Kitchen Conversations With Norman Van Aken: Tony Abou-Ganim

This cocktail wizard has had a fascinating life

Abou-Ganim was selected by Steve Wynn to develop the cocktail program at the Bellagio.

Norman Van Aken, a member of The Daily Meal Council, is a Florida-based chef–restaurateur (Norman's at the Ritz-Carlton in Orlando), cooking teacher, and author. His most recent book is a memoir, No Experience Necessary: The Culinary Odyssey of Chef Norman Van Aken. This is the one in a regular series of Kitchen Conversations — informal but revealing interchanges with key culinary figures — that Van Aken will be contributing to The Daily Meal. He also writes a regular series of Kitchen Meditations for us. You can find all of Norman’s contributions on his Daily Meal page.

Mixologist Tony Abou-Ganim is one of the most legendary and influential mixologists working today. After growing up in the bar business, he moved to New York City to open Mario Batali’s first restaurant, Pó, and after returning to San Francisco to open the Starlight Room atop the Francis Drake Hotel he developed some now-legendary cocktails including the Sunsplash, the Starlight, and the Cable Car. In 1998, Steve Wynn selected him to develop the cocktail program at the Bellagio’s 22 bars, and in 2002 he became one of only two Americans to win the Bacardi Martini World Grand Prix. He is the author of The Modern Mixologist: Contemporary Classic Cocktails and Vodka Distilled, and his branded line of Modern Mixologist bar tools is available on his website.

Norman Van Aken: What is the very first thing you remember eating and enjoying? Where were you?
Tony Abou-Ganim: Fried Michigan lake perch! My mom and dad would take me and my kid brother to the Windjammer Restaurant in Lexington, Michigan, on Friday nights for the all you can eat lake perch fish fry. Now this is back in the 1960s and I remember we would get dressed up and make the drive from Port Huron to Lexington for our big night out. My dad would always order us Shirley Temples, which may have been as big of a treat as the fried perch. I do miss those days, but I have great memories and still have to have fried Lake Huron perch whenever I’m home.

Are you the first mixologist in your family? 
No, I grew up in a bar family. My cousin, Helen David, who was my biggest influence and mentor, opened the Brass Rail Bar in Port Huron in 1937 and ran it for 69 years until her death at the age of 91. Both my Uncle Charlie and Cousin Tony worked behind the bar and were very influential in my early stirrings. I began actually working behind the bar at the Brass Rail in 1980.

When did you realize that it was serious to you?
I remember as if it were yesterday meeting Dale DeGroff at the Rainbow Room in 1993 after moving to New York to pursue an acting career. As mentioned I began working behind the bar in 1980, at a time when it was not necessarily a career choice to become a bartender but more of a part time gig while you finished school or waited for your acting career to take off. After meeting Dale I made the conscious decision to focus on becoming the best bartender I could be.

Where were you cooking when that moment took place? Describe the place.
As mentioned I moved from San Francisco to New York City to pursue a theatrical acting career. I had worked with Steve Crane at Harry Denton’s in SF and he had just opened a small trattoria in the West Village with Mario Batali called Pó and I was their first bartender.

What was the first drink you made you felt proud of?
After moving back to San Francisco in 1995 to be on the opening team at Harry Denton’s Starlight Room. At this time the concept of crafting original libations was not like it is today and Campari was hosting a small campaign among bartender around the country to develop a recipe and they asked me. It was a big deal and we were featured in an advertisement along with our story and drink creation. I fittingly designed a long drink I called Starlight in honor of the newly re-opened historic lounge atop of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel. I was proud of the drink then and it continues to be one of my favorites 20 years later. I feel that classic cocktail much like food, art, music, and people become classics because they pass the test of time. 

Do you feel this kind of life caused you to sacrifice having a normal life? 
How does one define a “normal life?” I started bartending in 1980 at a time when aspiring to a career as a bartender was very rare. When I told people I tended bar for a living most would follow that up by asking me what I wanted to do for a living. Yes, I worked weekends, late nights, and holidays, all of the times when people with a “normal life” were off and either out enjoying themselves at our bars and restaurants or away with friends and family. Yes, I guess you could say I missed out on a normal life but all I’ve ever really known is this strange, wonderful and exciting abnormal life. 

If I had it to do all over would I have chosen a “normal life?” I don’t think I would have done anything different. Most of my closest and dearest friends today have been a part of this life and I would not change that for the world. 


Did you ever come close to quitting the business and finding something more sane?
God knows I tried. I became a certified welder, a plumper’s assistant, Series 7 licensed stock broker, and a heavy machinery operator, while all the time holding on to a shift or two behind the bar. It seemed like every time I tried to get out of the bar business I would miss it and keep getting dragged back in until in 1993 when I made the conscious decision to be the best bartender I could become, committed myself completely to the profession, and have never looked back! Funny thing is, I never considered any of those other career choices to be any more “sane.” They all had benefits like working Monday-Friday, 9-5, health insurance, paid vacations, sick days, retirement plans, holidays off, all the things that working behind the stick at that time rarely offered, but I never got the same rush from doing any of them. Life is a tradeoff. You just hope at the end of it you can say with pride and honesty that was one hell of a ride and I enjoyed every minute of it! I wake up every morning excited to see what the day has in store for me, and it’s rarely the same as it was the day before.