Interview with Mixologist Jeff Bell of PDT – New York, NY

April 2013

Dan Catinella: What drew you to restaurants and in particular, to mixology?
Jeff Bell: At first it was the flexibility with my school schedule and a way to make some money—I have a bachelor’s in philosophy from the University of Washington. Then I kind of fell in love with the industry. It was a lot of fun and I really enjoyed working with people. I started bussing tables and washing dishes and understood there were opportunities to move up so I put my head down and pushed.

DC: Where did you grow up?
JB: Washington State, Belfare—it has a population under 5,000 people—it’s super small.

DC: Were you trained in bartending or mixology? 
JB: I eventually attended a course called Bar Smarts that talks about spirits knowledge, and B.A.R 5-Day. It’s an intensive spirits training course—12 hour days for 5 days tasting through almost 200 spirits and learning the history and what they are made of, where they are from, and how they are distilled. This is the kind of knowledge every bartender should have. It’s not a prerequisite for starting—and you can read all you want—but tasting things side by side with world renowned experts is a whole other thing. If you taste 10 cognacs side by side, it changes your perspective on things.

DC: What are the most influential restaurants or bars where you staged, apprenticed, or externed?
JB: The first job I had opened the doors. I’m really glad I started at the bottom because I have an appreciation for every level from the bottom to the top. My first bar job was in Seattle at an “institution” called McCormack’s Fishhouse. I was trained by a guy in his mid 60s, who had been there for 30 years. He schooled me on how to be efficient. Watching him work was inspiring. He had a bar full of regulars from open to the end of his shift. It was also a scratch bar so everything was fresh squeezed and no premakes. That might have been my first introduction to mixology, but from these guys I learned the “other side” of bartending; how to keep customers coming back, how to cut people off and make people laugh, and be there when they need someone.

I finished school and moved to New York. It was the most forward-thinking city, and I could learn the most here. Maialino was next, where I honed my craft and tightened my skillset. I worked with Jim Meehan’s wife, Valerie, and learned a ton about Roman cuisine and Italian wine. It tightened up my service level. There is a very high level of hospitality, and it was a great experience. That’s how I met Jim [Meehan], and that’s what led to PDT. PDT is a super intense place to work but its so rewarding. Jim is one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever worked with, from crafting cocktails to operating a business and maintaining relationships with people.

DC: How do you develop your recipes?
JB: This varies completely from cocktail to cocktail. Cocktails work from the ground up, so we start looking at seasonal flavors and then start with a spirit. Taste, smell, and think of what you’re tasting and smelling and what flavors in your environment can accent it or complement it. Then we think of a style like a Manhattan or martini, sours or sodas, and then maybe add citrus and lengthener. Ultimately you reference the basic formula and you just kind of create cocktails from there. You have to understand balance before you start working with esoteric ingredients.

DC: What ingredient or spirit do you feel is underappreciated or under utilized?
JB: This is really tough to say. I think too many people hate on vodka. It’s not as complex as aged whiskeys or cognacs but is still a very old spirit that can be well made. I think we should challenge peoples’ palates but also offer them something familiar. It’s a very delicate flavor, and it’s a popular spirit even with beginning cocktail drinkers. At the same time, learning to balance vodka takes effort. In a martini for instance, I’ll use maybe a 3:1 ratio for a gin martini but with something like vodka, I’ll use maybe a 6:1, since vermouth has such a strong flavor it easily overpowers the vodka.

DC: What are some current trends you’ve seen in the cocktail market? How have trends changed?
JB: I don’t really follow what other people are doing—not to sound pompous—it’s just that I’m really into what we are doing at PDT,and that’s where I put all my effort. I want to see how far we can take our program. Maybe one trend is vinegar in cocktails? I’m not sure if people are using them properly, and I know the idea has been around for a while, but I’ve definitely seen some cocktails with vinegar in them recently. 

DC: What's next? Where will we find you in five years?
JB: The sky’s the limit! I initially had a plan to have my own bar by 30, but things change. I don’t know if New York City needs another bar. I don’t know. I think I might expand outside of New York City. I think there are a lot of holes in some major cities we can fill.