Interview with Chef Orson Salicetti of Apothéke - New York City

September, 2009

JJ Proville: How did you get started in mixology?
Orson Salicetti: I left Venezuela when I was 18 and moved to Holland. I worked for my mother [at her restaurant] in the kitchens, sometimes as a waiter, and sometimes at the bar. You need somebody you can trust in the bar and my mother gave me these positions. I loved the interaction with the people. I moved to New York City from Europe and my mother was consulting so I started working for her catering company and restaurant as her right hand man.

JJP: You owned your own restaurant for a while. Tell me about that.
OS: I opened a restaurant in Miami with my savings and my mother’s help. It was a small, American-European bistro using Latin American ingredients. When it opened I played all the different roles, including dishwasher. In the end I had to close because of the seasonality. When the summer came I could not afford the expenses any more. I couldn’t survive so I had to close.

JJP: What did you do from there?
OS: I got a job at the Betsy Ross Hotel at the bar where my mother was executive chef. That’s when I started to make higher standard cocktails. I had a lot of fun and sat down and researched people on the internet who were doing the same, especially Junior Merino, Dale DeGroff, etc.

JJP: How did you get into the mixology scene in New York?
OS: I saw how the mixology was growing and saw it and I wanted [to be a part of] it, so I came back to New York and was totally focused on the industry. I learned that you had to be with the right people at the right moment. I met Alex Garcia of Calle Ocho and talked to him about doing something special. I started making tropical cocktails at Carniceria in Brooklyn. From there I worked at La Crema through Junior Merino and learned about Rayuela. I interviewed with Hector Sanz at Rayuela and they gave me a chance at the opening. I started learning about professional mixology and mixologists and what they do. I met a lot of industry people and was experimenting with my own creations, with lots of opportunities to learn. From there I did whatever I could to learn and took any opportunities.

JJP: How did you get involved with Apothéke?
OS: One day Miguel Aranda (presently of Apothéke) told me about an event with Albert Trummer that he needed help with. He told me to take care of the wine and the beer. I basically sold all the wines and beers in two hours. Albert was impressed. The next day Albert Trummer sent his assistant to the bar where I was working. The day after that he called me and I started working for Albert. Albert asked me to do 50 cocktails. I got ready to do my tasting and did it with all of the investors and staff and friends of Apothèke. Everyone loved it.

JJP: What is your philosophy behind the bar?
OS: I always say you have to follow your own instincts and feelings. Whatever you create is an expression of yourself. For me it has to be authentic, real, and original and reflect who you are. My own intensity and personality is very important in my cocktails.

JJP: Who are your mentors?
OS: My first mentor is my mother. She gave me my first education at home. She is a chef and we had the opportunity to learn about food and service at home, like how to use a knife, how to use silverware. We learned etiquette and culinary skills at home. She is very passionate and artistic and I saw her directing a kitchen with 10 guys even though she had a small kitchen. It was one of the cleanest kitchens I’ve ever seen. The funny thing was that she treated me as an employee in the kitchen. She yelled at me too. She inspired me to get into the industry.

JJP: What are your sources of inspiration?
OS: Creativity, personality, and identity are the most important things. I always use seasonal ingredients, and I do a personal twist to show what I can do in the kitchen. I want to make something that you drink and do not forget, something that stimulates your senses or creates an emotion and makes an impression, the way a holiday does.

JJP: What are some of your favorite flavor combinations right now?
OS: I love black cardamom because it’s like peppermint but smoky. I love botanica (the herb) from my experience reducing wines. I love herbes de Provence, oregano and peppers. I personally like intense flavors that stay in your mouth, and I’m really into aftertaste.

JJP: What is your favorite drink to drink?
OS: I love to make Negronis for myself. But I love using vermouth infused with botanica, or using Aperol or sloe gin. I can have a different one every day. I love tequila as well.

JJP: What’s your favorite drink to serve?
OS: Right now the Tomato Basil. It’s fun to perform.

JJP: What ingredients do you feel are underappreciated?
OS: I have been using pickles for dirty martinis. I also think we can use seafood in cocktails but that’s a project still in development.

JJP: What are some trends you’ve noticed in the past year?
OS: I think people pay more attention today to the quality of the ingredients because the environment is more competitive. The selection and variation is much greater today in the aperitifs and digestifs that are on the market. They are providing more options to combine with basic liquors. The secondary ingredients are more premium today and they are making a big difference in cocktails. Botanicals have also seen a drastic difference in the last few years. We’ve never had as many bitters as [we do] now. In the last three years the market for bitters has become very competitive. All the bars want to make their own or get their hands on different ones in order to get more intensity and personality in their cocktails.

JJP: What is your favorite bar tool?
OS: Though a lot of people criticize it, I like to use a mixing or pint glass instead of a metal shaker to mix my drinks. I use it because I like to see what I’m putting in the cocktails and I like people to see what I’m adding. I use a lot of fruits and a lot of botanicals so this is very important. Another reason is that I tend to make many cocktails at the same time. By watching and by not smelling I can tell what I have in the mixing glasses. It’s something that I use because it’s practical, functional, and pleasing in the visual aspect. I also have a Japanese jigger that is skinny and long. It was a present that I’ve been using for years. It’s always with me wherever I go.

JJP: What are your top three tips for other mixologists out there?
OS: One: be original. Express yourself. Try to replicate yourself using creativity. There’s so much to be done! Two: never underestimate an ingredient. It’s possible to use anything. I never feel scared and use whatever I have. Three: enjoy improvisation.

JJP: What’s next for you? Where will you be in five years?
OS: Another of my projects will combine seafood and liquors—I want to use my knowledge of culinary to combine food and cocktails. I’m Latin American, so I identify with my background and roots. I want to create a concept that pushes the Latin American experience and makes it more popular. I want to show the possibilities with Latin American liquors and support the companies by giving them the opportunity to open more accounts and educate consumers on the different tastes and how rums, piscos, and cachaças are made. In the places I consult I try hard to give the bartenders that education and try to create a culture of appreciation for these spirits. You can make any classic cocktails using rum, like in an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan.

I am also doing cocktails for the larger branch of Caracas Arepas Bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. In Williamsburg I also want to open a rum bar. I think the people in that area are interesting and will appreciate a concept like rums. I’m also working with a publicist
because I’d like to do some education through the media. I think mixology is something you can do in your home and with media you can really get the message through. I’d also like to do my own brand of liquors, spirits, and accessories for the bar. In five years, I’ll possibly run my own restaurant. I don’t want to lose my connection with food.