TOBY ELLIS IS… Cut off – FLAY VS. ELLIS Throwing Down with An Iron Chef

Updated: August 1, 2006

Have you ever been watching television when suddenly some TV host or celebrity chef plays bartender and absolutely butchers a drink as simple as an LIT? Surely I cannot be the only bartender who struggles through show after show were a non-bartender makes a mockery out of the art of pouring cocktails. From upside-down muddlers to “half ounce” vodka pours that are closer to 3 or 4 ounces, how many more times are we going to have sit back in agony and watch people who do makeovers and bake cookies, play bartender? Why don’t they just put a bartender on TV? Haven’t you ever asked yourself or somebody else that exact question? I mean, you don’t see Regis playing Auto Mechanic or Letterman trying to play the Trombone so why is it every other TV host in America thinks it’s ok for them to “play” bartender? Why won’t the TV networks just put some bartenders on TV to be the bartenders?

upn-teUntil 1997, they really hadn’t very much. But thanks to a few guys we know (Jim Allison, Ken Hall and somebody named Gato), they started to. And the road was paved for some of our colleagues on the other side of the bartending spectrum who are wizards with a jigger like Gary Regan, Dale DeGroff and Tony Abou-Ganim to do the same. Bartending finally started to find its way onto prime time television. Cable television, sure, but still. At first it was mainly fluff pieces on little shows and mostly all they wanted was to see bottles fly. Which was cool and great for flair. But I wanted the world to see that there’s more to bartending than flipping bottles or telling a funny joke. Or even to make one drink. Because what makes bartending such a hard to career to master isn’t any one of these skills: it’s that we have to master all of them and a dozen more and do it under the spotlight. When will the media tell our story, I wondered back then? It has taken a long time, but we’re getting there, slowly.

foodtv-ift After a couple of cool pieces on Flair in the late 90s that Jim and I set up to showcase Legends, I was asked by Food Network in 2000 to appear on their daytime show In Food Today, hosted by the ex-wife of former New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani. (For you trivia buffs). I went on right after Celebrity Chef Charlie Palmer. They wanted just to see bottle flipping but I had my own agenda to show how flair bartending is more than just flipping bottles and getting laid. so I poured a two-layer Margarita from a menu I created that just won Best Margaritas in Syracuse, NY. I tried to show the deeper skill it takes to actually craft a great cocktail, and not just tell a dirty joke while you pop a Bud or bang out a Rum and Coke. That show didn’t get a lot of exposure, but it was a start. About four years later I had the chance to demo a Raspberry Mojito on Food Network which was a year or two before the big Mojito craze exploded. But again, it was the flair they were most interested in. And it was maybe a two minute piece on the show Unwrapped. So I was thrilled to watch Francesco LaFranconi make a Coconut Mojito on Martha Stewart earlier this year and to find out Tony Abou-Ganim got his own show on Fine Living called Raising the Bar. But still, wouldn’t it be great to get the chance to actually go head to head with a famous chef at making cocktails? To once and for all show to the world how similar and yet differently difficult the two trades are so just maybe the world could begin to appreciate bartending as a fine craft in the same way they accept cooking.

unwrapped Now before every student of Le Cordon Bleu and CIA start firing off angry emails, let me run to the top of the Stratosphere and scream: the preparation and cooking sides of the culinary world are far, far more involved and complex than the same sides of the cocktail world. Anybody with a nice rack or a quick wit can fake their way behind most bars of the world and a chef just can’t do this. But look at that for a second. Most bars in the world don’t focus on or even survive because of the quality and taste of the drinks. Sad, but true. In most bars in the world, if you make an overly strong drink, one that actually tastes pretty nasty bordering on a flavor that smacks of gasoline, for example: most patrons are going to smile and say “what a great bartender.”Again, sad but true. Now if a chef puts four times the salt in a dish or bakes your cake for an extra three hours, nobody is going to feel like they got “the hook up.” They’re going to complain and send it back. Almost nobody sends back a drink that is too strong. And that’s the Achilles Heel of the bartending world. More people value a strong drink, than a good drink. So a chef is in truth only as good as their last meal and yet a bartender can pour crap drinks for decades and nobody either seems to mind or notice. Hell, they tip for it. Which makes bartending look easy and unskilled. How many times have you heard “a monkey can pour a gin and tonic?” I’ve just wanted to shift the focus so people realize that a monkey may be able to learn to pour a gin and tonic, but let’s see a monkey hold it down Saturday night at 1am while at the point of a high-volume cocktail bar or nightclub. Because until TV starts showing a more accurate portrayal of bartending, we’re lumped in with all the other unskilled laborers. And I don’t think “Celebrity BusBoy” is going to be the next big thing. Maybe Celebrity Bartender won’t either, certainly not as long as we are passed up in favor of show hosts and chefs who over-simplify and often times, completely botch up our craft. So as much as some of us drool over the day the term “Celebrity Bartender” sits alongside “Celebrity Chef” it’s probably a pipedream. As long as the world eats for taste and drinks for a buzz, we’re screwed.

hellskit It would be nice though, if the chefs of the world and maybe the public at large, got a greater appreciation just how truly difficult it is to hop behind the pine and do something that I have yet to see any great chef in the world do: be server, chef, cashier, bouncer and entertainer all at the same time while waiting on 20-50 different people at once. Now that’s a bartender. Can you imagine how easy it would be to sit in the back of house banging out drinks all night, just reading from tickets and dropping your “dishes” in a window? You don’t have to imagine if you’ve been around bars more than five or ten years because you’ve probably done that. I did. At more than a couple BOH service bars. And while normally there are anywhere from four to fourteen chefs, sous chefs, line cooks, and expediters preparing, cooking and organizing all the 200px-Cheers_woody food orders for a restaurant there is usually one, maybe two bartenders making all the drinks for that exact same restaurant. Now the chefs are saying “yeah, but cooking is harder, involves more time, more ingredients, and takes a lot longer.” True. No argument there. Cooks get 10-20 minutes to make the food for each table. We get about two. And nobody orders five double filets during one meal but they sure as hell will order five double Jack and Cokes. So pound for pound, your average restaurant service bartender is putting out probably ten times the orders for the same restaurant that the entire team of chefs and cooks are. And in most cases these days, we’re doing this while we’re engaged in conversations, cash transactions, and a myriad of other service and entertainment related tasks. When’s the last time a line cook looked up from Saute and smiled at you, told you a joke, changed your ashtray and asked you how your wife and kids are? In my experience, a lot of great chefs are, in the heat of the moment a lot more like Hell’s Kitchen’s Gordon Ramsay than Cheers’ Woody Boyd.
There’s also that part of me that has always been bothered with how so many chefs tinker around behind the bar and try to make up cocktail recipes. Sure, they know their food. They know iron_chef_america_2005spices and believe me, we all know that chefs know their way around the hooch. But haven’t you always wondered what would happen if you stripped away all the b.s. and all the smoke and mirrors of throwing fancy culinary terms around, to see what would happen if a really great chef went head to head with a veteran bartender? I have. I’ve always wanted a crack at a fair, objective cocktail competition with a top chef. Maybe even an Iron Chef. But that’ll never happen. Still, it’s nice to dream about. Because maybe then the world would see both the similarities between great chefs and great bartenders but also the differences, including some of the things about being a bartender that are hard as hell to master. Like flair. And high-volume. Efficiency. Accuracy. Mixology. Service. And doing it all while playing hosts to hundreds, never letting them see you sweat. That would be cool.

7377_256So Bartender or Chef: who’s got the harder job? It’s an apples to oranges comparison in a lot of ways. Chefs have to know more, train harder, and have a lot less room for error just to keep their jobs where as bartenders have to be able to perform a lot of very similar tasks in a much quicker time frame plus perform a lot of additional tasks, all while smiling, looking calm and keeping people happy in order to excel at their jobs. So maybe it’s fair and safe to say: it’s easier to be a mediocre bartender than it is to be a decent chef, but it’s just as damn challenging to be a great bartender as it is to be a great chef. Who knows. I respect what Chefs do because I cook. Sort of. And just cooking for me and my girlfriend turns me into a nervous wreck. Trying to time four or five parts of one meal so nothing burns is no walk in the park. Doing that for 300 or more people a night? I can’t imagine. But handling 12 waitresses while waiting on a few hundred drunk people including ringing hundreds and hundreds of transactions ain’t no picnic either. And if you don’t know your shit, and you don’t have your game down, you can’t do it. I have watched so many people who decided to become bartenders go down in flames only to turn tom me at the end of the night and say “Wow, this is hard. You make it look so easy.” No shit. Welcome to the real world of high-volume bartending. One of the world’s oldest and underappreciated skilled professions.

parisanddogStill we wonder why our craft doesn’t seem to get the same respect as does cooking. Maybe it’s because the public doesn’t know it takes more than a recipe to make a decent cocktail. Bartending looks easy and great bartenders make it look so fun and carefree that anybody could do it. Cooking is jsut the opposite: everybody knows how hard it is to cook. And thanks to networks like Food Network, the complexity and fascinating world of cooking has a gigantic 24-hour a day stage. So wouldn’t it be great, if after all of this, bartenders actually got the same chance to go on National TV and start showing the world not just how fun bartending is, but what a difficult, skilled trade it is? Just like cooking. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the executives calling the shots in TV-land would give us a chance to show the public just how hard it is to be able to craft truly great cocktails behind the bar. After almost 18 years behind the wood, and nine consecutive years of being on TV for bartending, I finally got my chance to do just that. To do more than flip a bottle or give a sound byte or lord forgive me, jog around the neighborhood with a bottle and a tin while being chased by Paris Hilton’s Chihuahua.

xania1It went down like this: I get a call from a good friend of mine, Xania Woodman who is the Las Vegas Weekly‘s Nightlife Columnist and owns the hugely popular insiders website to Las Vegas Nightlife, The Circuit. Xania tells me she was contacted by somebody at the Food Network looking to profile a Las Vegas Bartender who specializes in creative cocktails and has some awards to back up their skills, who also can flair a little. Instantly, I am preparing to rattle a dozen names like Delpech, Perez, Llorente, Alba, Keane, Gerami, Battawa, Barcode, Connelly, Closson, Dorsey, Nummenin and Medina when Xania says “I thought you would be perfect.” Oh, ok. Cool. Still, I passed along all these names and a few more plus some of the top traditional mixologists in Vegas like Lafranconi, Gleason, Sloan and Lauro. She thanks me for all the help and gets back to me with what she needs: a 5-minute audition tape showing one of my creations, a touch of flair, and a lot of personality. Apparently it’s for some random cooking show that will air next year and they’ve decided to feature a couple bartenders on the show. So they want us to do a drink demo modeled after a cooking demo and they want very “culinary” cocktails. Something upscale with obscure ingredients. Pretty much the opposite of everything I strive to do in drink design. Xania says she needs the tape in a week. Ouch. The rest of my week is booked; if I have time to an audition tape, it will have to be the night before it is due.

So… the night before the audition tape was due, I rolled it around in my head, came up with a basic recipe, ran to the store to buy a few things, returned home, pressed record on my camcorder, and by myself… recorded my audition tape. With one camera angle. In my kitchen. Poorly lit. In my PJs, I kid you not. In one take. Fuck it, I said. So I made up some half-concocted Lemon- Basil Mojito-esque long drink, threw a bottle around over my hardwood kitchen floor, and seven and half minutes later, I pressed the stop button. I burned off the tape to DVD and gave it to Xania.

Imagine my surprise when I got a call a few weeks later from somebody at the Food Network. Apparently, my audition tape was a hit. Come to find out they weren’t profiling a few bartenders, just one. Must have been the PJs. Turns out the entire project began with somebody at the production company doing the show, being a friend of a friend of Mr. Juice himself, Ken Hall. The producers took both Ken and Xania’s recommendations and asked for tapes from a short list of the top flair-mixologists in Vegas, of which I was one. The rest is TV history. (Sorry, Duece.) I still think it was the PJs.

I talked on the phone and via email with the shows producers for what felt like an eternity, lol. Probably how you feel reading my “57-page” columns, eh, McClicks? They wanted so much trophiesbackground for this random show. I had to prepare several hundred hi-res photos of me so they could choose them for the post production. And they kept asking about trophies. Trophies? Great. The guy who was competing back when they gave out handshakes for everybody but the top three. For all the finals I’ve been in, flair and mixology included, you’d never know it by my Trophy shelf. A lot of you guys have a trophy case, cabinet, or wall. Delpech has a room. I have one tiny little shelf. When I made the finals of Quest, Legends and the Cayman Masters there were no trophies or plaques. Most of the mixology competitions I’ve been in were also devoid of any kind of hardware for the finalists. So I took pictures of the few trophies I have and answered daily emails, all for this random cooking show, that the producers told me was so new and under development, they didn’t even have a working title for it yet.

The show’s producers started asking me to set up some location-based shoots, too. They wanted to follow me around to a grocery store to buy my ingredients. They wanted to follow me around to a restaurant supply store. They wanted to get me doing whatever it is I do for a living. And they wanted me to set up all of these location-based shoots for them. What started as a favor to a friend for what I imagined was just another quick, fun, easy TV shoot… was quickly turning into a full-time, unpaid job. Right when business was busiest and also right after a surgery that left me less than 100% over the course of the 6-week recovery period. I have to confess: I thought about backing out more than once. But that’s not my style.

The show’s producers also wanted to throw this “unveiling” party for me where I would make a couple award-winning cocktails along with this new specialty “signature” cocktail that they wanted me to showcase especially for Food Network for 40-50 people they were inviting. At noon on a Wednesday in a Vegas Nightclub. And I had a $500 budget to buy everything. Look, I can barely throw a kegger and a BBQ for a dozen of my college buddies on $500 let alone one BarMagic‘s high-end, gourmet mobile cocktail bars. I would need $500 just for product, let alone anything else. Now I was really starting to wonder about this show. At least they were inviting people to this party, because nobody I know in Vegas is up at noon and even if they were, the last thing any local in the business wants to do is head down to the Strip to stand around a nightclub at the crack of 12 noon.

trav-teBut I’m a good sport and try to be as flexible as possible with TV producers. They were really cool, nice people after all. And shit, I once flipped shampoo bottles in the shower for a TV show at the request of the producers and then followed that up with a staged jog around the neighborhood flipping bottles. I’ll do just about anything once. Like the time I got talked into standing on top of a go-go dancer’s light box to flip bottles for the Travel Channel. Outside on the deck of the 51st floor of the VooDoo Lounge. At night. With no lights. Except the annoyingly bright lights of the camera directly in my face and the light from the go-go dancers box that was also blinding me. In the wind. With no mats. Uphill. In the snow. Both ways. ( -Cosby).

rrs-sign1 I thought all these requests were more than a little weird but was so busy with other client work, I didn’t waste two minutes putting all the pieces together. Like a good little soldier, I just gave the producers whatever they wanted. The crew arrived and we began shooting at 10am on a Tuesday at a Whole Foods store 30 minutes from my house. Whatever shots they wanted, I gave them. Later that day we stopped by Rick Barcode and Mike Taing‘s 24-hour Mixology Bar & Grill, The Red Room Saloon. Since The Red Room is one of my clients, the producers wanted to include that in my “profile.” So we staged a flair-mixology training of a couple of the Red Room’s bartenders, Lindsay and Shaun, and I did some flair while I prepared this new cocktail I was to create for Food Network. You remember, the cocktail I just made up in my head an hour before I filmed my audition tape? The same cocktail I hadn’t actually even tested yet. Yea, that one.

That night we swung by the VooDoo Lounge, and once again, I found myself flipping bottles in the dark, in the wind, outside in 106 degree heat with bright camera lights in my face. Only broke one bottle this time. New record, lol.

For the party the next day, I call my old wing-man, barback (and bartender) extraordinaire Bryant Sanderson, who had my back for a couple years at Tangerine and ask if he’ll help me out with this staged party. His wife gave birth a couple days prior, but he says “no problem.” Wow. Thank G-d he was there to help. I had one last curveball thrown at me, no joke, on the drive down to Caesars that forced me to flip a bitch and high-tail it back to my place. So now I am running late to this event. I have not been late to one of my own events in four years. So now I’m a little pissed, very stressed, and definitely behind the eight-ball with my prep.

Bryant and I bust it out and somehow get everything ready to make three different cocktails by 1pm. The shoot is to start at 1:15pm. Now, if you’ve ever catered a cocktail party before, you know it’s a ton of work setting up, prepping, etc. But imagine now the whole thing is staged for TV which also means:

1. No music
2. You have to re-do every other motion you make so the cameraman can get the perfect shot
3. Every single person in the room is staring at you while they sit there hot, bored, and thirsty and you’re making one drink at a time, for the cameras

RaspMojave1We made the most of it and had as much fun as possible. I actually started really having fun with the crowd and things were going pretty well. The only snag was I was really nervous about the “unveiling” of this drink I had designed especially for Food Network. I was locked into a lemon and basil mojito-like creation from my audition tape and so the night before the crew arrived I finalized (most of) the recipe, which was inspired from my recent trip to Africa, opening Sequoia’s Cocktail Bar & Restaurant. I took a South After8African Spirit called Mainstay Cane, combined it with some fresh lemon, brown sugar, Basil, and Finest Call Sweet n’ Sour Mix. I thought it was pretty tasty, but certainly nothing that was going to win a competition or take home any drink design awards. It needed more work, more tinkering, and something to balance out all the tart lemon going on in it. But I tasted it the day of the shoot at the Red Room as did a few others, and actually, it was a winner. Not a first-place trophy winner, but it would sell on any cocktail menu. So I was pretty happy. Still, this was a totally unproven recipe I was making for about the second time in my life, for Food Network.

Thankfully, they asked me to make two other of my cocktails, so I brought the ones that helped me earn some hardware at the 2004 and 2005 Blue Blazer Competitions including the 2005 Mixology Champion trophy. My Raspberry Mojave and my After Eight Martini (renamed The Aspen Mint Martini for TV because After Eight is a trademarked candy). Now these two cocktails I know would win just about any competition I entered them into. I take them to almost all my private events an they are always a huge hit. I’ve been making both and perfecting both recipes for more than six years. Those two cocktails were bulletproof. But the newly unveiled creation I dubbed (the night before, lol) the Serengeti… it wasn’t ironclad.

And wouldn’t you know it, right in the middle of making what was probably the 5th Serengeti of my life, like a total rookie bartender, I finally notice, that standing right in front of my face, at my bar, staring at me, is none other than Iron Chef Bobby Flay. I’ll let you watch my reaction for yourself but suffice it to say, I flipped the fuck out. After screaming out “Holy Shit” on camera and nearly walking off the bar, we shook hands and Chef Flay asked if would go head to head with him in a cocktail competition. Right then and there.

Hell ya. bobby_flay_d

If you’ve been snoozing under a rock, Chef Bobby Flay is one of the original three American Iron Chefs along with Emeril Lagasse and Mario Batali and currently has five different prime-time shows on Food Network including the Emmy-nominated “Boy Meets Grill. He also owns and oversees five of his own restaurants in New York, New Jersey and Las Vegas and has a half dozen published cookbooks out there. In fact, for two years I walked by one of his signature restaurants, Mesa, at Caesars Palace on my way into work at PURE Nightclub. How prophetic that we would meet and do battle right there, in both our own backyards, so to speak.

I still had no idea what was going on. I figured he was just making a cameo in this show since his restaurant Mesa is right next store, to help boost ratings for this new show. And I didn’t realize until I saw his team file in behind the bar with all their gear, what was going on.

Oh shit.

throwdown_showpage_smHe ain’t playin’ around. This is for keeps, son. I’m actually going to compete against Bobby Flay in a cocktail competition on national TV. Maybe you guessed it: I was yet another unsuspecting victim of the new hit Food Network Series Throwdown with Bobby Flay where Chef Flay challenges the top experts in specific disciplines to an impromptu, or should I say ambush competition. I know what you’re thinking: how the hell did Food Network get the idea that I am the top expert in mixology?? No clue. Really. I just sent in my audition tape and a bio with my background and awards and they picked me. (Told you it was the PJs.) Actually, I think it was a combination of a lot factors. I am the first publicly declare I am not a classicly-trained mixologist nor consider my self in the same league as top professionals like Tony Abou-Ganim, Dick Bradsell, Salvatore Calabrese, Gary and Margaret Regan, Bobby Gleason, Francesco LaFranconi, etc, etc. But I think the the fact that I flair and that they wanted to do this episode in Vegas really narrowed their choices. So my guess is that from the audition tapes, I was perhaps the leading candidate who has excelled at mixology and flair, who happened to be “best for TV.” I’ll take it.

So back to where we started in this whole mess. What you would do if I called you and gave you three days to prepare to compete against an Iron Chef in a cocktail competition with a recipe you had never made before? Now imagine your competition is a guy who has his own show where he is planning on beating you down, lol. And he has a Food Network test kitchen, a crew of assistants, and a couple of weeks to plan his sneak attack on you. Did I mention he put in some time behind the wood in preparation with mixologist Dale DeGroff? Short of being hog-tied and hand-cuffed, I’m not sure what else could flayellis2have been in Chef Flay’s favor to win. Unless my mom and my aunt were judges. Which I was seriously hoping for. But still, we were on my turf and this wasn’t a chili cook-off. This was cocktails and I knew I had as good a chance of winning as anybody who was thrown into this position. So game on.

The throwdown was an absolute riot; definitely one of the highlights of my career. Chef Flay is a great guy and was a great sport about the whole thing. We had a great time competing. I lobbied the producers to let me make the Raspberry Mojave or the as my official competition cocktail because I knew there was no way he could beat that drink. No dice. I had to make and enter the totally unproven, unrefined Serengeti. Now I knew it would be close. And it was. Incredibly. Strangely enough, both our cocktails looked strikingly similar. (I wonder if he has some inside intel on my recipe. Hmmm….) It was looking too close to call. In fact, I found out later the producers told the judges no ties were allowed which is interesting, because the judges said otherwise, it would have been. Speaking of judges:flayellis1

Who strolls in as judges but the two people who unbeknownst to me had been setting me up the whole time: The Las Vegas Weekly’s Xania Woodman and High Spirits Ken Hall. Ya got me. Now maybe you’re thinking: perfect, you got this thing in the bag because you’re in with the judges. Let me tell you something about Xania and Ken: both have impeccable morals. I knew they were going to judge us unbiased and without an agenda. If I was to thrown down the Iron Chef, it would be on my own merit and nothing else.

Was I nervous? Only about the cocktail. Personally, I was like a kid in a candy store during the shoot with Chef Flay. The criteria our cocktails were to be judged on were:

1. Presentation
2. Aroma & Taste
3. Marketability (including how practical/well designed the cocktail was for people, especially women to drink and carry around in a busy nightclub)

outkast1Would have been nice to know any of that before the competition. But for as much time as I make a point of singing other people’s praises who deserve it, make no mistake: this kid knows how to perform under pressure and he can also make a pretty decent drink. Despite being totally blind-sided and caught with my pants down, this was the competition I had been waiting for my entire career. There may have been no music playing in the club that afternoon, but the moment I realized exactly what had just been dropped on me, I could hear the DJ in my head drop the vinyl and turn up the volume. Or maybe that was just my heart beating so loud I thought it was the bass line from Outkast’s Whisper in Your Ear.

In total there were six “points” to be won based on the three criteria from the two judges. One of us won four of those points, the other won two. I’m contractually bound not to tell you how it turns out so if you want to watch for yourself, check your local listings or the Food Network website. The episode is tentatively scheduled to air September 21st at 10pm.

p.s. My name is Tobin. Behind the wood I go by Toby. At heart I’m just a bartender but to a lot of the world I’m a Nightlife Developer, Drink Designer, Flair Specialist… or whatever other labels the media or my website slaps on me this week. When I’m not throwing down with an Iron Chef, I’m often on a plane writing about it or some other random adventure. Sometimes I fly business class, sometimes I’m in coach. Because as much as the world seems to be finally opening up to the idea of “Celebrity Bartender” we’re still slinging drinks in the shadows of the world’s great chefs. Maybe I should start making a Jagermeister Risotto. Or at least, a Tuna Colada. Until next time, just remember that no matter how much more glory chefs get than bartenders, the one universally unique privilege a bartender reserves that no chef will ever will, is to utter magic words: You’re Cut Off. And let’s be honest, sometimes, even if it’s wrong, it feel good to cut somebody off. Most of the time you’re doing them a favor, too. Sometimes, it’s just a fun thing to say to get sober but obnoxious people to shut up. Try it sometime. You have my permission.


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