Welcome to the second installment of our How To Make It series, in which we talk to Bushwick residents about their field of work and how to become successful at it. Is there a specific industry that interests you? Do you have any specific questions to ask? Leave us a comment and we’ll find a neighbor that works in the industry and ask them all about it.
It is safe to say that the food and beverage industry is the single biggest supporter of arts in this city. Many creative people find refuge (and much needed cash) in working as bartenders, servers, line cooks, or chefs, all the while realizing they have a lot of passion for the food and beverage industry. We were thus not surprised when some of our readers asked us what it takes to make it as a bartender in NYC.
When we at Bushwick Daily think cocktail, we immediately think Dimitri Manousakis. Born and raised on the Greek island of Crete, Dimitri has worked in food and beverage industry since he was seven or eight years old. “I was that obnoxious person who hustles you to a taverna for a dinner,” Dimitri laughs about his beginnings. Since then he has worked as a server, bartender, mixologist, sommelier, beverage director and consultant. He has created the beverage program at Tribeca restaurant The Greek. If you’ve been following Bushwick Daily carefully for a couple of years now, you remember Bushwick Mixer, a column in which Dimitri expertly reviewed numerous cocktails offered by neighborhood bars.
A Holistic approach to drinks
“When I think about beverage I approach it from a very holistic point of view,” Dimitri started our conversation true to form: as the Greek philosopher we’ve always known him to be. “Your coffee, your tea, your cocktail… everything belongs in the same family of beverages. Everything has to work together like a pendulum.”
Dimitri, who has constructed several cocktails, says, “A cocktail has to make sense for the guest as well as for the restaurant. It has to be fast but at the same time tasty; it has to be memorable and unique but easily reproducible. And if you have real fun cocktails on the menu, then the wines should be fun as well.”
Dimitri says that one of the most significant things that happened to him while working at The Greek was that he realized that their guests didn’t really love their iced tea. “In order to fix it I went back to the ways the tea is produced on Crete,” he says. “On Crete there is a big tradition of blending herbs; every herb has a very unique taste but at the same time can affect your organism in a certain way. I took the basic herb and let it provide the body and the structure of the tea, and added just a pinch of another one, a very aromatic and potent herb. The result was a tea with a very good body and a kick at the end. The tea was used in cocktails as a basis, which helped to give another dimension to cocktails. The ice tea itself was very successful. Everything starts in a very small thing; every small detail counts. Everything has to work together. Everything is in our hands as long as you engineer it a certain way.”
Beginnings in the food & beverage industry
Dimitri likes to say that he didn’t start in the food and beverage industry. “It has always existed,” he says.
After his stint as a child restaurant hustler, he started to work as a waiter. He waited tables at a taverna where a distinguished food columnist dined on the regular. “He wrote under a moniker Deipnosophist, which means philosopher of the dinner table. Nowadays I read his books a lot, and everything connects. I even named my food consulting business after him,” Dimitri says.
Dimitri feels compelled by the idea of being introspective about a restaurant; to think it into its basic elements, which then create a bigger stronger idea. It is not only what the Greek philosophers did to explain the world, but it’s also how branding works. “You go very deep and find that nook of an essence and transmit it to the whole company,” Dimitri says.
While at a university in Athens where he studied marketing and communication, Dimitri waited tables at a corporate restaurant and by the time he graduated he was the restaurant’s assistant manager as well. Later Dimitri came to the States where he obtained his Master’s in branding and mass communication, and later got a job in advertising. “It didn’t go well. I got laid off, and when I was down on my knees I went back to my roots. I applied for jobs in restaurants,” Dimitri told us. He has been working in the industry ever since, blending his knowledge of branding with his passion for food and beverage.
How to become a great bartender
Dimitri who has trained several bartenders throughout his career told us that it primarily takes an inquisitive spirit to be really good at bartending. “Many bartenders think that it’s the cocktail making that is the most important part of the job. But it’s just one of many, many things.”
Dimitri advises to always prepare before the shift the best you can. “Make sure you cover all the scenarios,” he says. “You get your cocktail list, prepare all the ingredients, and always make sure that everything you need is within arm’s reach.”
Why should you be present at the bar rather than looking for an ingredient all over? Dimitri says that, “When you see a bartender staging a cocktail, it’s a performance. A bartender that moves around, is a bartender you miss out on. People pay more for a performance than they pay for a drink, and that’s why places like Apotheke are able to charge $18 for a cocktail.”
Another thing you should get into is to study the classics. “Go to bars and study how bartenders move, pick up techniques. If you have a good friend who is a bartender ask them for techniques,” Dimitri says.
You should also pick up a book or newspaper every now and then. “One of the books I’ve been reading by Jerry Thomas says that a bartender should know the news, the sports, the arts, as well as the culture, because people come to a bar to have a conversation. The making of a cocktail is a performance, but at the end of it you still need to entertain people,” Dimitri explains. “The more you talk with a person, the more likely they’ll have a second drink. If you just stand there, people will be bored and not savor the moment.”
Conversation over good looks
According to Dimitri, the broad mindset in a bartender is much more important than good looks. “Not everybody has been born with great looks,” he says. “True, a lot of bartenders get away with just looks but at the same time if you want to do something really cool and significant; something that pushes the limits of mixology, taste, and flavor, you need to be able to pick up the cues from the environment. Like at every other job, the idea that you’re good at one thing and that’s the thing that you do is no more. Everybody has to have some other interest and it is really important that a bartender has a good perspective on life and the outside world.”
“The difference between a $10 cocktail and an $18 cocktail is how you make it,” Dimitri says. “Bartenders are the true strikers of the restaurant. A guest might have a good experience at the table, but it’s the experience at the bar that brings them back. Guests get enamoured by a place and decide on their future spending based on how well they were treated at the bar.”
Cover photo of Dimitri Manousakis by Katarina Hybenova for Bushwick Daily.