Kneading Lessons & a Learning Legacy on the Road with the Vetri Family

Growth happens when we are exposed to new things — or sometimes, the same things but new ways of doing them.  When we have those with the experience, passion and patience to teach us, something beautiful happens in the exchange.  An invitation to cook at the annual Great Chefs Event for Alex’s Lemonade Stand in Philadelphia last week presented such an opportunity for The Genuine Hospitality Group culinary assistant Dillion Wolff — to stage at Vetri Cucina, thanks to Michael and friend Marc Vetri.  A chef respected by his peers for his talent and heart, Marc has cultivated a stable of acclaimed chefs and restaurants since his flagship Vetri Cucina opened in Philly in 1998. It’s hard enough to be a for-profit business in this business, so 20 years is many lifetimes in the restaurant world, especially when you are also running a foundation in tandem.  Vetri Cucina set the tone and proved a solid foundation from which to build, recognized for the level of care taken in honoring and elevating the traditional Italian kitchen.  Its special tasting menu has minted this gem in the canon of American dining and won multiple James Beard Awards for its offspring, Jeff Michaud and Mike Solomonov to name a few.  If Marc is the OG progenitor, Vetri Cucina is the primordial Italian wedding soup.

The dining experience at Vetri is an ode to the mother country and its love of food unlike any other. In addition to the dining room, guests can arrange for private dinners, as well as partake in cooking classes on site.  As Dillion found out, perhaps the education most important happens daily among its cooks in service — a recipe of teamwork and technique.  It’s a place where bread, pasta and even polenta made from scratch means milling the flour in house.

“Going into it there were a few things I was curious about, like making fresh pasta, for example,” Dillion reflected on the phone Monday.  “How they run service is so different than Harry’s or Genuine Pizza — even Michael’s Genuine or Amara.  We are talking a 30 seat restaurant where 40 covers is a crazy busy night.”

TGHG Culinary Director Bradley Herron snagged Dillion for his team in February 2017 from Michael’s Genuine, where he had been working the line for a year after interning there during culinary school.  The culinary assistant role is a unique one, providing support to all Genuine group entities — from Amara at Paraiso to Fi’lia in the Bahamas to our commissary kitchen — with ongoing training, their chefs with last minute help on the line, working Michael Schwartz Events including private parties from cocktail receptions to cooking classes and off-site catering, and handling special projects.  Really everything under the sun.  Most recently, Dillion worked with the Genuine Pizza cookbook team on a week-long photoshoot.  The 150 pictures of recipes and lifestyle shots due to publisher Abrams Books quickly became 180, including several step by step instructive images for which he and colleague Brandon Green served not only as prep cooks but subjects.

Some of the Genuine Pizza cookbook photo wall, most of Dillion’s hands!

“This job requires flexibility and versatility, but it demands a good attitude,” Bradley explained.  “You have to be able to jump in to help and get things done at a moment’s notice, and they need to be done right. Dillion is as fast as he is proficient, but these are strengths that as a cook you always want to be improving upon.  That comes with experience, time on the line and repeated exposure to new environments and things.”

Dinner at Vetri is conceived based on each table, and everything isn’t the same.  The on the fly structure is part of the challenge, the fun and the instruction.

“It was cool to see how dynamic the approach is with the tasting menu,” Dillion reflects.  “It’s not just what the chef wants to do, it’s trying to make the diner’s experience as custom and to their tastes and food preferences as possible.”

The first day, Dillion was a fly on the wall for service, and they would make him an extra of each dish to taste. Tuesday was spent with the baker, milling fresh flour and baking bread.  He worked service with “pasta guy” and also helped with private events upstairs.

“Matt, the executive chef… On Monday he was the dishwasher.  I mean, it really sets the tone when the first courses come in heavy and the pasta cook comes in to help put it out.  You could tell in the kitchen that it was a huge team effort,” he reflected. “Everyone will do whatever. The whole operation is impressive, the attention to detail and craft but also people being genuine with each other — and incredibly welcoming to me.  They didn’t want to ask me to do things, like the stuff that’s not glamorous, and I’m there to work and to do anything. I had so many questions and no one got annoyed with me!”

The City of Brotherly Love indeed. Something we can all benefit from emulating!  Follow Dillion on Instagram @dillion_wolff.

It Takes Two to Tango the Amara Beverage Book — Part I: Cocktails

“Challenge accepted!” Amanda exclaims, but Maria is up first.

I’ve asked two bright lights in Miami’s beverage industry, Amara at Paraiso Sommelier Amanda Fraga and Assistant Manager Maria Pottage, to join me for happy hour at Michael’s Genuine® Food & Drink.  The agenda is to better understand Amara’s beverage program and the origins of its pièce de résistance — The Beverage Book. To get there, we’re breaking the ice by choosing each other’s drinks.  Well, I’m actually letting the professionals handle the selections — Amanda on wine and Maria on cocktails, just like their roles at the restaurant — to focus on the interview, note-taking, and, of course, the drinking.  My hunch is this device will reveal as much about their approach to the program at our newest restaurant, as it will about the game they play to balance the leanings of their own palates with consideration for guest preferences.  It’s quite possibly where the skill lies in making a good list a successful one.  It must perform at the bar and in the dining room.

Maria begins with Dead Presidents, which she’s set before me, polished and smooth but pretty boozy — a stirred cocktail with Camus V.S. Congac, Basil Hayden Bourbon, Redemption Rye, Green Chartreuse, and Pink Peppercorn Syrup. “I felt like you would like something with Bourbon.  This cocktail has a lot of depth and at the same time it’s really balanced.  I was also curious about the pink peppercorn.”

Oh the places you’ll go…

For Amanda, it’ll be the Mezcal Paloma, a welcomed palate cleanser after a day tasting over a 100 wines at United Way’s annual Best in Glass competition. “Luckily we had a lunch break!” she jokes.

Maria continues, “It’s early in the afternoon, and I thought Amanda might need it after a day like today. I also love mezcal.  She has been very generous with me, so I wanted to give her something I like. I overlooked the agave habanero at first, but I’m looking forward to trying that.”

T&T, matched with chilled Atlantic shrimp.

For herself, Maria chooses the Jungle Plaza, a cocktail akin to the T&T at Amara which matches Campari with Tequila. “It’s hard to balance Campari with other spirits because it can be pretty forward.  You don’t want it to overpower the other ingredients.  I saw the rum and pineapple juices, which have the backbone to stand up.  It’s a classic combination, and makes me think of the Jungle Bird.  The strawberry-infused Campari interests me — how much can it take in an infusion.”

While a student of Business Management in Peru, Maria had the opportunity to go on a student exchange program at a ski resort in California, and then at the Grand Canyon National Park. She worked at one of the hotels there and when she saw how much fun the F&B staff was having, how were they able to create great experiences for their guests on a day-to-day basis, she wanted in.

Maria in action behind the Amara bar.

“Being from Peru, where food and beverage is an integral part of our culture, the rest was just a natural step,” she explains. “I was instantly hooked and became obsessed with everything food and beverage related.  Books, restaurants, films… but especially about the power of hospitality.”

About a year and a half ago, Maria had just returned from a trip to Tulum and happened to meet Michael Schwartz one night when he was out for drinks at a Peruvian restaurant in Miami where she was then Beverage Director.  Although she had heard of Chef and the Genuine Hospitality Group, she didn’t know Michael personally at the time, nor could recognize him.

Maria game to chat beverage on her day off, just one of the reasons we love her.

“His guests were celebrating a birthday and having what seemed like a good time, and so I sent something to the table,” she continues.  “They asked me what Pisco was so I went and did a little tasting for them and then we exchanged cards. And that’s how we began the dialogue that ultimately brought me to Amara.  When I heard about the project, it felt like all those things that I loved about Tulum, somehow uniting a feeling of being far away but being in the middle of everywhere. Timing wasn’t right then, but we kept in touch.”

The grills, the beach and the water — what it means to be Miami and the experience of Latin American culture — is reflected in Maria’s drinks in a few ways.  It was important to have first and foremost good representation from Latin American spirits, but unique global brands were essential for a serious list with character and balance.  Part of her role is discovering new product and producers, and to ignore the rest of the world would be a disservice to guests and the bar.

“The beverage program is meant to complement Amara at Paraiso’s food,” she says.  “We are inspired by Latin American ingredients, just as we are by artisanal producers of spirits and winemakers. Miami as the epicenter of this tasting melting pot: diverse, exciting, and fun.”

She’ll say it sounds like an easy-out, but her favorite cocktail on the list really depends on her mood.  We say, good answer to a difficult and loathed question.

“It’s hard for me to pick one I like above the rest.  They are all different and each exist for a reason on our menu,” she says. “If I am craving something refreshing and easy to drink I definitely want to start with a Tulum Spritz. For a cocktail with more body but also citrus forward, I love our Nikkei Sours made with pisco and Japanese whisky. And for a drink that can well start or finish a meal, Monkey Business seems to be a perfect fit, with rum, bourbon, and banana liqueur. It’s like asking a mother to pick a favorite child.”

With a book so rich with content, the possibilities for exploration are endless, especially when you consider food pairings.  To me, and I suspect especially to Maria and Amanda, it’s an endless journey with countless destinations and opportunities to learn, traveling to new places through the stories these drinks tell. It’s about tasting with context and knowing where things come from to understand what purpose they serve and why they were chosen.   As we continue to explore them in longer form here on the blog as a series, you can also follow along each week on Amara’s Instagram, where we highlight beverage on Wednesdays (wine) and Thursdays (cocktails, spirits, beer, and agua fresca.) The adventure has only just begun.  Enjoy Part II next week on Wine Wednesday when it’s Amanda’s turn.

Go Figure (It Out) | In Culinary Assistant Life, Attitude Is Everything

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Happy Chefs:  Bosslady and her bossman in the Harry’s Design District kitchen, full Beer Slam event mode this past summer.

“I don’t even know where to start,” she begins as we sit in my office on a Monday morning last month.  It’s as fitting a place as any given Ms. Hess’s new role.  Megan has been pretty much everywhere over the past six months since she was promoted to Culinary Assistant, quite a departure from where we last found her on the line at Michael’s Genuine®.  Yet, she’s often still on any given number of lines these days, depending on the day, even the minute, as she can get called from one venue to the next based on what’s going on.  With Megan fresh off Oasis of the Seas and in the corporate office finishing MGFD’s recipe book (“so I don’t get pulled away…”), I thought we could catch up for a hot minute on what chef life is like when you’re a culinary assistant, and what than means exactly.

img_1991“Yeah, so relaunching 150 Central Park… That was my first project,” Megan says of her transition from line cook.  “We actually began in March.  There was a photo shoot for the new dishes, and it was the week of St. Patrick’s Day. Everyone wanted me to go out, and I had to work the next morning at 9!”

Working on the ship menus turned out to be the perfect training for Megan’s new position — not only in learning how to teach people, but giving her a new found sense of independence and responsibility where she’d have to act as ambassador for the company.  In addition to developing and formatting recipes, testing dishes and shooting how to plate them — all done in Miami in advance — she would travel to the three ships to get menus online with Royal Caribbean’s team.  Brand new Harmony of the Seas kicked it all off across the Atlantic.  Snapshots of Megan’s journey overseas to meet the ship for its maiden voyage were an invaluable peek behind the scenes of the launch through fresh eyes.

That attitude tho.

Go Time: Megan holding it down at the Genuine’s Summer Series “OMG! Picnic & a Movie” featuring an Israeli feast off Lynx Grills.

“The first time I went on my own [to the ship] it was exciting, especially because it was first time I had left the U.S.!” she remembers.  “I flew into London, then eventually arrived in Southhampton where the ship was in port. I had no idea where I was going.  I didn’t have cell service or a contact onboard, and I probably looked like a kindergartner lost in high school!  I just went to my cabin first to drop my bags and then to the venue. No one was there, because they were on break, so I just started by tasting some things.  That will tell you a lot.”

She held a meeting to hear from the staff on what was working and what wasn’t, then scheduled a full menu tasting for the second day taking lots of notes along the way and reporting back to the TGHG team through email.  Some corrections and tweaks were made. Nothing was insurmountable, she recalled thinking.

Plating a dish for Michael Schwartz Events alongside Chef.

Plating a dish for Michael Schwartz Events alongside Chef.

“My goal was that when Brad and [Eric] Larkee showed up the day after, that they wouldn’t have to fix anything,” Megan continues.  “I’ve worked closely with Brad for two and a half years now, and I feel like I have a good idea of what he wants, not just from seeing how he works, but also because he tells me.  Also having the experience and time spent in the restaurants — knowing what our standards are — helps a lot.”

Megan identifies three big takeaways that she’s applied to working with the cooks in our kitchens on land: The importance of repetition, showing and doing hands-on rather than telling, and patience. We would add trust — in your support system, but also yourself.  “Problem solving is huge,” she adds.  “Prioritizing. Just getting in there and figuring things out.”

Processed with Snapseed.

Head down, working hard.

Brad also points to an asset you can’t really learn, but that he recognized in Megan from the get-go, essential to all his hires.

“From the very beginning it was about her attitude,” remarks the TGHG executive chef. “Whenever I ask her to do something, the response is ‘no problem’.  She’s on it and gets it done. It’s that can-do attitude that is really the bottom line for everyone right now and why Megan is so valuable.”

Brad also talks about her “universality”.  She has a potent, diverse knowledge base and the versatility that comes with it — Megan can be called upon to jump in anywhere and know what to do — or learn how to, quick.  It could be something planned, like prep for or execution of a Michael Schwartz Events party. Then there are the guaranteed fire drills in this business, like when a cook calls out at Cypress Tavern, Michael’s Genuine or Harry’s Pizzeria® and the restaurants need coverage.  Speaking to his confidence in her adaptability, Brad notes a hypothetical. “If we needed the support there, I could go tell her to go run Harry’s for a week.”

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Getting sh*t done at MGFD.

When we spoke, Megan’s attention was laser focused on Michael’s Genuine and its recent menu changes.

“I feel like it is a lot crazier than when we relaunched Cypress last year,” she reflected. “There, they handed me the new menu and were like ‘here is what we are doing’.  At Genuine, I’ve been a lot more involved, supporting Brad, but also Saul and the team in the kitchen. It’s been everything from foundational stuff like writing the recipes, figuring out how plates are going to look, portion sizes, and making the recipes solid so that anyone can make them.  A big part of it has been getting people onboard with the changes in training.  Everyone is excited in the back of house to learn the pickups — they are a little more complex and require more skill sets than the previous menu. Time management is key since a lot of the dishes take longer to make. That’s been something fun for me, a lot of new faces in the kitchen and being able to teach them, getting them to understand the way we do things here.”

Supporting at Fi’lia, Megan is experiencing a restaurant opening for the first time and she’ll be the first to admit not quite knowing what she or Brad is getting her into, but from the looks of it the young chef is just adding another arrow into her quiver.

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Warm Up: Megan’s view last week, working the Fi’lia oven’s first fire.

“It’s very exciting that Tim is there,” she says of Fi’lia Chef de Cuisine Tim Piazza, who was a sous chef at Genuine before transitioning to get Michael’s first Italian restaurant open. “I didn’t work with him a lot, but the time I did spend with him was great.  It’s a different relationship now. I see him as a great mentor.”

For all these changes, Megan happily admits, even reassures herself, that she doesn’t feel corporate. She can still get her hands dirty.

“That’s the thing that still excites me the most.  Jumping on the line and getting to cook.”

Welcoming New Menus & Chef de Cuisine Saul Ramos at MGFD

Welcome Saul

MGFD’s new CDC in our favorite spot.

At 10 Years, there’s just so much more Michael’s Genuine® Food & Drink to taste with a new chef de cuisine, Saul Ramos, to helm the kitchen.  On Tuesday, September 13, the next chapter in Michael’s Miami Design District flagship unfolds in menu format and content changes most notably at anchor services — first Dinner on Tuesday evening, then Lunch and Afternoon on Wednesday, with Brunch following on Sunday.

“When this little restaurant was still an idea back in 2006, we dreamed of cooking and serving food that would bring people together and make them happy,” Schwartz explains. “This is what drives us, the end goal. How we get there — to the root of what it means to be MGFD — changes, inspires us, and keeps us on our toes.”

Banh mi packed with shrimp paste and fried into a crispy crostini, with customary julienne pickled carrot and picked herbs.

Banh mi packed with shrimp paste and fried into a crispy crostini, with customary julienne pickled carrot and picked herbs.

Leek and Potato Crostada

Crostada as seen on @chefmschwartz’s instagram, with flakey, golden crust nailed to perfection by Pastry Chef MJ Garcia.

Our new Dinner menu begins in a familiar place with eight Snacks, where zesty newcomers like shrimp toast “banh mi” (9), sprouted lentil fritters with yogurt & watercress (8), and short rib croquettes with smoked paprika aioli (9) meet go-tos like classic deviled eggs (8), thick cut potato chips with pan fried onion dip (8) and crispy hominy with chile & lime (7).  Working the way down on Dinner, dishes are listed by size from small to large, starting with Salads, Vegetables, Pizza & Pasta, Fish and Meat, offering a variety of sizes and preparations within each section.

“Daily changes highlighting seasonal ingredients have always dictated our menu, but we wanted to facilitate guest engagement with it and call out things important to us like Vegetables and Salads,” explains Schwartz. “With Saul leading the back of house, we’re connecting with what we love about this place: making great food, cultivating talent and creativity in the kitchen, and exciting our guests in the dining room like they expect.”

Click for the new dinner menu (subject to change of course!)

Click for the new dinner menu (subject to change of course!)

Because Salads occupy an important place at the Schwartz table, there are five including Fennel & Celery Root with mint, arugula, almonds and pecorino (11), Gem Lettuce with pickled vegetables & tuna sauce (11), and Bitter Greens with apple, walnuts and blue cheese. The long time staple highlighting what’s fresh and in season, Stracciatella will continue to draw from ingredients on restaurant’s iconic food bar wall accented with basil, extra-virgin olive oil and sea salt. Vegetables include six dishes, from a three bite Leek & Potato Crostada with mozzarella & roasted garlic (9), to savory and satisfying Beluga Lentils with curried calabaza & pumpkin seeds (11). A current favorite, Wood Oven Roasted Eggplant, holds court with chickpeas, preserved meyer lemon, tahini, cilantro and freshly-made, piping hot pita from the hearth (10).

Always willing and able to make eggplant the star it truly is.

Always willing and able to make eggplant the star it truly is.

Ramos, who joined Michael’s Genuine earlier this year as Sous Chef, worked closely with Chef and The Genuine Hospitality Group Executive Chef Bradley Herron to hone the dishes.  Born in Mexico and raised in Chicago, from the very beginning Saul was the product of cultures at a crossroads, like the city he currently calls home. His sisters would say that when Saul was little, he would always talk about wanting to be a chef when he grew up. It’s not hard to imagine, since he was surrounded by inspiration in the Ramos household of his youth, filled with delicious aromas of his mother and grandmother cooking (always cooking!) Of all the meals shared at home with family, the one that sticks with Saul the most is Thanksgiving. The turkey was the star of course, but there was whole fish too, and an abundant spread of vegetables, side dishes, and sweets that the whole family participated in cooking. After all, his family immigrated to the U.S. 40 years ago, while some of his mom’s side still reside in San Luis Potosí, Mexico.

Saul entered restaurant life at 13 when his elder sister Berenice pulled him out of school. He was distracted in school, and she was dating a restaurateur at the time. So that’s where Saul’s story in the kitchen began, like the many others like it — thrown to the wolves at 14 to figure it out. He’ll talk about his mentor David Blonsky, and his importance to the arc of his career, but in the beginning it was all about steak. Lots of them, and he learned how to cook them perfectly on the line of a steakhouse in Chicago, by not overthinking it. He also loves making pasta, from the technique for mixing and sheeting dough, to shapes and the best ways to sauce them, especially noodles with a good Bolognese. After opening Siena Tavern in Chicago in 2013 under the guidance of chefs Fabio Viviani and Kevin Abshire, he moved to South Florida without a plan, which is sometimes the only way to have one.

And Pizza & Pasta have always been a part of the Genuine experience to look forward to, so now is no exception with two dishes each: Calabaza Agnolotti with house smoked bacon, cipollini, piave vecchio and thyme (18), Bucatini with roasted mushrooms, garlic, parsley, parmigiano and black truffle (18), Shiitake Mushroom Pizza with roasted leeks & fontina (18), and Braised Lamb Pizza with harissa, manchego, charred scallion and cilantro (19.)

Fish incorporates the Raw Bar’s oysters selection with a crudo and ceviche, adding tender, decadent Alaskan King Crab with green sambal (23). What’s local and running in Florida waters continues to form the foundation of dishes like Pan Roasted Tilefish with clams, bacon, green onion and green sauce (25), Wood Oven Roasted Grouper with red chermoula, fennel, tomato and olives (24) and of course the Wood Oven Roasted Whole Snapper with castelvetrano olives, calabrian chiles, parsley and grilled lemon (PA).

TGHG chef assistant Megan Hess holding it down with Saul in the kitchen.

TGHG chef assistant Megan Hess holding it down with Saul in the kitchen.

Comprised of eight dishes, Meat showcases the kitchen’s love of building layers of flavor, beginning with Stuffed Cabbage (12) where pork and beef are braised with spices. Posole Rojo (14) is dialed in with a rich broth and juicy pork belly, topped with a fried egg. Crispy Lamb Neck with chickpeas, cucumber, yogurt, dill and preserved lemon (16) and Braised Rabbit with saffron, apricot, green olive, cous cous and mint (19) hit an exotic note. The Genuine Burger is back, optimized with house smoked bacon and cheddar, lettuce, tomato, brioche bun and fries (21). Bigger dishes bookending the section include familiar, high quality proteins that drive flavor like Poulet Rouge Chicken, pan roasted and served with bitter greens & mustard sauce (22.) Slow Roasted & Grilled Short Rib gets the Vietnamese treatment with nuoc cham, bean sprouts, crispy shallot and peanuts (23.) Show-stopping 32oz Wood Oven Roasted Porterhouse with sour orange-onion marmalade (79) was chosen as a luxurious cut matched by rich, deep flavor.

Saul’s style is dynamic; he likes having fun in the kitchen, challenging himself to identify areas for improvement and innovation, and then research and find a solution. He believes in leadership that empowers his people and jumps at the opportunity to get down and dirty with the team in the trenches. “Understanding where this restaurant comes from, like sourcing its product, is key to embracing new ideas and the evolution to come. It’s all about dialing in the new menu now.  Then there’s season.”

 

Meet Melissa Welcher, Our New Head Bartender at Michael’s Genuine® Food & Drink

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When asked to mix a cocktail that speaks to her style, Melissa made us this Highwest Double Rye Manhattan, what she likes to drink.  She likes to add a little Cherry Herring to soften the sharpness of the rye.

Melissa Welcher’s approach to mixing drinks is culinary at the core, so she feels right at home at Michael’s Genuine, where she began behind the bar in July and now leads the program as Head Bartender.   Born and raised in a small village outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Melissa grew up with her parents and older sister cooking and baking all the time.  Her childhood was filled with travel and exploration thanks to a family that encouraged the kids to try new things.  After a blush with the fashion industry following college in Wisconsin, she moved to Miami to pursue her passion for culinary arts at Johnson and Wales.  Her culinary journey evolved in the green hills of Bavaria where on weekends she had the opportunity to work in kitchens across the region during a stage in a small town outside Nuremberg, Germany with a Master Chef.

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Friday night Happy Hour crowd at HQ.

Melissa still enjoys cooking and often tries new recipes in her home kitchen, but today the front of house is where she feels most fulfilled, interacting with guests and experiencing the satisfaction on their faces from an exceptional meal.

“I was attracted to the bar because I love making something and seeing people enjoy it,” Melissa explains. “My approach is to keep it simple with as little as three but probably no more than six quality, craft ingredients per cocktail.  The food at the table is just as an important as what I can offer behind the bar, so it’s important that our drinks complement the menu, not overpower it.”

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Cucumber Cooler, a new cocktail with house-infused dill & cucumber Absolut Vodka, dill, lime, soda, Maldon salt.

True to Melissa’s background, her team’s performance behind the bar depends on its mise en place.  “Checking your set up” as she refers to it, is essential, from making sure all the ingredients they need for service are prepped out, to the tools they need are at hand.  The most important in her kit is (“Definitely!) a jigger.

“The cocktails I like to drink are classics, which are by definition simple,” she says.  “When you don’t have that many ingredients, it really makes a difference.  If you don’t measure them correctly, it can completely ruin the cocktail.”

The Genuine bar is more food driven than ever lately, with the addition of the Raw Bar and extended Afternoon menu last year.

“Working behind the bar, you notice that people tend to eat more than just snacks at happy hour here.  They’re enjoying more complete meals,” she reflects.  “I have a great opportunity to pair cocktails with food.  Our guests are most used to pairings with wine, sure, but they are open to trying new things — especially at the bar.”

When Melissa develops a menu, one of the most important things she keeps in mind is that not everyone is necessarily going to love the drinks she likes.  It’s key that everyone can find something they like on a list. It’s a fun challenge too in crafting cocktails to coax out the flavors you want in the ingredients.

“I think my culinary background helps a lot in training my palate and working to express the best out of the ingredients,” she explains.  “When you are creating a dish, you are trying to imagine the final product, what you are going to experience when you eat it.  It’s trial and error a lot of times which is the fun part.”

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Rum & Eve incorporated oven-roasted apples to bring out their flavor.

Take for instance, the new Rum & Eve.   Melissa was playing around with rum and apples for a while.   She tried muddling them, then making a shrub.  How could she nail the essence of apple flavor without processing six apples for one drink, nor making it too sweet?

“We roast them in the wood oven, then juice them,” she says. “It’s a combination of Granny Smith and Honeycrisp, with the perfect ratio to get the right tang and sweetness.”

Melissa is also keen that no spirit be a “unitasker” behind her bar.  She uses Diplomatico rum for Rum & Eve, a Venezuelan rum that is meant for sipping, but really plays well in this preparation.  A spirit like this can be great on its own, but should also be able to function mixed in a drink.

“Eric [Larkee] has a really great palate, so he’s always challenging me in a good way,” Melissa explains.  “We tried the Rum & Eve about seven different times before we were like yes this is IT.   He’ll point out it needs something, but won’t tell me what it is he’s thinking.  It’s a fun back and forth we have, and it’s been very productive so far!”

Her team at the bar all likes to drink different things, so she’s banking on that diversity to create solidarity with the staff and program, which will work to support small batch spirits and quality, favorite brands as it comes together.

“If you are really passionate about something, it’s contagious,” she reflects.  “Soigné was something I learned in culinary school on day three.  To take care of and take pride in.  You do it 100% whether you are doing it just for now or for the rest of your life.”