|Featured Mixologist Mike Yen of Nine-Ten—La Jolla, CA
by JJ Proville
| photos by Antoinette Bruno
In San Diego, self-taught Mixologist Mike Yen is breathing fresh air into what might be otherwise considered a “sleepy” cocktail town. At Nine-Ten, Yen slings drinks in his own fun, adventurous style, unbridled by any old-fashioned cocktail conventions or etiquette.
A molecular mixologist at heart, Yen’s favorite source of inspiration is Grant Achatz’s Alinea and his favorite tool is a syringe. His Smoked Turkey cocktail hits the bar literally smoking (thanks to a small chip of dry ice) and he legitimizes the jello shot, offering it in a trio of Key lime preparations that include the use of molecular staples like Ultratex 3 and carrageenan.
In an era of glorified classics and esoteric flavor infusions, fun and adventure may be just what is needed. Here’s an interview with Yen, plus four recipes from this mixologist who has carte blanche to break the mold behind the bar.
JJ Proville: How did you get into the art of mixology?
Mike Yen: I played soccer for UCSD and had four concussions in 4 months. I wanted to do something that exercised my short term memory. My girlfriend had a Thanksgiving party for people who didn’t have family in town—it was a potluck and people were bringing macaroni and cheese and that sort thing. I thought I would do Jello shots and everyone liked it, so I kept going in that direction.
JJP: Where did you get your training? How did you come up with your style?
MY: Pretty much the internet. Nothing as far as books go. There’s really nothing out there for the kind of drinks I do. I’ve always been inspired by the chefs I worked with. Our pastry chef right now when he started was the first person that started using savory sweet applications. It made me start thinking outside the box. Our current head chef and sous chef are using foams, gels, and different types of alginates. When you have a good restaurant, the bar has to stay on par with the food. I’ve been there for four and half years. I like to try and re-invent myself all the time. Even if it’s a popular drink, the recipe keeps changing.
JJP: What are some of your “greatest hits” cocktails?
MY: The espresso martini. It was popular at the time because no one was doing foam. I was using the frothing wand on the cap machine to do that. That was 10 years ago. For whatever reason, I’m the Jello guy now. I do the version of the mojito with cotton candy and I make Jack Daniels and Coke in a mold using gelatin.
JJP: What’s your bartending philosophy?
MY: Reading the guests; everyone is different. I just want people to be happy and leave with a positive experience. A lot of people go to the bar not to quench their thirst, but to get an experience and an education.
JJP: What goes into creating a new cocktail? What inspires you?
MY: Making a cocktail is like making a song, I’ll go to international markets and look for anything weird. Canned fruit—any new flavors. I’ll walk though an Asian market that has fresh fruit. That’s more of a summer time thing when I’m looking for fresh fruits. In the winter time we use more local produce. In general I try to do a lot farm to bar. There’s nothing inspiring locally because no ones really doing anything different. I find what other cooks are doing more inspiring. The problem with the things that I do is that they take a long time. Bartenders complain about muddling a mojito! I do a lot of work at home before I go in. But After a while you get a feel for using things like UltraTex.
JJP: How do you develop your recipes?
MY: A lot of it is trial and error. Some of the best things I’ve come across have come up by mistake.
JJP: Any tips for using “molecular gastronomy” tools in cocktails?
MY: One thing that I liked about using gelatins and alginates: If you have too much gelatin and its ends up to hard, you van just re-melt it and add more liquid.
JJP: Where did you get the vessel you use in the Smoked Turkey cocktail?
My: It’s called a Port sipper, and I got it online. I think they’re hilarious because no one drinks port out of them! Sometimes I see glassware or a vessel and that inspires a drink.
JJP: What’s the mixology scene like in San Diego?
MY: It’s pretty slow. There’s probably three, maybe four people that do [mixology]. Maybe more. There aren’t many people that try to do different techniques. What a lot of bartenders do is make a list and serve drinks off the list. I’m more interactive with the people and not confined to a set menu. We’re so far behind in the mixology movement and it’s a reflection in the local culture. Most places close early and I wonder what it would be like to work somewhere else.
JJP: What do they like to drink?
MY: I think everyone is more willing to try flavors they like in different applications rather than applications with different flavors. Most of the customers that come in are over 30 years old. At that point you already like the flavors you like and the ones you don’t like. If they have a drink they like, I’ll spin it into a different format. A guy came in and said he really likes a Dark and Stormy, so I made him a drink with ginger cotton candy.
JJP: How do you deal with customers with unsophisticated palates?
MY: I ask what their palates are like. If they say they can’t stand tequila, or they can’t stand rye, sometimes for fun I’ll make a drink with the ingredient they don’t like. You can always make certain flavors work.
JJP: What are some current trends you’ve seen in the cocktail market? How have trends changed?
MY: A lot of people are trying too hard to be different. You have to remember that things just need to taste good. I just got a liquid nitrogen tank and I’m messing around with that this year.
JJP: What's next? Where will we find you in five years?
MY: I love everything my chef does. I’m happy with where I am and I love everything I’ve ever done. I always look forward to work. I don’t know where I’ll end up but now I can’t complain right now.