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Joel Harrison on the link between chefs and spirits

Chefs are still seen as the true masters of flavour, says Joel Harrison - it's about time they showed the same level of reverence as their bartender counterparts towards the world's finest spirits

Words by Joel Harrison

bartender garnishing cocktail
The Collection

‘Oui, chef!’ The first time I heard this phrase used in a bar, I was a little thrown. The establishment I was in didn’t serve food, and neither was I in France. Yet here was one bartender addressing another with the most Escoffieresque of phrases. It got me thinking, musing into my Martini, about the relationship between the kitchen and the bar. Was the use of this phrase culinary appropriation? Maybe it was a case of bartenders subconsciously bowing to chefs, stealing their language in the hope their profession will be taken just as seriously… Because, let’s be honest, it is often assumed that the real taste-makers work with food – that all the thought-leaders in flavour can be found in the kitchen.

Take the aforementioned culinary king, Auguste Escoffier. Undoubtedly the father of modern cooking, Escoffier pioneered much of what we see today in a professional kitchen – from the dance of the (bite) brigade, to the codification of the five ‘mother sauces’ that begat almost everything you see on a plate of food today. Next time you’re debating between red or brown sauce on your bacon sandwich, you can thank Monsieur Escoffier. Even at breakfast, he is the ghost at your table.

Thanks to the work of some high-profile chefs, spirits are slowly being elevated to their rightful place, alongside wine, as the perfect ballast to flavour-rich foods

Once Auguste had honed his skills in France, he moved to London – first to The Ritz hotel and then, in 1890, to The Savoy, where he invented such classics as the peach Melba pudding. Fast-forward 30 years to 1920, and at the same hotel a young bartender who had fled the Prohibition-era USA was back home in England making cocktails for the upper crust at London’s poshest establishment. At this time, The Savoy had – as it still does today – an American Bar, so called because of the trend for mixed drinks that first surfaced in the States. It was here that Harry Craddock made his name, going on to pen and publish what is considered to be an all-time classic, The Savoy Cocktail Book, a drinking guide that is still in print to this day.

Craddock’s impact on bar culture was immense. He founded the UK Bartenders Guild and invented such classics as the Corpse Reviver No.2 and the White Lady, cocktails you will still find on menus in many of the world’s best bars. Craddock continued to cement his ‘startender’ status in the British capital, moving on to The Dorchester and then to Brown’s Hotel in Mayfair. And yet, when he died in 1963, he was buried in a pauper’s grave. By contrast, at the age of 73, Escoffier was made Knight of the Legion of Honour, and the house in which he was born was transformed into the Musée de l’Art Culinaire years after his death and run by a foundation that was established in his name.

chef tom aikens cooking in borough market with laphroaig
Chef Tom Aikens cooking up a smoky storm in partnership with peaty Scotch brand Laphroaig (Photo: Food Story Media)

It couldn’t be more of a contrast, and it would be a leap to say things have changed dramatically since in the way the two professions are perceived. Despite the simple shared vision between chefs and bartenders – to delight customers with their creations – chefs are still seen as the doyens of flavour. While top bartenders do a brilliant job, the truth is that the world of spirits needs chefs to be more engaged with distilled drinks and to turn up the heat on promoting their tapestry of tastes to an audience of flavour lovers.

The good news is that change is certainly afoot. Thanks to the work of some high-profile chefs, spirits are slowly being elevated to their rightful place, alongside wine, as the perfect ballast to foods rich in flavour. For evidence, Gordon Ramsay has worked on a gin with St Andrews-based Scottish distiller Eden Mill; celebrated chef Tom Aikens has partnered with Laphroaig, one of the more complex, smoky single-malt whiskies; the three brothers behind El Celler de Can Roca, twice named the best restaurant in the world, have a long-standing relationship with The Macallan and serve measures of their own collaboration with the distillery alongside their dishes at the restaurant. At the time of writing, one of the world’s leading restaurants, The Fat Duck in Bray, features an ice-cold gin Martini as part of its ‘wine pairing’ selection. Not quite a rolling revolution just yet, but this is certainly a good start.

chefs the roca brothers in the kitchen with the macallan whisky bottle
The Roca brothers of El Celler de Can Roca have collaborated with The Macallan on a series of limited-edition single malts (Photo: Jordi Esgleas)

For this culinary tidal shift to continue – with spirits posed as a genuine alternative to wine – chefs need to dig deeper into their drinks cabinets. If they do, they’re sure to uncover more exotic flavours, more exciting aromas and even some drinks that work in food, not just with food, be it a smoky Scotch, an earthy Armagnac, an aged Tequila or indeed an ice-cold cocktail. Oui, chef – keep singing the praises of fine spirits, and we may soon have a real flavour revolution on our hands.

Illustration of Joel Harrison with whisky in hand
By Joel Harrison

Joel Harrison is an award-winning spirits writer, and a contributing editor at Club Oenologique.