Mixin' to Move to NOLA

By Emily Bell | Will Blunt

By

Emily Bell
Will Blunt
Clockwise from Top Left: Jesse Carr, Abigail Gullo, Colin Decarufel, and Carmine Potenza
Clockwise from Top Left: Jesse Carr, Abigail Gullo, Colin Decarufel, and Carmine Potenza

In the bittersweet and languorous “Walkin’ to New Orleans,” Fats Doimno says goodbye to a faithless, gold-digging woman as he plans for the slow, southerly mosey on home. For the small troupe of bartenders who recently decamped New York City for New Orleans, those lyrics could easily apply to the Big Apple: seductive and exciting, but also a cold mistress who will drain your pockets without a care. 

Not that you’ll find a single-file line of broke and bitter bartenders walking south along the banks of the Mississippi. But, says Chris Hannah of Arnaud’s French 75, “In the past eight or nine years, there’s been a significant number of cocktail bartenders moving to New Orleans from New York.” Nick Detrich, business partner to Kirk Estopinal and Neal Bodenheimer of Cure, Bellocq, and Cane and Table, says “I’ve hired at least two [New York bartenders] in the last two and a half years.” 

Their’s are not isolated anecdotes. And so, the question bellows like a Mardi Gras horn: why the mixo migration? There’s a lot to learn in New Orleans, whether it’s from the city herself or world-class bartenders like Hannah, Estopinal, Bodenheimer, Detrich, and Paul Gustings, to name a few. Tales of the Cocktail, the week-long gathering wherein the cream, curd, and whey of the cocktail industry swarm the city has a lot to do with it. For many bartenders, it’s their introduction to the city. “Tales is a big draw,” says Bodenheimer. “People come down here and see a really good time, an interesting city with great cocktails.”  

But like love at first sight, Tales infatuation can lead to a false sense of what the other 360 days of the year are like. “[Visitors] are around cocktail bartenders, where people want to pontifi cate about the history of the Manhattan,” says Estopinal. “But Tales is one week a year.” Bartenders who come expecting Tales year-round usually tend to fail. 

The four ex-New York bartenders we spoke to, who found a permanent home in New Orleans, were each motivated to make the move South for different reasons beyond their Tales experience. “I had a few friends in the industry who moved down from New York,” says Colin Decarufel, who went from dive bars to cocktails dens in Manhattan and Brooklyn before he arrived at Cane and Table. Abigail Gullo of Compere Lapin had a mentor push her in the direction of the Crescent City. St. John Frizzell, Gullo’s former boss at Fort Defi ance in Brooklyn, encouraged her to move, “saying my personality and style would flourish in New Orleans. He was right.” 

Former NYC pubster Carmine Potenza, now of Purloo, simply, slowly fell in love with the city. “After each trip, I found myself missing something upon my return home. There’s something about New Orleans I just can’t put into words.” And before Jesse Carr got to Balise, he’d spent 13 years of his professional life in New York, progressing from dance halls like Limelight to Maison Premiere. For Carr, as everyone, something about New Orleans was different. “It’s one of the few places where true professional service industry people thrive, doing this for a living.”

In advance of any bartender booking a ticket for New Orleans, they should understand that at least half the reason these bartenders have thrived is that their spirit of hospitality matches the hospitable character of New Orleans. “People in New Orleans have a valid bullshit meter,” says Estopinal. Technique and savvy matter in New Orleans, but they mean less than a well placed joke or plain old patience. “Mixology knowledge, spirits facts, and other nerdy cocktail talk will never match the ability to crack jokes and guide the mood of the crowd seated at your bar,” says Potenza. Even the notorious “go-cups” don’t always yield the debauchery they promise. “I love go-cups,” says Gullo. “They’re so civilized.” If cocktail presentation borders on the religious in New York City, in New Orleans, Gullo is neither off -base, nor alone. “To be able to make someone an absolutely beautiful cocktail and then throw it in a plastic cup and send them happily on their way is just kind of a cool thing to me,” says Decarufel. 

Before getting to go-cups, making contacts is important. “I’d been in discussion with a few people in New Orleans,” says Gullo. Even having friends in the area can be a huge advantage. “Everyone here that I knew helped me with getting interviews,” says Carr. Your best bet if you don’t have contacts: references. “I had enough good references behind me that I made contacts quickly after I moved,” says Decarufel. “Of course, I took a few weeks to enjoy myself first.” And assuming you land the job, New Orleans will reward you with better hours. “I feel like I’m living on a more 
adult timeline now,” says Carr. Also, there’s the weather: “On Christmas day I was wearing shorts and a tank top,” says Gullo. 

But Estopinal notes, if the city’s alluring charms are so seemingly irresistible, a question arises: How will the new people streaming into New Orleans change the city? “There’s a push and a pull,” says Bodenheimer. “The two opposing forces in New Orleans are preservation and progress.” If New York is a forward-march, New Orleans has a (highly marketable) identity to preserve amidst its growth. Incoming bartenders have to be aware of that balance.

Attention is the enemy of aff ordability, and rents in New Orleans, though cheaper than New York, are rising. “Rents are going up exponentially,” says Estopinal. “More than anything, that’s what I see as a problem for [bartending transplants] coming here. They’re used to making New York money. New Orleans is a little cheaper, but not as cheap as it used to be. It makes it a tougher proposition.” 

It's a proposition bartenders are willing to endure. Carr is currently looking for farms to buy, and Decarufel (who likes to “relocate every couple years”) is about to have a baby there. Potenza says, “There’s really nowhere in the world I would rather be making drinks.” Where Tales enchanted, it's the city that ultimately pulled them in. Like Gullo says, “Once this city gets in your blood, it’s hard to imagine living anywhere else.”

 

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