A Woman's Drink | Natalka Burian
A Woman’s Drink
By Natalka Burian
Suzy Chase: Welcome to the Cookery by the Book Podcast. With Suzy Chase. She's just a home cook in New York City, sitting at her dining room table, talking to cookbook authors.
Natalka Burian: I'm Natalka Burian, I'm the author of A Woman's Drink: Bold Recipes for Bold Women.
Suzy Chase: What is your philosophy on mixing and sharing drinks, as opposed to the pre-Prohibition cocktail era?
Natalka Burian: Yes. That is a great question. So I am sort of immediately put off by that element of cocktail culture, and that resurgence during the early 2000's. I feel like there was this real emphasis on beautifully made drinks, which was great. You had access to so many higher quality products, and hospitality experiences, but the thing that bothered me that kind of prevented me personally from really fully enjoying myself in these moments was the very, almost nostalgia, for this period when it was really a dark time in our history, you know? It's really not ... to glamorize it seems really cruel to me. And to glamorize it by holding up this time when men who were the only ones allowed in these spaces, and sort of automatically paved the way to make it easier for more men to participate in this culture, and for me I just felt like, I think that cocktails and cocktail culture should be inclusive.
And I think that everyone should be able to walk into a place, or even at home. At home or out, people should get exactly what it is that they want, they like, and not feel any shame or uncertainty in asking for that. And I think that's what, at it's heart, that's what hospitality is about. It's about making everyone feel welcome. And what bothered me about this culture was that it didn't do that. It made people feel embarrassed or ashamed or unknowledgeable. And I think that's a failure, a hospitality failure.
Suzy Chase: You also wrote in the book that most of these watering holes shared much in common. Lengthy and intimidating drink menus, rules of conduct, and an old-fashioned sense of propriety. I feel like at the time, the Wall Street bros and hedge fund managers dictated the culture of bars. Do you?
Natalka Burian: Oh, for sure. Absolutely. And I think also these shows like Mad Men, that really sort of look at that era through rose-colored glasses to a degree. Like look how beautifully dressed, look at these hats, look at these Old Fashioneds. You know, I think that there was an additional sheen of glamor on that lifestyle and I think you're absolutely right. And again, I think the people who have the heftiest wallets are the ones also driving the conversation. And I just don't think that's right.
Suzy Chase: To get a little background on this book, can you first chat a bit about your Brooklyn bars, Elsa and Ramona?
Natalka Burian: I would love to. So Elsa began kind of, we opened up in 2008 as a reaction to what was happening, as you say, in this bro'd out cocktail culture. And I just was like, what if we did it differently? 'Cause the thing was, there was no denying the drinks you were getting in these places were incredible. The ingredients they used, the spirits they used, the recipes they breathed life into, and the ones they created, were really fantastic and creative and interesting and really high quality. But it was sort of like, how do we translate this and how do we move this into a space that feels more accessible. And that feels actually fun. Because at the end of the day, you're not in a library. No matter how much like a library it looks, you're at a bar, you're out, you're having fun. And it should feel fun. It shouldn't feel like you have to be restricted in any particular way, you know? So I think that that's sort of how Elsa began. And we had a great community response. And as a result, we opened Ramona. So our first Elsa was in Manhattan, we opened a second bar, Ramona, in Greenpoint, which was our first Brooklyn location, and sadly we lost our lease in Manhattan but we were able to put a second Elsa in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. So I feel like we've sort of continued to live on, despite New York City real estate constraints.
Suzy Chase: I read that your East Village regulars followed you to Cobble Hill.
Natalka Burian: Yes, it was actually great. So when we opened in the East Village, we had a lot of sort of young, single, a lot of women came in. We had a very, I would say our guests skewed female. Not overwhelmingly, but definitely there was like, we had more female guests, I would say for a while. And when we opened Elsa in Cobble Hill in, what year was that? I guess two years ago almost, now. We had people coming in saying, "Oh, I went to old Elsa," or, "I used to go there on dates and now I live around the corner here." It's just great to see, we moved with most of our guests. So it was really interesting to see the neighborhood shift.
And so the people that had frequented our East Village location are now, if they stayed in New York, are now living in our neighborhood. And we've had people come back and visit from, you know, when they come back into town from elsewhere. If they used to live in East Village they'll come and we've had people come visit, "Hey, you know, I remember when you guys were in the East Village," and that's always, it just feels so good to be part of someone's story like that, you know, and there's so many people that come in and say, "I met my partner in your bar," or "I got hired, I had a meeting with an employer and they gave me the job." Like it's just really, that's the most exciting thing for me, to sort of be part of the community story like that.
Suzy Chase: Tell me about your Singer sewing machine beer tap.
Natalka Burian: Oh man, yeah. That's ... quite a tale. So we had, when we opened the first Elsa in the East Village, we had no budget. I mean, no. Like our budget was all of my credit cards combined. And it was not an impressive number. So we'd had a friend who was in design school at the time, and I said to them, I was like, "Hey, I want to do this. Would you help me? I can't pay you but, you know, you can, creative freedom, and we can do whatever you want, it'll be great," and he had this idea to, because we were so limited, our budget was so limited, we couldn't really do as much as we wanted to do. But we somehow found this sewing machine on eBay I think, and were just like, "What if we did something crazy like with the beer tap? Like what if we did something really surreal and interesting that was a conversation piece so that the room immediately would have this thing that you remember, that you're drawn to." And it ended up being this crazy craft project on steroids with welding and drills and sort of figuring it out and then ended up working out beautifully. And we took it with us when we moved, because there was no way we were gonna leave it behind. 'Cause it's kind of our thing.
Suzy Chase: Is there a certain way you personalize your bars so they aren't masculine and intimidating?
Natalka Burian: Yeah, I think for us it's all about who we hire, number one. We are very, it's important to us to hire an inclusive staff, it's important to us to hire people who care about our guests and who don't make ... like there's a term on the menu or a spirit no one's ever heard of, to relay that information in a way that feels like a friend is talking to you and not someone who's judging you, you know? So that's a huge part of our mission. I would say it's all about the people we hire. It's all about the spaces themselves, being very bright and open and inviting in a different way. And the music, the music is always really fun. And there's never any old-timey jazz, or any of this, so it always feels fresh. And that's the thing. We want people to come in and feel free to enjoy themselves and free to ask for what they need and never, like, the no judgment thing is a big part of that, too. We don't want anyone to come in and feel uncomfortable or judged for ordering a lemon drop or whatever. If it's something they want, we want them to get it. You know?
Suzy Chase: Totally. I was a resident DJ at Trophy Bar in Williamsburg for six years.
Natalka Burian: Oh, yes! Oh man.
Suzy Chase: And two of the three owners are women. And you could really tell the difference. In the cocktails, and the lighting, and the interior design. And even down to how clean the restrooms were.
Natalka Burian: Yeah. We definitely, at all of our locations, the restrooms are very inviting. I want them to be ... I just have a personal thing about bathrooms. I feel like so often they're like an afterthought. But it really is a place people pay attention to, because you're kind of up in there, you know? And it's really a place that, if you can go the extra mile it makes a big difference for your guests.
Suzy Chase: Where do you find inspiration for your cocktails?
Natalka Burian: I would say definitely through food. For me, now, as I've gotten older, I'm definitely going out less and less. But I think for me it's through food and travel, if I've gone somewhere and I've eaten an incredible salad and it had these ingredients that I never thought to put together, it would make me want to do that.
For example, this summer I went to Maine, which I had only been to one other time, strangely. And I had this ice cream that was like a banana ice cream, with Red Hots mixed into it. And I was like, this should be so gross. But it was so delicious, we're still trying to figure out how to replicate that and make it a drink. Because it's like this crazy, it's just this bonanza of this spicy sweet very unexpected flavors, that I'm trying to get it together for our menu for the summer coming up.
Suzy Chase: Did the Red Hots freeze in the ice cream? Were they crunchy?
Natalka Burian: No. Let me tell you. They were sort of semi-dissolved, so they would have these ribbons of that hot cinnamon but then you'd also have this sort of gooey occasional crunch of the candy shell. It was, I mean, I don't know what these people did but it was, I have to call them. I don't know. I'm not having any luck cracking it.
Suzy Chase: That's so funny.
Natalka Burian: It was really good. Yeah. No. I think about it constantly.
Suzy Chase: That's what's brilliant about this book is I really feel like more and more people are having dinner parties. In lieu of going out. So you can use this book to host your dinner party at home. Or, you can just make one drink for yourself.
Natalka Burian: Absolutely. And the idea for the book was kind of the same spirit behind the bars, that there's something for everyone there. Like everyone has an entry point to the book. If you've never made a drink in your life, or if you're an experienced cocktail maker at home, there's something for you. And if you're hosting a bachelorette party for 30 people, there's a perfect recipe for you. If you're hosting a friend who's had a rough day, there's a recipe there for you. Or even if you just want to make yourself a nice drink and you don't have all the ingredients for an Old Fashioned, there's a recipe for you.
Suzy Chase: Chapter Four is Drinking to Get Over So Many Things. Describe the dragon fruit rum, red pepper and peach daiquiri, and why that was chosen to drink when you find out somebody you like voted for Trump.
Natalka Burian: Yeah. You can tell we wrote this book in the wake of that 2016 presidential election, I think.
Suzy Chase: Yes!
Natalka Burian: I think, definitely, I'm still shell-shocked, as I'm sure everyone is, but for me the thing I love about this drink is that it's not an easy one. It's not one that you can sort of like, throw together. There is a process here, there are a bunch of elements going on in the drink. So I like that it gives you time to sort of gather.
There's almost an intention when you set out to make this drink, and there's almost, any time you make a cocktail there's a ritualistic component where you're making a space for a feeling or a person or for yourself. And for me it was like, I liked this one because not only does it require a lot of interesting preparation and you have to create that space and be intentional about those feelings, but you also get the result, which is this vibrant red vivid ... it's just, the drink looks how I was feeling at the time. You know what I mean? It looks like that feeling. And I think when you drink it, it just kind of has that ... yes, there's anger, but there's a determination or something. I just feel like it captures this energy really well.
Suzy Chase: Like working through something.
Natalka Burian: Totally. Totally. And being constructive. Not just being reactive. Doing something like, I think that the act of building the drink sort of ... there's something. I don't know. I don't want to get too, make this anything that it isn't, but I think that there is something about responding to something as opposed to reacting to it, and I think that was the intent. That's sort of the message behind the drink and how I hope it would galvanize someone to move forward in a difficult moment like that.
Suzy Chase: I love the combination of illustrations and photos in this book.
Natalka Burian: Yes!
Suzy Chase: Was that your idea?
Natalka Burian: No, that was our editor. I wish I could take credit for that. Camaren Subhiyah, who was the amazing editor at Chronicle, suggested. Because part of the, one of the other features of the bars is our wonderful illustrations that were made by a old college friend of ours who is a very talented illustrator. And she was just like, "Well why wouldn't you? Why wouldn't you? If you have access to these great ... like how else? What a great way to capture the vibe of your spaces." And it really was such a genius suggestion. And the photographer, Alice Gao, was, I feel like even still she's still out of league. I feel so lucky that we got to work with her. Just so fantastic, so talented, the photos exceeded my wildest dreams. Like really, just, I could not have imagined a more, like I really could not have been more thrilled with the way all of those images turned out.
Suzy Chase: What is the glassware mitt?
Natalka Burian: I think any time you pick up a cocktail book or you go to a fancy bar or, even go to someone's house, for example, I think there's this pressure to serve the right, like to match the drink to the right glass. You know? And I find that to be so frustrating. Because it's just a glass. Like it's literally just a glass. In my New York City apartment, I don't know about you, but I think to expect anyone to have that amount of glassware is insane. Like it's crazy.
Suzy Chase: Yeah. I have no room.
Natalka Burian: You can literally drink any drink. No. I mean, and who has that kind of budget? Like if you do, god bless, and enjoy it, like yes, go for it. I would never stop someone if they wanted to invest and give all that space to glassware of every variety. But it's just totally unnecessary and you can just literally serve any drink in any kind of glass. Even if people are like, "Oh, you need, you don't want a stemless because you don't want to heat up the." It's gonna be fine. It's gonna be fine. In any glass you have.
Suzy Chase: It's gonna be fine.
Natalka Burian: I promise. Yes. It's gonna be fine.
Suzy Chase: For my segment called My Last Meal, what would you choose for your last supper?
Natalka Burian: What would you choose? What's your last?
Suzy Chase: Probably a steak and potatoes.
Natalka Burian: Yeah. I like that classic.
Suzy Chase: Remind me of my mom.
Natalka Burian: Oh. I think I would have to go with a lobster roll and a champagne cocktail. I think that's a good note to go out on.
Suzy Chase: So keeping with the theme of this book, I was thrilled to get a copy of A Woman's Drink from your publicist Joyce Lin, who I love. To donate to the Wing!
Natalka Burian: Oh, yes.
Suzy Chase: And now, A Woman's Drink sits proudly on the library shelves at the SoHo location with other female authors. You can check out my photo on Instagram. And I saw on your Instagram that you did a cocktail class at the Wing. How was that?
Natalka Burian: I did. It was so fun. It was so much fun. And I'm hoping they'll let me do it again. I really had a blast doing it. And it was just a great, I've done a lot of events for the book but that was my first cocktail class I'd done. And it was so fun! And the women were really happy to be there and asked amazing questions and it was just a really great night. And I would absolutely do it again. Any time.
Suzy Chase: Are you a member?
Natalka Burian: Yes. Yeah. I love it. I don't know what I did without it for so long. It's just been so ... I joined, I guess it was last November? I don't remember. But it was like, it's been maybe over a year now. And I just, I also run a nonprofit called the Freya Project, which is a fundraising reading series where we have five women read a personal essay based on a theme around a nonprofit organization that we raise money for, for that night. So mostly we support these really small, usually reproductive justice, organizations in red states that don't have a lot of support in their communities.
So just the idea is to sort of build this bridge between women who are living in progressive cities and women who are doing the really hard work in the ground in places that are kind of hostile to the work that they do. I feel like I've moved all of my Freya Project meetings to the Wing and it's been so great to sort of designate a space for that. And I could not imagine a more beautiful place to work. It's just so beautiful in there, I can't even handle it.
Suzy Chase: That's amazing. For people who aren't familiar, it's a women's only club slash work space. Is that? I never know how to explain it to people.
Natalka Burian: Yeah. I think so. Yes. And their programming is fantastic. They have the most wonderful speakers, and the most wonderful events, and I just, it's been ... like I said, I can't believe I lived so long without having the Wing in my life.
Suzy Chase: Where can we find you on the web and social media?
Natalka Burian: Thank you for asking. So I have a website which is natalkaburian.com. I'm on Twitter @NatalkaBurian, and on Instagram at ndburian.
Suzy Chase: Anyone can make a perfect drink with A Woman's Drink, even if that person knows nothing about artisanal bitters, has limited time, or is living on a budget. Thanks so much Natalka, for coming on Cookery by the Book podcast.
Natalka Burian: Oh, thank you so much! This was so, this was a lovely way to spend my Friday morning. Thank you.
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