Douglas Tirola’s documentary Hey Bartender looks at the rise of the craft cocktail and the role of the bartender in society. Two of the bartenders at the center of the film are Steve Schneider and Stephen Carpentieri. Even though they share the same vocation, in some ways the two Steves are from different worlds. Schneider is a young former Marine who now works for Employees Only in NYC, one of the premier cocktail bars in the world. Carpentieri is a middle-aged guy who runs Dunville’s, a casual restaurant and bar up in Westport, CT. And yet there’s a kind of brotherhood of bartenders — via the mentors and teachers in the profession — that brings these two together.
A few journalists and I sat down at the Andaz 5th Ave. with both Carpentieri and Schneider to talk bartending and cocktails. Schneider, who’s something of a rock star bartender, was wrapping something up inside, so we started talking with Carpentieri about fresh ingredients and his trade. Look for our review of Hey Bartender tomorrow.
What was your inspiration for getting involved with this business?
Steve Carpentieri: All through my developmental years, as far back as junior high — I guess now it’s called middle school… So I’m probably dating myself with that particular time…
SC: A lot of my friends worked in the the industry, and that’s how we kind of– I mean, we washed dishes, you know? And that’s what we did. We went to school during the week and sometimes on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays we were washing dishes or doing prep work and making salads. It’s an impressionable time in you life, because I mean you’re looking at these people, the bartenders and the waiters. It’s an incredible group of people that work in the industry. It does take a certain type of person to choose this and make it their lives.
During those years, it’s like, “Oh my god, they are so cool! She’s kissing him, and he’s doing this, and they’re going out for drinks!” So, you kind of get interested in it.
I just got bit with it and I enjoyed it, so even through college and high school and everything else like that, I kept myself in the industry. I probably worked in the restaurants for six years before I got my first bar shift. And then once I had that shift, even when I graduated and worked for GE and Citigroup and stuff like that, I kept that shift.
SC: I never wanted to give it up. And now, granted, there were times that business took me away and I’d have to miss some shifts here and there, but it was never a problem to get someone to cover the shift. Because, you know. There were some people who said, “Any time you want to give it up, I’ll take it.” And I’d be like, “Nah,” or “Um, I’ll let you know.” Then I bought [Dunville’s], so now I can have all the shifts, I guess. [laughs]
SC: But I still keep that shift. I’ve had the same shift now for 24 years.
In the film, you went to Tales of the Cocktail.
SC: That’s right.
Has that helped your situation?
SC: It changed everything. It really did
And you were hesitant about that at first.
SC: Well, you know what it was? It was just like teaching an old dog new tricks, you know? I was just thinking, “I’ve been doing this for so long — what don’t I know?” That’s not a cocky statement; it was just like, “I’ve done it,” you know? But meeting with these people and stuff like that, they said, “You’d be surprised what you don’t know.” And I’d say, “Well name one thing!” Then they’d list off six, and I’d be like, “I said one.”
SC: “We’ll start with one! Baby steps.” But I just remember shaking my head when I went online and booked it. It’s like I’m eating my words. I just said there’s no way I’m going to go, but it just showed me how little I knew. Not about the industry of the whole, but the progression of it and all the years that I wasted. But I guess we had to hit bottom first, and it’s just a shame that it took that long. I mean, shoulds and coulds — they don’t mean anything.
SC: Yeah. I wish I had just paid attention, because I saw it going on. I’m only 36 miles from the city. I mean, if I drive here, I can be in the West Village in 45 minutes — no traffic, right time of night. But I never took anything out [lesson-wise] when I left: I came in, I had my good time, and went home.
And all those years I was just thinking, “This other place is packed! I wish this was my place!” And instead of seeing what they were doing and why it was so busy, I just went away. That’s the thing that makes me reflect. You can’t always look back or anything, but it was a learning experience. I never realized how much stuff was out there that I overlooked.
[Editor’s note: At this point Steve Schneider stepped outside joined the conversation at the table.]
SC: Hey, I recognize you. [laughs]
Steve Schneider: You’re the guy from Dunville’s, right? [laughs]
SC: [laughs] Weren’t you just in Chicago?
SS: Yes! I was in Chicago. A few hours ago. Beautiful day here, beautiful day there.
Way better than the crap weather yesterday.
SC: Yeah. Just awful.
SS: I was at the NRA, National Restaurants Association.
Oh, not the National Rifle–
SS: I thought that, too, and I was upset. [Being] a former marine, I thought I was going to see some stuff!
SS: Instead I saw, like, freezers, you know?
SC: [laughs] That’s excellent.
SS: Anyhoo, just won a Star of the Bar competition.
SC: Isn’t that awesome?
SS: Anthony Bourdain was my judge, and he liked what I did.
How does the competition work?
SS: I had to submit a video, and then they chose some semi-finalists and had us compete against each other. Then they chose the finalists. It was at a party with like 2,000 people or something like that. Anthony Bourdain hosted as part of this big festival. And yeah — I killed it. Rocked the house.
What were you making?
SS: I made some cocktails with their product: vodka and campari and grapefruit. More or less, I put it in a bottle and capped the bottle. So I handed the judges this bottle that they had to open, and I presented them with a bottle opener that I made custom with Anthony Bourdain’s face on it that said, “I met _______” (the judge next to him that nobody knows). Anthony Bourdain is like, “On May 19th, I met Todd Richman.” [laughs] Anyway, it went well overall and it was fun. I am five grand richer.
SC: You’re gonna spend it on something ridiculous? [laughs]
SS: Yeah, I can’t wait to waste the money on something stupid. [laughs]
Like a Rascal Scooter or something.
SS: Yeah, yeah, totally! Or buy a margarita machine or something.
We spoke with Steve [Carpentieri] about this, but what got you inspired to be in this business? I know you’re in there with Employees Only.
So what inspired you to get in there.
SS: Well, I’ve been bartending for over 10 years now. I started when I was in the Marines. Once you’re in the Marines, it’s a 9 to 5 job. You just wear camouflage every day, and every now and then you get to blow stuff up, which is a pretty awesome job. So I had weekends off, so I picked up a shift in Georgetown, you know — beating up Georgetown kids was always fun. But I really didn’t take bartending seriously until I was discharged and after my injury. I had nothing left, you know? I didn’t want to go to school, I was depressed. That’s where I got my dog too, you see him in the movie. So I got him, and I took the job a little more seriously.
I entered this speed bartending competition that I won a few times, and made a lot of money doing it. I took notice of a guy from Vegas who taught me proper pouring techniques and fresh ingredients and stuff like that. The thrill of competition just made it fun. I found something fun again, you know? Something fun and cool again.
One thing led to another and I met the guys from Employees Only five years ago or so. And then as soon as I got there, it was like starting from the bottom. I presented my awesome resume — that said I was in books for cocktails and had won speed competitions — presented my resume to the boss and he opens it up, closes it right away. He goes, “Former Marine. I like that. You’ve got discipline. You’re hired.”
SS: He didn’t give a shit about anything. He didn’t care about what I did, he cared about what I can do as a person. He said, “You’re willing to start from the bottom?” I was like, “I will do anything, man.”
The first time I walked into that place, I saw the bartenders behind the bar in their white uniforms. They weren’t even talking to each other, they were making drinks, and I was like, “I want to be these guys.” I didn’t say I wanted to be like them; I wanted to be that guy. But I was intimidated. Fuck. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. So I’m 24, a young punk; foul-mouthed former Marine coming from Jersey.
SS: It was a very humbling experience. I was bartending already six years before I joined on with these guys. I had to just start from the bottom again and it just reminded me of my days in the military, and how much I gave to that, and how much of that was my life. They unlocked the potential in me, and I owe everything to these guys.
I’m nothing without them. I’m not in this documentary if I’m Steve from Applebee’s. If I’m Steve from Applebee’s, I’m not here. The only reason I do a lot of these interviews for this and for that is because Employees Only is an institution. The team was there before I got there and it will be there long after I’m gone, and I know I’m a part of that team, and it’s because of them that I’m in this position right now.
SC: And you want to make them proud.
SS: Yeah, I want to make them proud. I owe them everything. It’s a family thing, a team matter. Much like any relationship, you know? The guy’s gotta give, the girl’s gotta give. Everybody’s got to give something.
SS: Usually it doesn’t work like that. Guys are bad. We’re the worst. I’m sorry.
SS: Sometimes, yeah.
SC: We have our moments.
Is there a classic Marine Corps cocktail?
SS: Yeah, I think there’s a Leatherneck Cocktail, I just don’t remember what’s in it. I remember that I wasn’t a fan of the ingredients — it’s a very old cocktail. Just because it’s really old doesn’t man it’s any good.
For someone who’s just entering the business, what would you tell them?
SC: Listen. Number one. Take everything that you thought you knew and– I don’t want to say throw it out, but put in on the shelf. That’s one of the things about this industry: it wouldn’t survive or thrive the way it is with the unspoken mentorship program. You’re learning from the best. I mean like Dale DeGroff. At this point in time he’s got so many “grand kids” because he’s mentored, and these people have mentored, and so on and so forth, like Charlotte [Voisey]. They’re all in support of the whole thing that if you really listen to what they have to say, you’re gong to be leaps and bounds ahead of somebody who isn’t paying attention.
And then with your own style. Everyone has their own style, their own flair. If you build on what [the mentors] are teaching you and then you bring little pieces of your own self, I think you will be successful as long as you treat it with care.
SS: I agree with everything Steve said, but also I’d say never give up. This ain’t easy, you know, but never give up. You have to endure, you know? You’re going to fail a lot more than you succeed when you’re first getting started.
Kind of like learning the stick shift on a car. You have the clutch down and you accelerate. [Puts up two hands to demonstrate.] Like here’s where you’re failing, here’s where you’re doing good. You want to sort of slowly… If you do it too quick, you’re going to miss something along the way. Your car’s going to freak out.
And also, you just have to understand that in this business, no matter how good you think you are, you’re still pedaling the bicycle while someone else is steering. Unless you own it. And then you may be doing both. But still. One day, if you work hard enough, you’ll be steering the bike, and you can do whatever you want. But what the boss says goes. If you don’t like it, do something else.
Would you say that if someone likes to drink a lot that this is not the job for them?
SC: As an employee? It depends on when. I mean, there’s a time and place for everything. I’m guilty of crossing over every once in a while, because sometimes you just get caught up, it’s so much fun. But you always have to remember that you’re the host, not a guest. And so proper amounts, proper timing, proper everything. It’s just like anything: when you’re drinking and working or you’re sitting here and working, your judgment or ability to perform will be impaired a touch. So there’s a fine line.
I encourage a little taste here and there throughout the shift, and if someone’s having a really bad night or something, I’ll pull them aside and be like, “You’ve got to get yourself right. Have a little Milagro. Have a little sip, go outside, breathe for a couple minutes, because I want you to smile and I want you to be happy.” And then there’s some times where someone will come in and say, “I just can’t get it tonight.” I’ll say, “You know what? No problem. Go home. Get right.”
Because you don’t want anybody not to have a good time. Plain and simple: [guests] don’t want to know about your problems, they don’t want to know if you’re happy, if you’re sad, if your dog died, if someone stole your bike. They don’t want to know anything. They want to be entertained, and that’s the thing.
SS: Yeah, when it comes to drinking behind the bar, it’s a fine line. I know a lot of bartenders that don’t drink, and they’re some of the best bartenders on this planet… Or any other planet, if there’s any bartenders out there. [laughs]
SS: Yeah, but I’m all about if you can hang, hang; if you can’t, don’t. I don’t like to preach about how anybody should do their business. Do whatever you want, do whatever you can to make yourself successful.
SC: To do your job, yeah.
SS: If some bartender doesn’t want to drink, doesn’t like alcohol or whatever, but is good at making drinks? Go for it. I encourage giving things a shot.
SC: Yeah. You don’t have to drink to be successful. As long as you’re happy. You just always have to be ready to provide for whoever’s there to see you that night. And if someone’s not having a good time or something else like that, your job is to make sure that when they leave they smile, they remember you, and they remember your face.
If they have such a good time and they came in and were down [that first time], if they’re having another down moment a couple weeks later, they’re going to be like, “Hey, I know where to go. This guy will get me right.” Even if they don’t have the same excitement that time as they did the first time, the second they walk, the perception is, “I’m going to be in a good mood when I leave, so let’s get this party going.” And that’s important.
SS: Or the thing about bartending in New York City is that it’s the most diverse place in the world, you know? People from all over the country, all over the world, they live on the same block. They all have different tastes, different upbringings, different customs. So they all come to our doors. “How do we make all these people happy?” That’s the one thing we’ve got to do: try to make all these guys happy. Because when you’re laughing, when you’re smiling, that’s universal. It’s intergalactic. [laughs]
[laughs] This is sort of a layperson question, but how did you guys refine your palates over the years? Like how did you guys figure out what flavors go together and just do what you guys do?
SS: For me it was information and trial and error. When you work with stuff, experience gets you everywhere. You work with stuff long enough, you’ll know what goes together, this and that. When I think about drinks, I think about making my mentors proud, or making someone I care about happy. And then the ingredients kind of come together.
I made this drink once for this Italian girl who was so beautiful. I made it with all-Italian ingredients, and it all worked together. You get inspiration in different ways, but usually it’s through your heart or through your… [looks down] You know what I mean. [laughs]
[laughs] Yeah. “The brain.”
SS: [laughs] Yeah, the brain! Both brains!
SC: [laughs] Well that’s the thing. When somebody looks at a cocktail list, they look at that drink and say, “I never thought that those ingredients would go together.” It didn’t just come to Steve when he’s coming up with a new drink, or something like that. It’s from the knowledge of the drinks and how they’ll go together, and then probably over the course of a few weeks, three or four times a day.
Sometimes you’ll give a couple tastes and your palate will become a little flat or whatever, but if I try to come up with a drink, I’ll make 60 or 70 of them, changing ingredients by a quarter of an ounce. Not using this, or using this in a certain way. An ounce and a half of the Hendrix when it should have been two ounces. After you taste it, they all start to taste the same, so it could take you a long time to get it that way.
SS: It’s good to have a good team around you as well. Like with us, I’m one of five principle bartenders [at Employees Only]. The meetings are fun, I’ll tell you guys. We all have different views and different visions, but we all love getting stuff done. So I’ll come up with a concept for an idea and throw it out, and somebody will be like, “Well why don’t you try this instead?” Well, “Oh shit, let’s do that!” We make it together, and it brings us together as a big family.
Our meetings are fun, because we’ve all been there for the apprenticeship, so we all respect each other, we’re all from different parts of the world. So, usually we just yell at each other and make fun of each other and something happens at the end. [laughs]
SC: [laughs] I ask chefs too, because we’re a late night bar. After all the restaurants in the area close, people know we’re still open, and a lot of [restaurant] employees will sit down. If I’m stuck with a drink or whatever, a couple guys will come in from a restaurant and I’ll go over and say, “Taste that and tell me what you’re missing.” And he’ll say, let’s just throw out an example, “Have you considered less of the simple syrup and adding a quarter ounce of pickle juice?” It’s so simple. And he’ll get up and he’ll run back to his own restaurant where he brines his own pickles, and he’ll bring me back a gallon of the juice and be like, “Try that.” And then, “There it is! Thank you!”
Input. Good palates. Good friends. And then time.
SS: When it comes to actually making drinks, I’ve been all over the world at the best bars on the planet, I don’t remember a damn thing I drank!
SS: I remember if they were good, if they were made well. But if I had a good time or not, that’s the big thing. Drinks can get people into your place, but it’s up to the bartender to keep people coming back. A kickass cocktail will get you in, but I’ve been in some bars where the drinks are awesome but the bartenders are such douchebags!
SC: Like forget about it! Get me out of here, please!
SS: Yeah, you know?
SC: Makes you want to phone in your drink order so it’s ready when you get there.
SS: Just leave it on the bar! [laughs] And I’ve been in bars where I love the bartenders and have such a good time, but the drinks are so bad. I don’t want to go there either, but I kind of love it.
SC: So you’d rather a bad drink and a good bartender than a good drink and a bad bartender?
SS: To be honest, man? Yeah! Yes, you know?
SC: It’ll shift your time. A good time will change your palate.
SS: Hey, there’s always bottles of beer! [laughs]