Francoise Villeneuve: What drew you to restaurants and in particular to mixology?
Gina Chersevani: I went to school at the University of Maryland. I got two degrees, and the whole time I was in school I bartended. When we had a party we would make punch with Country Time Lemonade, beer, and grain alcohol. Obviously it tasted like crap, and I said, ‘I’m going to make us a better punch.’ So I made some with real fruit and my friends really liked it.
At the time I was still doing beer buckets at my bar job and I got a job working at Penang. They told me they’d give me a shot behind the bar; I bought a diffordsguide, which had some crazy recipes, and I was like, ‘this is awesome, and I’m getting better!’ There were some really sweet and fruity drinks on the menu. To do something different I made a cucumber-vodka Cosmo—in 2001 in DC to get somebody to buy that for an appropriate price, you had to beg. It was a sleepy time when it came to anything culinary—everybody drank bourbon on the rocks—so I got a hit in the paper for that drink.
FV: Did you start to notice a trend toward mixology?
GC: Years after the Cosmo I worked at New York’s Penang on 71st and Columbus Avenue, in the basement bar there. In that year I met a lot of cool people who were getting into it [mixology], and were more noticed for it. Our general manager was getting into it too, and I guess so did I. I went to work Jamie Leeds at 15 RIA when she first came from New York. She saw something in me and she let me play, and really taught me a lot about fruits and how to use and respect them, and how an ingredient is no less important than another. It was a cool mentorship; she allowed me in her kitchen, which I didn't have when I was learning to speed-bartend.
FV: Do you have any other mentors, aside from Jamie Leeds?
GC: The first time I did infused bourbons in 2004 I had worked with Jamie Leeds for seven months. She went on to open Hank's Oyster Bar [in 2005], so she recommended I take a job with Rob Weland at Poste [Poste Moderne Brasserie] at [Hotel] Monaco. So at the end of 2004 I went to work there. He asked me what I was into, and I told him I like to garden. So a couple of weeks later he said, ‘Do you want to start a garden with me?’
We started with 20 baby pots; we grew mint and basil and tomatoes; it was very small, but we took care of it, and our relationship grew from there. When I told him I wanted to make a pumpkin martini, and that the canned stuff was gross, he said, ‘Why don’t you juice the pumpkin?’ But then he said, ‘You’re on your own.’ He allowed me to learn how to use cardamom, vanilla; he taught me about the importance of knowing your products. Aside from Jamie and Rob, I would say Erik Bergman [at PS 7’s] for giving me a chance, Peter Smith [at PS 7’s] for innovation, and Charlotte Voisey [at W Hotel’s Living Room Bar & Terrace] for inspiration.
FV: What else did you learn coming up?
GC: I really started making my own drinks at about the same time I met [Mixologist] Todd Thrasher from Café Atlantico. He was down the street from me and he was all for fresh ingredients. I also got the opportunity to work with Vikram [Sunderam] and opened Rasika. It was a huge breakthrough for him to understand that there are other drinks besides Kingfisher beer and Scotch! I was the only woman there for over a year, and it was tough, but Vikram let me into a world of spices, turmeric, fenugreek, what it was to crush a kaffir lime leaf—I had no idea; these things were not in my repertoire. There are 19 different cardamoms, and a million different flavor profiles, and I’m thinking, ‘I’m working for the best people in the city!’ I also learned a lot from Sebastian Zutant [wine director, Proof]. He taught me a lot about wine, and because of him I took the intro level to sommelier [certification]. Learning how to break down wines brings in a whole new structure to cocktails.
FV: Where did you work before PS 7’s?
GC: Pizzeria Paradiso, Penang DC and Penang NY, 15 RIA, Poste, Rasika, Eatbar/Tallula. I also consult on lists; my last large project was H Street Country Club.
FV: Is there a lot of competition in DC’s mixology scene?
GC: It’s interesting to say ‘competition’ when I view most of DC's premier mixologists as my friends. After starting to work with the DC craft bartenders guild you begin to see people more as a family. With that said there is always an underlying sibling rivalry!
FV: How would you characterize the DC cocktail culture?
GC: The culture is evolving quickly now. It was a slow start a few years back, but now it gives me great joy when some asks for a Rickey at the bar instead of a bourbon and Coke. We must be doing something right!
FV: How would you describe your mixology style?
GC: Innovative rooted in the classic cocktail and kitchen philosophy. Upscale, hippie, and modern.
FV: What is your favorite drink to make?
GC: I like flips—anything with eggs. The result has such a unique body and it’s such an amazing binder for liquors that don't necessarily go together.
FV: What ingredient do you feel is under-appreciated?
GC:Water. Not all mixologists pay attention to the amount of water in a cocktail and it’s a big part of how to mix a good drink.
FV: Do you like to try new flavor combinations?
GC: Yes, the stranger the better. If you say 'no' I will make it a 'yes.' I just did a pairing with Chef for a basil dessert for the tasting menu. I wanted to make something different that would pair well, so what I came up with was Averna Amaro Siciliano, with chocolate ice cream, basil, milk, and fleur de sel. It turned out to be a savory chocolate shake cocktail, and it was awesome.
FV: What inspires you when creating a new cocktail?
GC: I think my inspiration comes from many different things, whether it is the color of beets or the smell of fresh peaches. It hailed recently in DC, and I really want to encapsulate that ‘instant freeze’ effect in a cocktail, but without liquid nitrogen. During Obama's inauguration I was asked to design cocktails for the Peace Ball at the Postal Museum, so I made the Yes, We Canton and the Situation Rhum. Inspiration can come from anywhere—you just have to be open to it.
FV: What is your proudest accomplishment?
GC: I have to say that this year has been a blessing. Winning the RAMW award for Best Mixology Program, and of course, [StarChefs.com] Rising Star (I wanted to win this so much)!!! I think if I had to choose one, Rising Star.
FV: If you weren’t a mixologist, what do you think you’d be doing?
GC: I would have been a chef.
FV: How do you keep abreast of the latest trends and culinary developments?
GC: I read a lot! From old farmhouse books to the Ideas in Food blog, and everything in between.
FV: What is your favorite mixology resource book and who is the author?
GC: Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food.
FV: Where will we find you in five years?
GC: In five years I would like to have on my own TV show that works food and cocktails together—know anyone?
FV: How would you define success?
GC: The ability to look at oneself in the mirror and be happy with what you see.
FV: What’s next for you?
GC: I love being a mixologist, and I don’t want to give it up. The only way that you can keep doing it is to be in the thick of it, otherwise you’re like a chef who only writes books. But there will be a time when I’m an owner. I’m partnering with [Chef] Peter [Smith], and not leaving, per se, but we’re heading for a different concept completely—a parlor bar. In New York I went to pizza parlors, and of course there was my father’s pizza joint, with a bar in front where men hung out and pizza was an afterthought. The cool thing was they always had soda from a fountain, floats, a slice—that’s how it was. I want to put in a fountain with all fresh sodas—a phosphate fountain—with house-made Italian everything. We’re going to do a Miss Piggy cocktail with porchetta and smoked salt and a Campari margarita…that’ll be in the fall, in October.