beginning of the American culinary revolution, explosion, Renaissance, call it what you want. It was just brilliant stuff, and that’s in 1969, right in the height of guns and sour mixes and all the crap. Joe was waiting for the opportunity to do that classic bar, and Aurora was his workshop, and the Rainbow [Room] was the show, and I was the guy. I was the engineer. He, as it turns out, chose me carefully for that very reason. Joe was a visionary; he was so far out there.

I’ll never forget the first time [the Rainbow Room] was written up in a glossy food magazine six months after we opened. Karen MacNeil was a fledgling writer at the time. She comes into my bar, I didn’t know her at the time, it was like 1987 and she was interviewing me, but I didn’t know she was interviewing me; she was just chatting with me. And then it comes out as an interview. The first time I hear about it is when I get a call from the executive floor. “Joe wants you down in his office…alone.” You didn’t go down to Joe’s office alone, you went with groups of people for meetings. So I walk through the door, and there’s Joe behind the desk, and Joe’s like…mean. He’s got a foul look on his face and he’s sitting there, and as soon as my ass hits the chair, he throws the magazine and it’s clipped open. “Read that.”, and I start reading an interview with me! And I’m like “Cool!” This is the first time I’ve ever been interviewed in a magazine and I’m loving it and I’m smiling, and Joe’s getting more and more pissed. Finally, Joe grabs the magazine and he underlines something and he goes, “Read me that.” She says, “What are you doing with the beverage program here at the Rainbow Room?” First words out of my mouth, “Karen, what we’re trying to do-“, and as soon as I hit the word “trying”, Joe pounds so hard on his desk that I jump out of my seat. I didn’t know what it was, it just caught me off guard because I was looking at the magazine. He says, “Trying is for students. We don’t try; we do. Get out of my office.” And I’m trying to figure out what he’s so pissed off about, right? He’s pissed off because I wasn’t speaking about superlatives; I wasn’t speaking about what we created. I said we were trying- you don’t try. What we did was thought out. What we did was planned. What we did was years of research. And you used the word “trying”? And that was a good lesson, let me tell you. That was a very smart and intelligent lesson.”


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