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Tony Abou-Ganim is master on all things mixology. After working as a bartender, Abou-Ganim went on to open the Starlight Room in San Francisco (which features his renowned original Cable Car cocktail), oversee the cocktail program at the Bellagio in Las Vegas and become the national ambassador of the US Bartenders Guild. With the upcoming South Beach Wine and Food Festival (of which we are media sponsors), we chatted with Tony about the two exciting pairing seminars he’ll be hosting there. Spoiler alert…vodka is heavily involved. We’re excited, so you should be too. After all, Abou-Ganim is at the helm of the cocktail craze that’s no doubt sweeping the Nation.
What would be your ideal food day?
I’d be in northern California. I’d start with breakfast at a little place called Mama’s Royal Café in Oakland, which I discovered when I moved there in 1985. I’m happy to say it’s still putting out the best breakfast I’ve ever had. Then I’d jump on my motorcycle and head towards Napa and I’d stop at the Chandon Winery. They’ve got this beautiful patio you can sit on. They do a little duck foie gras – not sure it’s there anymore with the new ban – but ideally I’d have a little foie gras and a glass of rosé sparkling wine. From there, I’d head down and stop at Mustard’s Grill and have a little appetizer there. Then I’d end up at Bouchon Bistro (in Napa) for the Steak Pommes Frites which would probably – if I were going to the box and they said ‘What’s your last meal?’ – be mine. Then I’d circle around Lake Berryessa and back to San Francisco for a little nap, and then finish it up with dinner at Le Central for more frites – but this time I’d start with escargot. Then I’d have their Chicken Pommes Frites. Then there’s nowhere to go but bed. But maybe I’d also have a nightcap at the Starlight Room. I lean towards the savories more than the sweet – more towards French fries than the chocolate cake.
What elements are behind the perfect cocktail?
Simplicity. I have a dear friend that says, ‘Keep it simple, keep it fresh.’ You only get out of a cocktail what you put into it. A cocktail should celebrate the base spirit. We don’t want to mask the base spirit, we want to celebrate and complement it so that it becomes more than just a sum of its parts. Most of the great classics are very simple creations that include two to four ingredients. It’s the choice of those ingredients and the love that goes into combining them (in perfect balance) with simplicity, elegance and structure. These are all the things that go into making a well-balanced, enjoyable cocktail.
Is there a certain cocktail that’s gone out of style that you’re hoping will make a comeback?
That’s the great thing about what’s happening now in my profession. Lost and forgotten cocktails are coming back. Not in mainstream yet, but at least in the more serious cocktail bars. My wish came true about fifteen years ago. I’m a huge fan of the Negroni – It’s gin, sweet vermouth and Campari. Fifteen years ago, it was a drink that very few bars offered. I would order a Negroni and get a Peroni. They’d say something like ‘oh, we don’t stock it.’ Today though, any decent restaurant with a decent bar will be able to make you a Negroni. I never thought it would become as popular as it has again today. Right now, I’m a huge fan of the Aviation cocktail from David Wondrich. In the cocktail world, everyone knows the Aviation, but I’d still like it to become more mainstream so you can go to any steakhouse and order it. I’m still wishing for that. I guess it’s halfway there. In today’s world of technology and availability of product, I can’t see why we haven’t seen more cocktails become modern day classics that are celebrated – not only in a certain city or state or country, but globally. I could sit here and push a button and send a cocktail recipe to the world, but when will a cocktail become a favorite like the Cosmopolitan has? I created a cocktail in 1996 called The Cable Car – it’s my best known cocktail and it’s probably fairly known around the US. But that was 1996; it’s still far from a mainstay, yet it contains ingredients all bars have.
I think in a way, cocktails come back or become popular based on media culture, i.e. the Old Fashioned in Mad Men, or the Cosmopolitan in Sex and the City…
You’re absolutely right. For Cosmopolitans, first Madonna was spotted drinking one, then Carrie Bradshaw and her girlfriends brought it into people’s living rooms. So now, shows like Mad Men that take place in that era (which I love by the way) will bring attention to a lot of the cocktails of that period. There’s no stronger medium than what’s coming into your living room on television – especially that show [Mad Men]. It has both a cult and mainstream following of viewers that may or may not have lived through that era. In that era you’d offer your clients scotch or an Old Fashioned at work rather than Perrier. If only we could bring that time back…
What’s the ultimate cocktail faux pas?
I would say surrounding the cocktail with arrogance or pretentiousness in the preparation. Bars need to be fun. We have the greatest job in world – we’re not curing cancer. When we make the cocktail arrogant, I get frustrated. I don’t like when bars say ‘We don’t do cosmos,’ or ‘We don’t stock that vodka.’ Yes, I want to make you a White Lady, but I also want you to have a good time. That may be the biggest faux pas – putting too much attention on the cocktail itself and forgetting our purpose of hospitality.