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.

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.Bartending is a skilled craft that can’t be learned in a weekend for $500 at some clip joint calling themselves a “Bartending School!”

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.