Eat Your Drink
By Matthew Biancaniello
Suzy: Welcome to the "Cookery by the Book" podcast with me, Suzy Chase.
Matthew: I'm Matthew Biancaniello and my new book is called "Eat Your Drink Culinary Cocktails".
Suzy: Eat Your Drink is a collection of gorgeous culinary cocktails that follow the structure of a meal. The book is divided up by courses. Describe the courses.
Matthew: So the courses are just like the courses of a meal pretty much, that you would experience. So you have the amouse bouche, the first course, second course, main course, dessert and after dinner. These drinks in those sections standing on their own as a course that you would do a flight of these things for a meal or for a presentation or for a pairing as well.
My whole concept was I feel like I had really gone beyond just doing farmers market cocktails and things that I grew or things that I foraged, and I think it was much more. I always look at it much more that I was more of a chef coming from a chef's point of view and that it was the expression of that, but also that you know, so many people kept saying, "Oh my God, this is like a meal. I don't have to eat". Or this or that.
So that's where the whole main Eat Your Drink came out of, then to really kind of sum it up, is that it is culinary and it is ... it's the ingredients in the food first, the alcohol is secondary, basically. Kind of like I feel more appropriate the slow drink movement. Because it's really kind of taking all of these steps and really curating pretty much everything that goes into that glass. So really being conscious of what the alcohol you're using, what the sweetener you're using, knowing the limes that you picked, knowing the ingredients and the farmers you got that from, or where you got it from in the forest or whatever it is. So to me it's more about that whole slow drink really kind of explains it because it's really curating every step of it. And that's what excites me and that's what keeps me inspired and keeps the passion really flowing.
Suzy: So you were in advertising, an animal trainer, in art sales.
Suzy: So what drew you to the Library Bar at Hollywood's Roosevelt Hotel?
Matthew: Well Suzy, the thing that really was, is that I just really needed a job. And you know, it's funny, it's one of those things I think a lot of people had done service industry jobs in the beginning of their lives and I never did that. So it was very interesting to work, I'm not going to say towards the end of my life, but later on in my life I started doing it. I really just needed a job. I happened to know the manager at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, Tiffany Russo, she was in my yoga class for years. And she's like, well I know this quiet little bar. You know, you don't really have any experience. You can kind of go in there and slowly learn. And I remember the weekends were kind of busy because it was a hotel, but during the week it was a ghost town.
And the money was really, really good, and I was like ah, this is kind of great. But what happened was, was during that off time, I was so dead. I think I was there Tuesdays and Wednesday nights and Sunday nights, where I started going to the farmers market. I started going to different, just getting different ingredients. And I remember one day she tried one of my drinks, she goes, oh my God, this is incredible, what's in this? And I go oh that's just fresh pomegranate juice. And she said, you're buying this out of your own pocket? I said yeah. She goes well I'll start reimbursing you $100 a week. Well I was spending $400 a week. This was all kind of the beginning of the cocktail movement that was happening in Los Angeles. I mean, I spent easily $8,000-9,000 out of my own pocket. Just kind of educating myself.
But also getting really excited about all of these ingredients that I had never see before and these farmers from all over and all of that. And I remember somebody asked me for a Cosmopolitan and I had to duck down and say to the woman next to me, "What's in a Cosmopolitan?" And I remember she told me but she was using sour mix and I was like, here's the deal. I'm not going to use sour mix, that doesn't make any sense to me. So I remember just people waiting, even in the very beginning, for me to squeeze all of these limes or lemons from hand, you know what I mean? And it was a big deal, but that was kind of the incarnation of what I was going to do and what was to come.
Suzy: Here's the old chicken or the egg question. You base your drinks on your natural surroundings. Now does the recipe pop in your head first, or do you get ideas from gardening, farmers markets and foraging?
Matthew: That's a great question because I think it's both. I think it's a combination now because I've been doing this a while, that April's coming up and I'm thinking about what did I get last year? It's really let's just say, let's just take a random ingredient like passion fruit. Let's just say passion fruit is coming up again. And I can already say ahead of time, okay, what can I do differently with passion fruit? I love this drink and I know this is always going to be a classic that I'll introduce to people, but what can I do differently with passion fruit? I really taste in my head, so I start to get ideas about what I'm going to do with passion fruit.
But then the slip, the other side of that, what you were saying, is I recently had the opportunity to travel to ten countries in the last five months, six months. And I was really now going to places and exploring just what I would do here, produce and things like that that I hadn't seen before. So it was interesting. I would get off the plane thinking about the drink I was going to make and some things that people told me were there, but then I always left myself open for something to strike me or to change or to inspire me or to be a new flavor. So I loved using sea moss in St. Lucia.
Breadfruit was something that totally took me by surprise in Tahiti. I know it's very common and very well known in the Mutiny in the Bounty book and so forth, but I still didn't think anything of it. And what was amazing about it was I tasted it and this was something that was really a big part of their culture. But when you cooked it in the fire, that's what was so surprising. So you would take it whole, you would stick it in the fire with a stick, and it literally became inside like bread or a brioche. And I ended up making an alcoholic ice cream with that with incredible Tahitian vanilla and [inaudible 00:06:43] and these other things. And I think that really sticks out to me because I think it sticks out to me because of how much that fruit changed when you cook it and I never necessarily cook my things when I'm making drinks. Usually I'm taking them in their raw form or I'm infusing them, but it's very rare that I'm cooking something to get some kind of flavor or texture out of it. So I think that was really really really surprising to me.
And then the fruits and so forth in Colombia just blew my mind. The tropical fruits in Colombia. Things I never tasted before and really really unusual flavors. But I would say that bread fruit really stuck out.
Suzy: Cocktail ice is judged by its clarity, density, size and cut. What do you think about premium ice?
Matthew: Well I'm a big fan of it. There's actually a company there that really does it right in Los Angeles called Neve Ice. And he doesn't really tell people too much about how he does it, but I know he uses some kind of reverse osmosis water and the way that it's a much more dense ice cube. So it's not just about you have these big cubes, or you have them clear, it's the quality of water as well. So the quality of water has to be great, and then the way that he processes it, a cube will actually take a two by two inch rocks cube will actually take about three hours to melt. Where you can make that cube on its own, it will probably be gone in an hour. So I am a big fan of it, but I'm not a big fan of just not having great quality water. It really is about the water because that's going to change the quality of the cocktail as well.
Suzy: Describe your favorite drink in the book.
Matthew: So I describe it to everybody in the same way. I have my favorite drink to drink and my favorite drink to make. And it hasn't changed in six years. My favorite drink to drink is called the Rockette. And it's a wild arugula gimlet. And it's basically gin, lime juice, agave and wild arugula. And there's a specific arugula that I get here from Paso Robles called arugula rustica which is extra spicy and bitter. And it's basically, the best way to describe it is like a gin mojito. And I love it because it's a simple drink, it's a very strong, unique flavor on its own, so you really don't have to do anything else to it, and it goes so well, I could drink it any time. So it could be something that you're drinking during the day like if you're a gin and tonic drinker which I am, or it really goes well with food and meals. So it's a perfect drink to have with a steak or just food that might be a little bit more substantial. I don't want to say heavy, but substantial.
And then my favorite drink to make, because it really breaks the rules, is the Last Tango in Modena. And if you look at a lot of drinks and you look at a lot of my drinks, too, they're really based on a formula. And it's really derived from the daiquiri that was created in Cuba in the '30s. And it really was spirit, citrus, and sugar. And if you take the rum out and you put gin, you've got a gimlet. If you put mint in you have a mojito. If you take the rum out and you put taquila, you have a margarita.
So the Last Tango in Modena kind of breaks all those rules where I'm not using any citrus and I'm not using any sugar and it's not a stirred drink, but I'm using balsamic vinegar which is a mixture of aged balsamic. So it's very sweet and it's got a little bit of a sourness to it. That's kind of taking care of both the sweet and the sour. And then I'm using incredible strawberries that we have here from a farm called Harry's Berries. They're gaviotas which is a really, really strong strawberry flavor. And then gin. And then I've always wanted to make a foam, years ago. And this great bartender in town called Vincenza Marinella, I remember I was going up to him and I said, "Listen, I need to make this foam and I'm testing things with gelatin and all this stuff and I don't like the texture of it, it doesn't really look right, doesn't feel right." He told me that no, just mix equal parts of egg whites with the alcohol because it's sweet enough. As long as it has a high sugar content. Double charge it with nitrous and you've got a foam. And I him well I want to do it with [inaudible 00:10:51], and he goes, "Well you don't want to do it with that, it's too expensive."
But that was the thing. I was in a hotel, which is another rare opportunity. Nobody really kind of micro-managed me. As long as sales were going up and I was getting a lot of press, no one really told me what to do, so that drink really became my signature drink. And it's very, very simple. It's gin, strawberries and balsamic vinegar. You muddle it. And then the foam is so easy to make if you have an ISI container. So something like that can be, look so sophisticated and so intricate and yet really be one of the most simple cocktails. So it's a drink that I love to make because I know how people are going to react to it, but I also know that it's just a fun drink that breaks all the rules, that makes me proud I guess.
Suzy: With the Rockette, you said it's a great drink for meals. When thinking about a drink for meals, is it a drink that doesn't get in the way, or does it compliment?
Matthew: That's a great question because I've done a lot of food things, but the chef who wrote the Forward for my book, Roberto Crotell is an amazing, amazing chef. And he's done a lot of pop ups. And he's really one of the first chefs ... 'cause I've done consulting in a lot of places and I think a lot of chefs don't want you to overshadow them, you know, just in general. Not just me, but just that. And Roberto was never afraid of that. So it was kind of how I felt, like these things should be paired. Should be great on their own, but definitely should compliment what it's being served with. And I used to do ten courses with Roberto, and each one I could say could stand on its own or compliment it as well. And to me that's what I'm striving for.
Because I remember these people showed up with $5,000 worth of wine one night. And they looked at me and said, "Hey, listen. I'm really, really sorry. I didn't know you were going to be here and I'm a wine person." I said, "Hey listen, no problem." But two drinks into it he put his wine away. And he goes, "I'm so sorry, I had no idea what you were doing and how different this is and how much it compliments the food and how well thought out it is and how delicious it is." And that was really a huge, huge compliment. Because here I am working with this amazing chef and I had this guy who brought $5,000 of wine and put it aside. It just continues to encourage me and gave me strength to really just want to continue to complement and find flavors.
But I'm also influenced by chefs and influenced by food. So it's a challenge when I see a menu and I have to do something to complement that.
Suzy: Last night, I made your recipe for Mexican Apple Pie.
Matthew: How did it come out?
Suzy: On page 115. It was lovely. I just want to say I have so much respect for you now after making that because it definitely took a bit of preparation. But it was so good and I froze the honey crisp.
Matthew: Oh good. I love honey crisp. That's one of my favorite apples.
Suzy: And I'm in New York City, so they're very, very easy to find.
Matthew: Yup, that makes sense. [crosstalk 00:14:06]
Suzy: So it got me thinking about a bar full of patrons, and these gorgeous cocktails. How do you balance preparation and the amount of people you're waiting on?
Matthew: That's another great ... you have great questions, by the way. And a lot of questions that people haven't really asked me before, so I love it because I've given a lot of thought and I've adjusted over the years to it. So I think the greatest thing is I do a lot of private events so this is something I care about the quality and I never really sacrifice the quality. But sometimes I'll have crowds of 100, 150 people. And I don't batch anything as well. And I think that the biggest challenge came about three years ago when it wasn't about how fast I could make the drinks. What was really getting in the way was people were coming to see me as well, and kind of get the whole experience.
So it's not just about making drinks, it's the whole experience. I'm very much about pleasing people and giving people a great experience. So yes, I want to make a great drink and I want to make something that's specific for them, but it was also about the experience. And I could see that people were starting to get frustrated because my time was really being divided now. I decided that I wasn't going to be behind the bar. I have an incredible right-hand man, Luke Fisher, and really great staff that basically I do all the preparation. I give them the recipes, but I also, they're trained enough with me that you should have all of these ingredients on the bar. That once they've gone through the drinks and people have gone through the drinks, I want them to do [inaudible 00:15:41], I want them to do whatever they want to do, especially if they're feeling the vibe of the customer in front of them.
But what's great about this is now they get to do the drinks and I'm more like a chef expediting, where I'm coming up to them calling out drinks, but I'm also calling out combinations because I just spoke to someone at a table about what they might like. So that's the other thing is about four years, five years ago, I got rid of a menu at the Library Bar, because one day a woman came in and she said, "I'd like a drink, something sweet but not too sweet." And I actually gave her the Last Tango in Modena. And she's like, "Oh my God, this is the best drink I've ever had." And I said, "Oh." And she says, "Well what's in it?" And I said, "Well it's got strawberries and balsamic vinegar." She goes, "Balsamic vinegar?" She goes, "I hate balsamic vinegar. Can you make me something else?" And I said, "You just told me it was the best drink you've ever had." She goes, "I know, but I hate balsamic vinegar."
So that was the first time I was like, you know what? I am not going to have a menu anymore. Everyone's going to come in, it's going to be [inaudible 00:16:46] and it's going to be personalized to them. And I think in those last two years at the Library Bar, people were really spoiled of kind of, and rightfully they should be because you know, these drinks are $15, $16 and I understand that I wanted it to be more than just like you were paying for quality, but the experience. But I really went to every single person and would ask them, "What do you like? What are your flavor profiles?" And not just what are your flavor profiles in general, but did you just eat right now? Are you about to go to dinner? Are you full? Are you looking for a little pick-me-up? Do you want something lighter in alcohol? So it's a combination of flavors, but then those circumstances.
And I think, so what happened was, that started to get lost. People were used to that personal attention and I started to get mobbed. So now I went out to every single table in the pop up and I would come back and get the drinks. And I could go back and have a conversation. So now I was bringing the bar to the tables. And it solved the problem. We were able to do ... I remember one time we did 150 cocktails in five hours. My style. You know what I mean?
Matthew: Which was really impressive and even got higher, I think, as we got better the second season. So that's really what I did, is I wanted people to know that this is something that, but you made this for yourself at home, and who's to say how many home bartenders necessarily would be making drinks for a lot of people, but I think they would be able to hold their own for a party of up to 25, you know 10-25 people. I really do. And I think that if it was anything else it takes practice, but it's really about, I would do more and more preparation ahead of time. But nothing was batched. And that just became a really successful way of me, really now not being behind the bar, but being really more of a chef and expediter.
Suzy: Where can we find you on the web?
Matthew: Matthewbiancaniello.com and again, I'm also working on a TV show which is why I went to those ten countries, which is to be announced. I'm the host of a new show about cocktails that hopefully will hit the air the end of this year. And that's going to be, it's an amazing experience 'cause it's basically me going to each location, finding locals, finding local ingredients, and then at the end, I make drinks for them. So it's a really great thing because it's not just me kind of going around tasting, I have to at the end really kind of interpret what my experience was.
Suzy: Wonderful. Thanks Matthew for coming on Cookery by the Book podcast.
Matthew: You're so welcome. Thank you for having me and have a wonderful day.