Kitchen Conversations With Norman Van Aken: Tony Abou-Ganim

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.

What was your arc in terms of the first kinds of drink making you loved and how it morphed over your career? Feel free to take it decade by decade.

I started working behind the bar at the Brass Rail in 1980 at the age of 20 although my first experience with the bar was on my 18th birthday (drinking age in Michigan was 18 in 1978). My parents took me to the Brass Rail to celebrate my first legal drink and my cousin Tony, after whom I'm named, put on quite the show in my honor. He set before me classic upon classic cocktail; A Tom Collins in the signature frosted Collins glass, a proper Old Fashioned also served in its namesake glass, Harvey Wallbanger, Posse Café, Brandy Alexander with grated nutmeg, and several others, but perhaps the drink I was most taken by was the Manhattan. Little did I know it at the time, but this early visit to the bar was setting the ground work in motion for what would become a lifelong journey. 

The 1980s weren't the most exciting time for the art of mixology behind most bars, but fortunately at cousin Helen's bar the focus was on whiskey highballs and classic cocktails. The bar was nothing outrageous but for a young man just starting out it could have been the Ritz. I was lucky to not only have my cousins Helen and Tony to learn the craft from but also my Uncle Charlie (who tended bar at the Brass Rail for over 50 years). I worked on and off at the Brass Rail for the next five years until I finally finished college and moved to the Bay Area in the summer of 1985.

By the time I got to San Francisco and Oakland vodka was in full swing and people were drinking lots of fresh vodka Highballs; Screwdrivers, Greyhounds, Madres, Sea Breeze, and Cape Cods served in "Buckets" were the rage. This was also when I remember the Kamikaze being really popular and frankly, a lot of fun nights were fueled by this simple libation. As the decade came to an end, the Cosmopolitan burst onto the scene and established a new type of bar in America known as the "Martini Bar." It seemed like every new cocktail, virtually all of which were based on vodka, that were served in a cocktail glass (AKA martini glass), became known as a martini. In fact, the only thing missing from my martini bar's cocktail list was the definitive marriage of gin and dry vermouth.

The vodka craze and martini bar drove us headfirst into the 1990s and showed little to no sign of slowing down. This was a time when highballs and mixed drinks had taken a backseat to shaken vodka-based drinks including every type of liqueur and fruit juice imaginable. In 1991, I had the great pleasure of being a part of the opening bar team at Harry Denton's, still to this day the best group of bartenders I ever had the pleasure to work with. Our GM David O'Malley put together a small drink menu based on classic cocktails. Now this was new for me as I had never worked anywhere that offered a menu devoted to cocktails. They were mostly well-known classics, a hand shaken daiquiri, old fashioned, Manhattan, sidecar, and something new I had never tried before called a Negroni. This joint was bumping! It was busy once the after work crowd piled in straight through until we gave last call. Needless to say the "classics" were overlooked by Sex on the Beach, Cosmopolitans, and Woo Woos but that is when I first discovered and fell in love with the Negroni. Thanks David! But as fate would have it things were about to change my life forever; I would move to New York City in 1993 to pursue an acting career and have that momentous opportunity to meet Dale DeGroff. After meeting Dale and experiencing the program he had implemented at the Rainbow Room, I accepted the offer to return to San Francisco and be a part of the opening crew at Harry Denton's Starlight Room atop the Sir Francis Drake Hotel. This was to be a remodel of an iconic landmark in San Francisco with Harry Denton at the helm which provided the ideal setting for a classic, fresh cocktail program. This is also the first establishment where I was tasked with writing the cocktail menu. It would be a blend of classics as well as original creations such as the Sunsplash, the Starlight, and perhaps my best-known original, the Cable Car. We did not know it at the time but we were on the verge of this great cocktail/bartending resurgence that we are enjoying today.

After three years working behind this great bar, I was recruited by Steve Wynn (well not Steve Wynn himself) to collaborate on the cocktail and spirits program for the Bellagio's 29 bars and restaurants. I accepted the position and in May of 1998, I relocated to Las Vegas and set out on the next chapter of my incredible journey. Little did I know what I was in for; training nearly 200 bartenders, 150 apprentice bartenders, and 100+ bar porters was incredible. We had bartenders with all levels of experience, mainly transferring from other Las Vegas casino properties with strong union backgrounds — it would be no small undertaking. The beautiful thing about bartenders is, for the most part, they love being a bartender and the program we implemented, a fresh, premium, hand crafted approach to resurrecting lost classics and featuring house made originals like the Bellagio Cocktail. But even more so the art of being a professional bartender allowed them to be proud of the drinks they served, proud of where they served them, and proud to call themselves bartenders. It was an amazing group of individuals that came together for a common goal and achieved it like no one had in Las Vegas on a scale no one had seen before. I will always be so proud of what we accomplished together on one of the greatest stages ever.

And so the 1990s came to an end with an amazing party at the Bellagio and the cocktail resurgence was gaining steam on a national front.

Well, the first three years of the 2000s saw me continuing to oversee and nurture the wonderful program that continued to grow at the Bellagio. This was a time when we placed great importance on training and education. Fresh, hand crafted libations were beginning to be more of the norm and creative cocktails, lost and forgotten classics and twists on classics were starting to show up on cocktail menus in virtually every major city in the country. By the end of the decade we would see this "trend" spread, on some level, to virtually every city in America. The "trend" had become more of the standard in many areas with fresh juices replacing artificial mixes, proper barware and technique replacing haphazard drink mixing, attention placed on the details such as the importance of ice and fine glassware, and a resurgence in bitters like we have not witnessed since pre-prohibition times. This new or revived rule would carry us into the next decade with no signs of letting up.

Well, to say it's a great time to be working behind the American bar once again would be like saying a Ferrari is a nice car to drive! The craft cocktail movement has permeated virtually all of the country with great cocktail bars, lounges, and restaurants opening daily across America. The Negroni has become a staple and not a novelty known by few bartenders. A great cocktail has become the rule, not the exception. Bars across America are featuring not only hand-crafted, fresh, seasonal potations but are pushing the creative envelope with offerings such as barrel aged cocktail, cocktails on draft, bottled cocktails, punch bowls, smoked and carbonated cocktails. Bars everywhere are not only featuring classic offerings made to spec but also house specialties featuring forgotten spirits and liqueurs which are now once again readily available as well as a plethora of new and unique ingredients that seems to grow each day. As we continue to pay homage to those great bars, bartenders and cocktails that have paved the way for us to work in this wonderful profession we are constantly striving to improve on it for future generations to come. As I said, it's a great time to be a bartender! 

What is the most important book on cocktails other than one you have written of the past 50 years in your estimation? Why?
Well, I would have to say perhaps my favorite book, and the one I feel is the most important book that every bartender should read and really study was written by David Embury in 1948 entitled The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks. Now, since you said in the last 50 years I would say that would be William Grimes Straight Up or On The Rocks, published in 1993. Grimes presents a fascinating cultural and historical narrative of the cocktails journey in America. From the early stirrings of colonial America through the Golden Age of cocktails, prohibition, the jazz age, repel, right up to the book's publication in 1993.

If you could go out for drinks and dinner with a food or drink person living or dead, who would it be and why?
There are so many but I would have to say Charles Baker. Baker was a true bon vivant who traveled the world writing about food and drink. In 1939 he published one of my favorite tomes, The Gentleman's Companion. He would frequently travel and imbibe with the likes of Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. He was a man that embraced the "sporting life" and all that it had to offer. I write a column for In The Mix magazine called The Adventures of George, which was inspired by Charles Baker but is based on my life and my constant pursuit of the perfect cocktail experience wherever that may take me. 

What are your opinions on what the bartender/mixologist of the current should wear in terms of uniforms?
This is a difficult question as there are all kinds of bars and all kinds of bartenders and one's skills, passion, and ability are not always defined by uniform. The "craft cocktail" resurgence has seen the profession reaching new heights and great cocktail bars opening in virtually every city in America. With the opening and expansion of these bars we seem to have set aside the more classic look, waistcoats, ties, and pressed white shirts in lieu of a more casual working attire and appearance. I think a lot depends on the clientele that a specific bar is trying to reach. I am a big Harley-Davidson enthusiast, and I've spent all of my life riding motorcycles and spend many an hour in biker bars across America. I would not expect the bartender to make me a Negroni and I would also not expect her to be wearing a vest and tie. That said, I guess I'm a little 'old school' when it comes to a bartenders uniform and how he or she present themselves behind the bar. I love a sharp dressed bartender who also gets to celebrate their individuality, working behind a well turned-out bar. 

As Harry MacElhone wrote in Harry's ABC of Mixing Cocktails in 1919:

"The successful barman of today is alert, bright, cheerful, and courteous, speaks when spoken to, or only so far as a query concerning the drink, and is clean and neat in dress. He should try to remember a customer's name and their particular kind of beverage. To be abrupt, insolent, to talk too much, or to be slovenly in appearance is a definite detriment, and is inexcusable."

When someone asks you for a drink that you think is a strange or ridiculous combo what do you do? 
The first time I discovered the recipe for a Blood & Sand, a mixture of Scotch whisky, Cherry Heering, sweet vermouth, and fresh orange juice I thought that nothing combining these ingredients could result in anything worth drinking. Boy was I wrong! If I had dismissed this drink solely on my perception of the virtues of mixing this seemingly strange combination of ingredients together in the same drink I may have missed out on enjoying one of the finest Scotch cocktails ever created. I believe in premium ingredients first and foremost and stay away from artificial, imitation products, but if a requested tipple includes a unique mix of exceptional components that I have available I will be more than happy to make it. Remember, we are there to provide our guests with an amazing experience and that often times means fixing them something we might not adhere to, but they are the ones ordering the drink, drinking the cocktail, paying for it, and enjoying the experience. I might even straw taste it just in case they've invented the next Blood & Sand!

What was the best live concert that you have ever been to?
This is a tough one but I would have to say AC DC in 2010 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. It was part of my 50th birthday celebration and I got 10 tickets and invited my closest friends. My sister-in-law Janet even came out from Michigan. They were better than ever and the energy they brought to the show was amazing.

That said I just saw Journey at the Joint inside the Hard Rock, and although there will never be another Steve Perry, Amel Pineda on lead vocals was incredible! 

What band do you regret never having seen?
Led Zeppelin! During my freshman year of high school in 1975 I asked Shelly Guizar, who was a senior, to slow dance when "Stairway to Heaven" was played and she said yes! It was perhaps the most memorable eight minutes of my young life! So jump forward a couple of years and I was working in a gas station in Port Huron, Michigan, in 1977 and a couple of guys in an old Chevy pulled up and they offered to sell me two tickets to the Zeppelin Show at the Silverdome in Pontiac for $25 each. Now back then I'm pretty sure it took me three days pumping gas and cleaning windshields to earn $50 but looking back that has always been my biggest concert regret.

What food or ingredient do you adore?
French fries! I absolutely love French fries! Perhaps my favorites are those served at Bouchon in Las Vegas and Yountville followed closely by Balthazar in New York, and Le Central in San Francisco. Is it just a coincidence that my favorite places to eat French fries are French restaurants?

Perhaps my favorite cocktail ingredient has got to be mint. There are so many varieties of mint to work with but I still think mint, overall, is overlooked in most bars. 

What is your favorite food holiday?
I would have to say Thanksgiving. I started a tradition when I lived and worked in San Francisco for all my fellow restaurant comrades who could not make it home for the festivities. In lieu of having people over for Thanksgiving dinner I would make brunch and serve my legendary turkey hash with poached eggs and Bloody Marys. It was a three day procedure as I had to roast three turkeys, shred the meat, and boil twenty pounds of corned beef and another twenty of potatoes. I would mix this all together in a large cooler and then come Thanksgiving Day, fry it up for all of our brethren two plates at a time. It always helped that I had prepared an endless supply of Bloody Marys and the Detroit Lions always played on Thanksgiving! 

I grew up in a not so traditional Thanksgiving family. On my Irish mother's side, Thanksgiving fare was pretty much what you would expect, and it was amazing! We lived with my grandmother and great aunt Dort who ran a bakery and were both wonderful cooks. That meal was always served early. Then we would watch the football game, take a nap, get loaded up into my folks car and head to my Uncle Charlie and Aunt Mary Rose's house for our Lebanese Thanksgiving dinner. We would start with mezze such as hummus, fattoush, grape leaves, and meat pies. Here we also had the traditional turkey but Aunt Mary Rose's was stuffed with a meat and rice stuffing topped with roasted pine nuts and blanched almond called hashweh. But the main event, the one my brother and I still look forward too, is the serving of the Kibbeh Nayyeh. This dish consisting raw ground sirloin, lamb and Burghul wheat served with raw onions, fresh mint and olive oil has got to be one of my favorite meals on the planet. No room for pumpkin pie but perhaps just one piece of baklava and a small cup of Turkish coffee. 

What food or ingredient will never enter your body again?
I was served some very raw spleen recently and that was a little hard to keep down. Blood sausage is also something not high on my list. And I know it may sound weird, but I'm not a fan of celery, although if a stalk does end up in my Bloody Mary I will probably take a bite or two. 

Where in the world would you like to dine now and why?

I love eating in Paris! I plan trips to Paris just to eat. Obviously I love the food (did I mention French fries), but I also just love the people and the culture. If I could be eating one place right now it would be Au Moulin a Vent Chez Henri, an amazing French Bistro located at 20 rue des Fosses Saint Bernard in Paris.[pullquote:left]

What do you think of folks going to "Bartending Schools?"
Most bartending schools get a bad rap, and personally, I feel most deserve it. Bartending is a skilled craft that can't be learned in a weekend for $500 at some clip joint calling themselves a "Bartending School!" Unfortunately for the poor sap who has just laid down the $500 with the dream of walking into a cocktail lounge with their newly earned bartending diploma expecting to get hired on the spot and pick up the prime weekend shifts it's just not going to happen! I tell young, potential bartenders who want to pursue this craft that it truly is an apprentice profession. To become a bartender, a good bartender, it takes time, it takes dedication, and it does take study and research. To become a great bartender it takes a lifelong commitment. If you want to become a great bartender, you must work with and learn from great bartenders! That said there are good learning institutions out there to help you along your journey. The BAR 5 Day is amazing, the Academy offered by Southern Wine & Spirits, the USBG and in Las Vegas, the classes offered by the bartender's union. There is also a school here in Las Vegas and New Orleans that I have had the pleasure of speaking for on several occasions and is a good place to start if you've never worked in this industry before called the Crescent School, ask for Rickey.

What part of your body has taken the biggest beating over the years in the profession?
I think it might be easier to ask what parts have not taken a beating over the years. 

I have suffered through planter fasciitis in my right foot, which required several cortisone shots over the years.

I had sciatica and had to undergo two epidural injections and a whole look of physical therapy. I still get FST session twice a month.

On July 21, I will have my right shoulder scoped; they are not sure if that's from shaking thousands and thousands of cocktails or all the heavy bench pressing I did back in the day. I think it may be a little of both.

But perhaps the part of my body that has suffered the most over the years was my hands, and more specifically my nails. If someone has never agonized with bar rot, there just is no explaining how painful it can be! The bad part is we work with our hands, and we work with citrus, and are hands are damp most of the night, and there is just no way to get rid of it other than taking a long sabbatical from behind the bar. I pray to never have to experience bar rot again!

What famous guests have you enjoyed making cocktails for the most? Explain why if you would. 
Julia Roberts, she could not have been nicer and she drank Jack Daniels!

Served a fresh white peach Bellini to Wayne Gretzy at a charity golf outing at Shadow Creek, I'm a big fan!

George Clooney, now I see what all the fuss is about, drank vodka on the rocks.

Jimmy Fallon, I made him drinks at a charity event Mario Batali hosted and we got into a debate over the perfect dry martini, shaken versus stirred. He later featured my book and a drink I call a Zig Zag on the Tonight Show with Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas.

Made a Happy Mario for President Clinton.

Taught Stanley Tucci how to make a mojito at a Mario charity! He is a gentleman and what I would refer to as "an actors' actor!"

Which guests (famous or otherwise) will not be welcome back and what did they do to 'get fired?'
My father taught me a long time ago that if you don't have something nice to say about someone don't say anything at all, but here we go. Michael Jordan, just rude and very self-centered, his bodyguard once pushed me out of his way so he could walk past without so much as an "excuse me..."and I was wearing a tuxedo! Tiger Woods is a bit of a gem as well!

Favorite Food/Drinks Movie of all time?
Big Night, not only an amazing movie with great acting, but also had a hand in transforming how America looked at authentic Italian food. It was beautifully shot with incredible, sexy food that makes you want to open a bottle of Friulano, put on your apron, and whip up a seafood risotto for that someone special.

This movie also holds a special meaning for me that in 1993 I moved to NYC to follow my dream of becoming a theatrical actor on Broadway. As it turned out I became Mario Batali's first bartender at his first restaurant, a little Italian trattoria called Pó in the West Village. Well Mario was also introducing Italian food that was very different than the traditional spaghetti and meatball folks were used to, but once his food hit it never looked back! So back in 1994 there was a private luncheon that Mario was hosting to help benefit the making of a new film and as part of the event there would be a scene read from the script. Well, being a starving actor Mario asked if I would read one of the characters named Secondo, which turned out to be the roll Stanley Tucci played in the film! No one had any idea the film would get made let alone go on to be such a big success. I met Stanley Tucci years later at a Mario charity where I got to teach him how to make a Mojito... isn't life grand! 

Is 'molecular' or 'modernist cuisine' something you feel has made cuisine better?
This is not really my area of expertise so to speak, but no, not really. I am more of a French bistro kind of guy; not so much a Joël Robuchon fan. I like simple, well-made, classic fare like a good steak pommes frites or duck confit. I guess I feel the same way about cocktails. Cointreau pearls floating in a deconstructed margarita can be cool and push the creative limits, but give me a great, fresh, balanced, hand-crafted margarita any day and I'm a very happy man!

If it all came down to the world knowing your life's work via 'one drink,' like an author via a single book they'd written, what drink would be the one that you would choose you created or best became known for?
The Cable Car for sure! This was a drink I created in 1996 when I worked at Harry Denton's Starlight Room in San Francisco. I was approached by the folks from Captain Morgan Spiced Rum to develop a new cocktail featuring their rum. I took inspiration from the Brandy Crusta, created in New Orleans in the 1850, and mixed it with orange curaçao, fresh lemon juice, a touch of simple syrup and served it in a cinnamon & sugar crusted cocktail glass. The tag phrase at the Starlight Room was "...located between the stars and the cable cars" and hence the drink pretty much named itself. I brought the cocktail with me to Las Vegas in 1998 when I helped open the Bellagio and the Cable Car found a new and much broader fan base.

You've been invited to a meal where you are allowed to choose three guests from all of history. Whom are your three guests? 
1. My father 2. Charles Baker 3. Jerry Thomas.

If you had not made it as a cocktail wizard, and money were not an issue, what profession would you choose?
That would be a toss-up between a concert pianist and a professional hockey player.

Would you want your child (or a niece or nephew) to follow you in this profession? 
That would be great! At this point I have no children so I guess it's up to my niece or nephew. My niece has been in school now for 7 years and is just a couple years away from her doctorate so I think her parents would kill both of us if she decided to become a bartender at this stage. My nephew, who is named after me, might one day decide to pick up a cocktail shaker again but right now is on another career path. My hope for both of them, as much as I would love to see them embrace this wonderful profession, is that they find the one thing that fulfills them and makes them truly happy. As my father said to me long ago, "If you can find a way to make a living doing what you love you'll never work a day in your life!" It's been a long time since I've felt like I work for a living.

If you wrote a book on 'advice for aspiring bartenders/mixologists etc.,' what would you choose for its title? 
It's Never About You... It's All About the Guest.