Monday, March 31, 2008

Mixologist: Peter Vestinos

Luckily, Peter loves a challenge. For the last nine months or so, he has lived in a frenzied whirlwind of mixology. He joined Sepia in June 2007 as part of a 3-person bar team. However, his talented colleagues were quickly consumed with many of the other details of getting the restaurant open, and the entire cocktail program soon became his sole responsibility. He’s also competed (and done very well) in several major cocktail competitions this year, with more to come.

Peter is surprisingly humble, and grateful for the opportunity at Sepia. Although he had been behind the bar for several years, his interest in cocktails had primarily been built as a hobby before Sepia. At the Tasting Room, his prior haunt, he had the occasional cocktail request. However, the Tasting Room is really known for their wine selection, and that was his primary area of focus there.

Looking for Something
Back in 2000-2001, cocktails weren’t really on Peter’s mind unless he was out for the evening.
He was working in television production, mostly doing corporate promotional videos for large companies. As Peter put it, he was the “middle person” between the corporate client and the film crew, and it involved “long, long hours and bad pay.” He began bartending on the side at Cyrano’s for extra cash, and quickly found that he could make more money (and have more fun) behind the bar. Eventually he burned out on the TV game, and was introduced to the owner of the Tasting Room. He started there full-time in 2004. The Tasting Room was a great place to learn about wine, and he was able to meet a wide range of people from the beverage industry. But in mid-2007, it became time to move on and do something else, and he knew cocktails had to be a bigger part of his next opportunity.

The Unforgettable Cocktail
A Whiskey Smash changed his view of cocktails forever.
Sometime in 2005, Peter read about the Pegu Club and just knew he had to go there. He did so on his next trip to NYC, and he found an entirely different way of looking at a cocktail program. No vodka on the back bar, fresh ingredients, all in-house syrups and other ingredients. And the Whiskey Smash that tickled his taste buds told him that they were onto something.

Back in Chicago, he started collecting cocktail books and playing around with recipes and ingredients as often as he could. He also started conducting “field research,” which continues to be one of his favorite pastimes.

Sepia’s Drinks
I asked Peter to tell me about his goal for the program, and he said that he wasn’t “trying to reinvent the cocktail” because that wouldn’t really fit at Sepia.
Instead, he aims to provide a cocktail menu that is on a comparable level to the other menus at Sepia. Peter’s view is that a quality restaurant, where you have access to purveyors of good produce, should offer a beverage menu should be of the same caliber as the food menu. Like Sepia’s chef, Kendal Duque (click on "The Team" for bio), Peter focuses on seasonal, fresh ingredients. And he does all the work himself – from making syrups, bitters and tinctures (thanks to inspiration from John Kinder at MK) to developing the menus, ordering supplies and training staff.

For spring, he is working with floral flavors (especially Crème de Violette), and looking to go lighter & brighter with the cocktails. He hopes to build his knowledge of rum and mescal this year.

Always the Comedian (Really)
Peter has always been into comedy.
He told me about sneaking out of bed in elementary school to watch Johnny Carson until his parents caught him and sent him back to bed, and that his family has a strong interest in classic comedy (Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, Carol Burnett, etc.). He started writing sketches in high school, and has continued his writing since then. He also dabbled in acting in college, and when he first arrived in Chicago, he took some classes at Second City. He continues to write and perform with his three-man sketch group, 37Foxtrot, and on his own.

Unfortunately, Peter reports that the Chicago sketch comedy scene isn’t what it used to be, despite the tremendous talent here. That, coupled with the all-consuming launch of Sepia’s beverage program, has meant Peter hasn’t been very involved in it lately. He really hopes to get back to writing and performing soon. He has a big part in a local film coming out this summer, Chicken Cargo – and you can see some of his work here, here and here (video links).

Fast Facts

  • Find him: Wednesday, Thursday, Friday or Sunday evenings are usually safe bets. He is sometimes behind the scenes concocting syrups and other cocktail ingredients.

  • What to order at Sepia: Peter’s favorite drink changes daily; ask him what he’s in the mood to make.
  • Favorite Hangouts: When he’s not at Sepia and has time to go out, he loves the Matchbox, the Long Room (one of the best beer lists in the city), and Ten Cat Tavern.
  • Test Drink: Depends on who is bartending and where he is - Peter orders beer or bourbon unless he’s sure he’ll get a well-crafted cocktail.

  • On a Deserted Island: he’d want a citrus press and a source for fruit, and ice.

  • Personal Life: Sorry folks, Peter’s got a girlfriend, Gallit Greenspoon. Gallit is the producer for Check, Please!, so between the two of them, they pretty much have great eats and drinks covered.

  • Something you probably don't know: Peter is very committed to community service. He volunteers with Literacy Chicago, and is working on a very exciting project to help the people in the New Orleans hospitality industry (expect more details soon!)

Competitions and Recipes
Peter has done very well in the first three mixology competitions he entered (his most recent was placing 2nd in the country at the Shake it Up competition at the Las Vegas Nightclub & Bar Show last month).
He loves the challenge of competition, although he feels a bit of pressure now since he has done so well in his first three. His strategy (at least what he would tell me)? Cross off obvious choices and look for ingredients and flavors that will be fun to play with. He tries to be creative with presentation, but practical in a drink’s design.

Here’s one recent award-winning recipe (he won first place in the Chicago Iron Bartender competition last fall):

Indian Summer
1½ oz Cruzan Single Barrel Rum (or another quality aged rum)
½ oz Cranberry Liqueur
½ oz Maple syrup
¾ oz fresh lemon juice
Dry sparkling apple cider

Shake and strain over rocks in a collins glass. Top with cider.


Anonymous said...

Hi Peter. Is your last name Greek?

Peter Vestinos said...

Nai. My last name is indeed Greek. My father and my mother are both from Greece.