Welcome to The Barkeepers, a regular feature in which Eater roams the city to meet the fine ladies and gentlemen that work behind the bar at some of LA's hottest cocktail parlors.
For anyone who regularly dines at Century City's Hinoki & The Bird, amiable bartender Brandyn Tepper is a familiar sight. The longtime barman has helmed the bar from the first night of service, and shows no signs of slowing down. "If the restaurant were open eight days a week, I'd find a way to be here all eight days."
Of course, that hasn't stopped Tepper from branching out as well. He's also a co-founder of Cocktail Academy, a drinks consulting group with plans to open a brick and mortar bar soon, and was previously honored as one of Zagat's 30 Under 30. Still, you'll find Tepper at Hinoki & The Bird most nights, pushing cocktails to teeming Saturday night crowds. Eater caught up with him to talk about his previous aspirations, the positive nature of pressure and what makes simple drinks so important.
You actually opened the bar at Hinoki & The Bird, right? Yeah, I opened the place. It was quite the experience. For all of the opening kitchen staff and servers that are still here, I always say that this is the house we build, you know? The thing about being on an opening staff, you’re going to set the precedent for not only how customers view the place, reviewers, but future staff members. If you don’t take it seriously, or don’t put your best foot forward in the beginning, people that get hired later in the process are going to really seek out the things that you can and can’t do. It’s about setting that culture.
Where were you before landing at Hinoki & The Bird? I was hopping around several bars in L.A., places like the Wellesbourne, La Descarga. Really, I was going to school, getting my masters in Criminal Justice. Bartending was not necessarily a means to an end, because I really enjoyed it, but I had an alternative goal.
So what drew you to cocktails in the beginning? Wanting to seek out the best. For someone who goes to culinary school, they seek to work somewhere that matters. I was a Division I wrestler in college, so I come from a mindset that seeks to be the best. It’s very competitive. If there’s no pressure on you to do your job, then your job’s not important.
This isn’t just a cocktail bar, it’s also a high volume restaurant. How much pressure do you put on yourself to be creative with your drinks? We draw inspiration from the kitchen’s ingredients and techniques, but at the same time I don’t want to overburden my staff with ten ingredient drinks when they’re also having to pour glasses of $500 ’92 vintage wine and then talk to another table about what pairs with a great steak. So we keep the cocktails here rooted in the classics. From the beginning with chef Myers, the bar has really leaned on Sam Ross, who is a mentor of mine and absolutely someone that I look up to — well, look down on, since I’m so much taller than he is.
Sam has been doing the same cocktails for the last ten years of his life. Simple, easy to execute, so that it’s not overbearing on the staff or the customer. I love easy cocktails, because then making drinks becomes like breathing. You don’t even think about it. It’s just me and you, hanging out. I can concentrate more on your needs as diner, rather than my needs as a bartender.
So are you fully in charge of the cocktail menu now? Our very first menu was done by Sam Ross, and we recently just changed the menu, but have kept some of his cocktails on it. For all intents and purposes, it’s still his bar. He’s like the offensive coordinator, maybe I’ll be the quarterback. There are some; we’ve definitely taken steps away from that original drink menu. I don’t mind making a Tom Collins for people all day, but if we’ve got this kitchen and staff, let’s do something just a little bit different.
Still, you’re managing the other bartenders day in and day out. Is that a role you’re still adjusting to? It’s been interesting. I mean, it’s important to keep a happy staff, but it’s also not easy. Overall, it’s a great learning experience. I love it. But I’ve been learning that you can’t just do it all yourself. You have to learn to delegate tasks, as hard as that is. You know you could do everything, but there’s just not enough hours in the day. Or you’re just not using your time efficiently, when someone else could do it. I’ve always been a worker bee, never so much a manager, someone handing off tasks. I would always do all five things myself, no problem, but there’s no point in driving yourself into the ground forever.
What kind of volume are you doing on a Saturday night? Anywhere north of 300, 330 covers. What’s nice about Saturday is that it’s a controlled chaos at least. Like I said, it’s a restaurant, and it works in harmony. Just for the folks who work in the reservation room, the fact that they can plot out this place on a Saturday night, it’s amazing.
Working at Hinoki has really allowed me to realize that there are a lot of moving pieces, just to get a plate of food on someone’s table within a reasonable time from when they ordered it. When you think about the person who calls in for a reservation, that information is taken by someone, then they come to the restaurant and are seated by the host. Maybe the table that was plotted for them still has someone sitting there, so now you’ve got to move them, so now the manager steps in for that. Meanwhile, the server steps in to take orders and send drink requests to the bar, while the kitchen is firing 50 tickets at once. Then after all that, the steak lands at the perfect temperature at the perfect time. I mean, there’s even more that goes into it. Just thinking about it is enough to tire you out.
Have you officially given up on the Criminal Justice degree? [Laughs] This is what I plan on doing for the rest of my life. Obviously, a lot of people in L.A. that work in the hospitality industry, this is not what they plan on doing for the rest of their life. But my managers, my GMs, my chef, this is what they’re doing for their life, so out of respect, I’m going to take it very seriously. This is their livelihood, so if it’s important to them it has to be important to me.