Last night, the Sie Film Center hosted Jim Meehan of PDT who introduced the movie Hey Bartender to a theater filled with industry professionals. Meehan, who won a James Beard Award for Outstanding Bar Program in 2012, appears in the movie on several occasions, but he is not the star of show.
A documentary produced and directed by Douglas Tirola, Hey Bartender focuses on two people: Stephen "Carpi" Carpentieri, owner of Dunville's in Westport, Connecticut, who struggles to adapt his neighborhood bar to the changing cocktail world, and Steve Schneider, a motivated ex-Marine, whose dream is to be promoted from apprentice to principal bartender at Employees Only in NYC. The path and stories of these two are interspersed with shorter pieces on some of the most famous faces in the bartending world including Audrey Saunders of Pegu Club , Dushan Zaric of Employees Only, and Julie Reiner of Clover Club. Dale DeGroff who founded the Museum of the American Cocktail, appears in the film several times as well.
Meehan sat with Eater to talk about the documentary, his views on bartending, and his impressions of Denver's cocktail scene.
From your perspective, what is this movie about? In very few words, I think the movie is about the path of the cocktail bartender. Doug Tirola had over 300 hours of material for this movie that were filmed over a period of over three years. In the end, he chose the stories that said the most about our culture-two guys trying to make it in the bartending world. The movie has received some criticism for this, but at the end of the day, those were the strongest stories and the movie provided insight into our world without over-focusing on or glorifying those who are already heroes in the industry.
What is Hey Bartender not about? There's actually little that the movie is not about as far as the bar world goes. What Doug Tirola secretly snuck into the movie was a story about life and what happens with certain paths in life. Truly this is a movie about life and that makes it relatable to anyone, whether they are part of the hospitality industry or not.
What does it mean for the bartending world to have this movie produced? In my opinion, it is huge. If you look at the culinary world, a lot of chefs, despite the incredible quality of their restaurants, don't succeed unless they reach the small screen. The ones who are on TV somehow do much better than the ones who are not. There is this pressure, whether real or just perceived, to make it on TV. It became part of the professional goal of those in the culinary world. For bartenders, to have our craft not only on TV, but on the big screen, is just a really big step. This movie promotes our profession and gives the public unprecedented insight into what is it that we do.
So, if Bravo came up with a Top Chef Mixology next year, would you do it? [laughter] I would judge it. I've learned that the best way to not lose a competition is to judge it. For me, I am a very competitive person and I found that at times the competitive nature in me is the antithesis of all the virtues I think I should have as a bartender and operator. I would probably do my best to not be a competitor on such a show.
Who should see Hey Bartender? Because the director made this a life story, I would hope that everyone would be interested in seeing it- people who don't drink, people who are not involved in our industry at all. I certainly hope that people who are bartenders or at least cocktail bartenders will make it a point to see the movie.
What is a bartender to you? Literally, it is a person who serves customers from behind the bar, and typically pours them beer or wine or cocktails. A bartender serves people. People often ask what is the difference between a mixologist and a bartender and I think a mixologist is someone focused on how liquids blend together, how to create a balanced drink, while a bartender quite literally serves people from behind the bar.
So, which category do you fall in? Well, I am no longer a full time bartender. I am now managing PDT so I am more of a bar operator than a bartender, but I think that every time I stand behind the mahogany or a six foot table, I am tending bar. I bartended full-time for 15 years and, for that reason, I will always think of myself as a bartender.
What do you look for when you hire someone at PDT? Most people we hire get their foot in the door through word of mouth. When we have a position open, my staff puts feelers out for friends or talented folks in the industry. I have hired a few people who left resumes with me, but as a general matter, I am always on the lookout for the next great employee. If someone pulls me aside and makes an impression as a future employee, I get their information and reach out when a position opens. I am a big believer in hiring people, not bartenders or barbacks. I can't teach people the things they should have learned from their parents. I can't be a babysitter. More than anything, I look for people with integrity - people who are honest, humble, and hard-working.
How much does bartending pedigree matter to you when you hire someone? I have hired many people who have never worked in a bar before. People who have worked in many bars before come with a lot of training. This weekend, I was talking to chef Didier at the St. Regis. He was saying that young people are more like bamboo, they are more pliable, but as they get older, they become more like iron and it is harder to change them. When someone doesn't have a lot of experience, they don't come with a bunch of bad habits. I am not necessarily looking for super young people, but people with open minds who can accept doing things the way I want them done. I want to provide an experience like no other, so the less ideas my new employees have about what that experience should be, the better. Doubts and dissension cloud their ability to run things the way they should be run at PDT.
What do think about Denver's cocktail scene? I think it is amazing. The first time I came here was about six years ago. Mike Henderson who is a RootDown and Linger bartended with me at Paul's Club in Madison. When Mike moved to Boulder, he ended up working for Dave Query at the Big Red F. Dave flew me to Colorado for a few days and I got to spend most of that time with James Lee and Devlin Devore. This was before Bitterbar opened; James Lee was at the West End Tavern. Their cocktail program was very new and I gave them some advice on how to grow it.
That was the first time I went to Frasca and got to meet Bryan Dayton. I had already published his cocktail recipes in the FOOD & WINE Cocktail Book and I was incredibly impressed with what he was doing and the level to which he took his cocktails in those early stages. Two years ago, I met Sean Kenyon in Aspen and we have gotten to know each other and he has emerged as the face of the scene of the bartending movement in Denver. In the hands of people like Sean, Devlin Devore, Mike Henderson, James Lee, and Bryan Dayton, this scene has become very strong. Denver's cocktail culture matured in dynamic good restaurants instead of just in bars. That's the right DNA for a cocktail culture as it matches exactly the make-up of the bars that were finalists this year for the James Beard Award for Outstanding Bar Program - Bar Agricole, the Aviary, the Bar at the NoMad, and Holeman & Finch.
You can catch Hey Bartender at the Sie FilmCenter today, June 19 and tomorrow June 20. On Monday, June 24, the Boulder Dairy Center for the Arts will host Moovers and Shakers, a cocktail competition and movie screening brings together some of Boulder's top bartenders. Drinks and bites from their respective restaurants will be served starting at 5:30 p.m., with a screening of the movie following at 7:30 p.m. Advance tickets for that event are $40 and can be purchased online.