Interview with 2013 San Francisco Bay Area Rising Star Chef Scott Baird

May 2013

Katherine Sacks: What drew you to restaurants and in particular, to mixology? 
Scott Baird: I always wanted to be a cook, it’s as simple as that. I always loved food, loved flavor, loved smells, all of it. It was always wanting to be near food. I started out as a bus boy and I washed dishes and waited tables and then I became a bartender. I got in the game a little late; it was hard for me to afford my life on a cook’s salary, but the bar was a very close second. I got to create flavors, got to talk with people, and got to be very near the kitchen.

KS: How did you start out?
SB: The first place I worked at was called Cesar next door to Chez Panisse in Berkeley. When it opened they tried to have best spirit selection east of San Francisco. I had no idea how good it was when I was there, but I figured it out by the end. It was hard to get into a bar position because no one ever left, it was a great job. Finally the opportunity arose and I got to get behind the bar.

KS: How do you develop your recipes?
SB: Well I guess first it has to be approached stylistically, is it an all spirit drink or something with citrus? What style of drink is this? Then what spirit of spirit category I want and then what is happening in the season, what makes sense to put into it. After that it becomes very intuitive, comes from anywhere, abstract, the ether, it just comes to me. Sometimes I will initially try and think of a weird combination or I will try and push things in terms of trying to get at what is sweet, what is bitter, what is salty/savory, what is the acid. But I try not to apply what seems like the rules. I try and force myself to think outside the box and then reign myself in, but I like the experience of figuring out how crazy the drink could be and then pulling back to what makes sense. It has to have a connection, most of ingredients have to overlap because if they don’t you can’t taste it. It’s really intuitive. I have friends who are very logical, practical about it—there is history involved, food science involved, or the flavor bible involved. Neither one is right or wrong, I’m just intuitive in what I do.

KS: What ingredient or spirit do you feel is underappreciated or under utilized? 
SB: Salt. In the end you are seasoning the drink the way you are seasoning food. Add a little tiny bit and all of the sudden you have a whole other side of the drink, it opens up. It’s like the bitters thing. Salt is going back to something pure and simple, and always for me it’s trying to find a way to layer flavor. Questioning whether it is appropriate in a cocktail; sometimes it makes it worse sometimes it does improve it. I’ve definitely played with it over the years, but always when it was really obvious to put into a drink. Now I am opening myself up to much less obvious applications. 

KS: What are some current trends you’ve seen in the cocktail market? How have trends changed?
SB: I think the general trend that I’m seeing is the compression of time it takes from someone to go from rookie bartender to experienced. There is so much information on the Internet that goes around and educates; you can learn techniques really quickly. Ten years ago Facebook wasn’t really anything, you heard through the actual grapevine about people moving around, doing things. It was more analog. Now I am seeing a lot more technique in places you don’t expect to see it, which is awesome. I think it’s great, knowledge and the sharing of it.

Another thing I am seeing that I think is a really cool trend, is a definite amount of my peers getting very tired of reputation of the bartender as a snobby prick. People are making a really active move to change that, talking with some of the younger bartenders and explaining to them that it’s never cool to be a snob or a jerk to guests. Those experiences are becoming less and less; those bartenders being called out. I think that is being addressed and I really like that.

KS: What are some of your favorite bars?
SB: The simple answer to that question is my favorite bars are the ones my friends are working behind. It’s really nice to go see a friend; they host you, it’s your pal, and you enjoy yourself. Also Broken Shaker in Miami really floats my boat. It’s the quality, attention to detail, and casual vibe. It’s definitely my speed.

KS: Can you tell me about the Bon Vivants Pig & Punch parties?
The first time I went to Tales [of the Cocktails] was with a friend from San Francisco. I said let’s have people over and I went to the market and 70 people ended up coming. By the next year Josh [Harris] and I had started Bon Vivants, and I made a suggestion to throw a barbecue at Tales; cook whole pigs, sell something, and donate to charity. I had heard a program on NPR about the state of education in New Orleans. So we just did it—we didn’t ask permission, it raised some eyebrows—but 200 people came and we raised a couple thousand bucks. It took on this mythic status, and I truly think it’s because there was no pomp and circumstance. You just came and drank, ate, and listened to great music. It was the most informal thing you can image. It just snowballed. I think everyone is searching for meaning, there has to be a meaning behind the craft. The act of charity, doing charitable things, whether it’s amongst your friends or working with big charities, is like vitamins for the human condition. We realized we had done something good, by the time the first party was over we were in tears. It was bigger then we expected it to be.  Last year we had over a hundred volunteers; now we’re in the fifth year.

KS: What's next? Where will we find you in five years?
I don’t’ know. I just had a baby so I am in a really unique position to answer that question. I want to be more locavore. If I was single, and didn’t have this life, I would get on a plane everyday. But now I’m a poppa and want to take care of my family. I don’t know what but I know It will be a fun ride. I love what I do and want to keep doing good work that makes people happy, that supports our industry and our craft in a good light.