NO. 9 PARK | Boston
An after-school job as a “dishwasher/busboy/prep cook/slave”
at the age of fifteen exposed John Gertsen to the addictive buzz
of restaurant life. While at college, he studied biology and chemistry
by day but served as a wine steward at an exclusive underground
wine society and held various front-of-house positions at area restaurants
during evenings and summers throughout those four years. As a wine
steward, John was, for the first time, exposed to the pomp and circumstance
that fine wines (and oenephiles) could demand and was inspired.
For someone who had grown up with dinner coming out of jars and
frozen boxes, being exposed to cuisine and fine dining was absolutely
enlightening. A post-graduate year in Africa allowed John to debate
a future in the bio-tech field versus where his heart was –
and the heart won.
Returning to the States, John assumed roles at restaurants in Boston,
settling at Salamander under Chef Stan Frankenthaler. During
his five year stint, John served as maitre d’, bartender,
and front of house coordinator. Frankenthaler served as his first
mentor, and John valued this chef for his creativity and skill.
He was able to explore his love for the industry during his time
at Salamander and learn to trust his instincts which had
brought him to this place.
In 2002, John joined the staff at No. 9 Park as a Principle
Bartender. Here he found a setting to develop professionally and
a second mentor in Chef Barbara Lynch. Working with bar manager
Ryan McGrale, the two have created a bar program at the restaurant
which has gained national recognition and a loyal local following.
Inspired by the era of the great cocktail, both have derived endless
inspiration from the gay ‘90s, that is, the 1890s –
a time when bartenders were showmen and the classic cocktails were
invented. Fabulous ingredients, seasonal inspiration, and a tribute
to the cocktails of the past keep drawing crowds as much as the
gregarious nature of John and Ryan, the timeless ambience of the
bar and café, and the excellent cuisine of No.9. Here, John
has found great reward, pursuing what he loves and surrounded by
equally passionate and driven people.
AT: How did that interest
shift to the bar?
I started bartending then and I really loved it. I studied Biochemistry
at Bridgewater State College and started seeing how molecules fit
together – I loved it. I took a year off, went to Africa, and
hitch-hiked around a bit. When I came back I got into the business
side. I worked for the Boston Beer Company (owner of Samuel Adams)
in their advertising department working on table tents. I didn’t
know exactly where I was headed. I got a job at 29 Newbury at first
as a waiter, then as the assistant manager. I realized that I couldn’t
stop thinking about this stuff. I got introduced to Stan Frankenthaler,
the owner of Salamander Restaurant in Boston, and worked there in
a variety of positions there, including bartending for two years.
I realized that this was where I wanted to be.
AT: How did you get to No.
JG: Stan Frankenthaler hired
me as closing manager of the second Salamander.
I got really lucky about a month after they closed because I heard
about an opening at No. 9 Park. That was in August of 2002. Barbara
has such incredible integrity. And that allows us at the bar to
follow suit. As amazing as she is and the food is, we have to strive
to do the same thing at the bar. We try very hard follow her lead.
AT: How do you educate yourself
JG: I’ve kept up with
what’s happening in the world of drinks. That’s a huge
part of what keeps bars in Boston in the forefront. There was this
golden era of cocktail making from 1890 to 1910 but so many recipes
and cocktail books were obliterated during Prohibition. I tried
to get some of these books to see what these older recipes were
about and update them. Americans in 1890 had a very sweet palate,
but after the turn-of-the-century, things changed a bit. We try
to update classics, look at great bartenders of that era, and remember
their dedication to their techniques. I try to stay on top of what’s
happening today through different websites. I’m also a member
of the Museum of American cocktail.
AT: What are some current trends
you’ve seen in the cocktail market?
JG: Rum has been talked about
for the past three or four years as the next white spirit –
I’d love to see that happen. The Latin-inspired cocktail craze
is starting to die down a bit. I see tinctures as really big- people
making their own bitters. Also making specific ingredients for their
bar or restaurant that you can’t find anywhere. The molecular
gastronomy movement is seeping into bartending in the form of interesting
layered drinks. We love making foam. We dissolve a flavor into a
liquid, add gelatin in a canister, and there you go. That whole
biochemistry background of 1992 rears its head! We just worked on
this great stinger -- we floated crème de menthe in a foam
layer, and it really draws attention. Dining at bars has never been
stronger. In my experience, people love to come in and dine at bar
for a more community experience. And it’s not dying anytime
AT: What about increased access
to products from around the globe?
JG: The global exchange of
information is not just about politics. We’re looking at bartenders
in London, Australia, and South East Asia to see what ingredients
they are using there. Information is very easy to come by. And with
modern shipping you can get ingredients from all over the world.
I have bergamot oil from Italy coming in next week. These are great
ingredients that help us have fun. Barbara never says that it’s
too expensive or that I can’t use this or that.
AT: What goes into creating
a new cocktail?
JG: Research. I usually ask
for a minimum of three recipes for a drink, or a maximum of ten.
Then, after researching the recipes, we look for ingredients. There
are a number of different pressures we feel from salespeople, and
customers are always asking for Grey Goose. But for the most part
we’re looking for a recipe that will show a nice breadth of
ingredients, and then we’ll sit down and try them. We try
a few variations on the drinks. We’ll make them for our regulars
and ask them to try it. We get feedback and tweak it a bit. The
drink list evolves with the seasonality of the ingredients–
now citrus, satsumas, and grapefruits are in season. When springtime
comes around we get local strawberries and blueberries. We try to
use fresh local stuff to keep a little bit of the seasonality.
AT: What is your favorite
cocktail to make?
JG: I love making Ramos Fizz.
People look at you like you’re insane when you make it. It
has raw egg, cream, and water, and it takes 15 minutes to make to
get them really foamy. They’re really messy and they take
forever, but I’ve gotten such great feedback. I love to see
the look on people’s faces when they try it. It’s a
well-balanced, an aperitif-style drink.
AT: What is your favorite
cocktail to drink?
JG: A Manhattan. There’s
a lot to be said for that drink. I never truly appreciated it until
I made it 14 different ways. There’s a great variation called
the Red Hook. There was a guy at Milk and Honey in New York who
used to make it (who subsequently moved back to Italy). Audrey Saunders
put it on the menu when she was managing Bemelman’s Bar –she
made it with Canadian whiskey. I always use rye as my base and maraschino
AT: Where do you see yourself
in five years?
JG: I’m 35 years old
and I love being here. Hands-down it’s the best place I’ve
ever worked. I have such freedom to do what I want to do. In some
ways it‘s like college. You have a great time doing it. But
I feel like graduation is coming up soon. Hopefully ownership is
next -- somewhere in Boston. My dream is to have a place with the
charm and allure of the bars of a previous era – something
from that Golden Era: rich wood, beautifully made drinks, huge chunks
of ice chipped by hand. And well-groomed staff who are standing
back and ready to make a drink without saying, “So, did you
see the Red Sox game last night?”
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