Luck is the only reason bartender Marcos Tello is consulting at FEED Body & Soul, the new all-organic restaurant in Venice. When FEED's owner DeeAnna Staats first envisioned the dining space, cocktails weren't part of the concept. Like most restaurateurs, she'd entered the lottery for a full 47 beverage license, but, given the slim chances of winning one, planned to serve only beer and wine. When, months later, after the bar was constructed, she found out that FEED had won the lottery, bartender, consultant and LA-native Marcos Tello was the next phone call. It's well-known that Tello runs bar consulting company Liquid Assets with Aiden Demarest but he's doing much more than that.
So how did you get hooked up with FEED? Through the consulting group I work for, not Liquid Assets, that's with Aiden, but this is through The Hospitality Collective, which is basically a full-service consulting firm. They don't just do bars and drinks, they also do service and management and back of house...
What's different about the cocktails at FEED? The first thing they told me is that everything is organic and I cannot use any kind of sugar, not refined sugar, not raw sugar, no sugar. So, I could have just done everything fruit forward and used a bunch of agave or honey. But I thought, 'can we do classics organically?' And things spun out from there. I wanted to do a Manhattan, but didn't want it to taste like honey or agave. And a Negroni, etc, etc.
Why didn't you want to use honey or agave? What other options did you have? Both honey and agave have really strong flavors. You know when you're drinking them; they're not clean tasting, like sugar. So I found Yacon syrup, which is a low-glycemic index sweetener that tastes sort of like molasses. But it mellows out a lot in a drink, and is just perfect with whisky or in a sour. And also Coco Palm sugar, which we rehydrate into house-made syrups.
That's amazing. Can you tell the difference between the Manhattan with sugar and without? The only difference, really, is the color. When you go organic, everything gets brown. It's just how it is. But flavor wise, I think we hit it.
What about the organic spirits? How did you find so many? Well, when you start researching organic, USDA organic labeling is a mess. We were peeling back layers upon layers of processes and eventually, I just said, 'What's the real purpose of only serving organic products?' Well, it's the environmental effect, the ingredients, the labor, the attention to sustainable farming. So I just asked probably dozens, hundreds of spirit purveyors for their production notes. We wanted to know exactly how they're doing what they do, whether or not they are labeled organic. Obviously, what we found was interesting. Some of the "organic" stuff was not up to snuff and a lot of stuff that doesn't have an organic label is actually produced so well that we're using it. Centuries old Armagnac, for example, is produced in a way that it's better than a lot of the organic stuff.
Did you have a hard time finding spirits that worked? Does FEED have a truly full bar? Japanese Whiskey is pretty hard to find in the US, period. There's only really three kinds you can find here. So that's a product we don't have at FEED, because we couldn't verify production standards. But other than that, we have a full bar, yes. Pisco, absinthe, eau de vie, it's all here.
How do organic spirits taste in comparison to non-organic spirits? You can taste the difference. Structurally, there's a difference. I mean, some long standing distilleries are going organic, or are working on producing an organic product, but over all it's a new thing. So there isn't the same history behind these spirits. And how they blend is different too. At first there was a lot of trial and error, but now that so many new organic spirits are coming out, it's starting to get interesting.
How does the cocktail list at FEED work? Is it seasonal? We're doing five seasonal and five classics right now. I want to be able to play around with both categories because it's challenging and fun for us. In terms of programming, I'm working with Garrett McKenchnie on it all. We have a lot of ideas that are going to come out in waves. This is a program that took nine months to develop, but it's going to continue to evolve.
Have you done any cocktail and food pairings at FEED? This is interesting. Not a lot of people really know how to pair cocktails with food. Like, if it's a super rich dish or rich, fatty meat, you can serve a drink with a higher alcohol content. If it's a light dish, you don't want something heavy to drink with it, but you don't want something vegetal or herbaceous either. So, I just work with the bartenders and servers on recommendations. Like, if there's a dish with figs in it, we might recommend a drink with almond liquor. But the biggest thing to remember is the more fat in a dish, the more alcohol you can have in a cocktail with it.
So, let's back up a bit. How did you get into bartending? I was born and raised in LA, near Hacienda Heights. Went to Cal Poly Pomona for theater arts and as soon as I turned 21, I got a job as a bar back at TGIFridays. After college, I actually achieved success as an actor. I was in a bunch of commercials and had reoccurring gigs on shows like Sabrina and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. So I did pretty well in that field, but there's something empty about it. I don't want this to come out wrong, but there's an attitude that I just didn't like.
I actually grew up with (Soho House bar manager) Chris Ojeda. We went out to NY at some point and took this bartending class that just blew us away. Compared to what LA was doing with cocktails, NY just blew it out of the water. We both wanted to see this happen in LA. At the time, the only place to get an interesting cocktail was at Providence from Vincenzo Marianella (Copa D' Oro). Damian Windsor was doing some good stuff at Bin 8945 back then too.
So I came back from NY to LA and just thought, 'This is what I need to be doing. This is what I'm going to do for my city.' So then I got a job opening up Seven Grand downtown, which is how I met Aiden. And that's basically how it started.
What was it like working for Cedd Moses? Cedd's great. The thing about Cedd is that he's a numbers guy. A lot of bartenders just forget that they're in the business to make money. The bottom line has to make sense.
What else is on your plate besides FEED? In addition to working with Aiden (Demarest) at Liquid Assets, I work with the Hospitality Collective, and we're doing Killer Shrimp in the Marina, just renewed with 1886, so I'm still doing that, Pedalers Fork in Calabasas and also the LA Athletic Club, which is moving fast.
What do you think the LA bar scene is going to be like in five years? It's come a long way in the last five or ten years. When a restaurant opens today, it has to have a bar program. That's expected now, that's standard. So clearly, the public is demanding it. And there's a lot of support for it, and for bartenders to grow. I think it's important that this growth continues to happen. Especially for downtown. Downtown's development has been hinging on the hospitality and bar scene for years, so it's exciting to see it take on a life of its own now and into the future.
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