Drinker of the Month: Nicole Barker, president of the United States Bartenders Guild Reno Chapter talks about cocktail contests, opening her own restaurant and turning Reno into a real food and drink haven
Drinker of the Month is an ongoing monthly series where we spotlight someone in the community who brings joy to our taste buds. Brewers, bartenders, distillers, sommeliers, restaurant owners, farmers and many others help us enjoy life just a little bit more every day. This is an ode to them. If you want to nominate someone (or yourself) to be the next Drinker of the Month, visit the Contact page and send in your suggestion.
I met Nicole Barker at Napa-Sonoma on a quiet Sunday afternoon. At first, I made the mistake of not ordering the white wine she was already enjoying, but made up for it on my second glass. She was wearing a flower dress and a sheer scarf that never came off. A week later at The Z Bar I watched her practice making cocktails for an upcoming competition. Here she wore a tank top while a baby unicorn zip-up hoodie hung from a bar stool nearby. She wouldn’t put on the unicorn hoodie for pictures because it wasn’t cold enough yet. To me this somehow demonstrates Nicole’s adaptability.
Nicole is animated, excitable and infectious in everything she says. Her dominant personality influences the people around her and doesn’t make them feel little. She knows her shit too.
Mike Higdon: Tell me about the USBG.
Nicole Barker: We’ve only been a chapter for two years. When I lived in Sacramento I was a founding member of the Sacramento chapter. And when I moved back to Reno I decided to make extra work for myself, so I started the chapter here. It took about a year of beating my head against the wall trying to get anyone to care about anything other than Jack and coke in Reno.
We order the antipasta platter to share and Nicole orders the Cuban sandwich special with a side of kettle chips. She ended up not eating the chips. But I did because I lack manners.
NB: Two years ago Annalisa Rox and I started working at Cin Cin (pronounced Chin Chin) in the Eldorado. At the time, Cin Cin was a wine bar that only served Ferrari-Carano Wine in it because it’s Eldorado Land. But they let me have the reigns and we started doing the menu list concept there.
MH: What’s that?
NB: We did all fresh fruit, we took out all the sweet and sour mixes. Got rid of all the liquors. After we got all that rolling and replaced the back bar at Eldorado, then we started doing no menu. You’d come in, sit down and people would ask “Do you have a cocktail menu?” and we’d personalize the experience where we sit down and get to know what you like. We were the first to use simple syrups and fresh squeezed lemon, fresh squeezed lime and fresh squeezed grapefruit. And it was just Annalisa and I doing it. And it’s rare that you get two female bartenders that will work together and get along and build programs together.
MH: Why’s that?
NB: Girls don’t get along. You have a power struggle dynamic where one is in charge and the resentment grows and it just gets ugly.
The server brings out the antipasta dish and it’s seriously huge for $12. Probably a whole bushel of apples, tons of crustinis, big chunk of peppercorn brie and a bunch of other goodies. I should’ve taken a picture of it but I was trying not to be THAT guy.
MH: So what’s up with the competition you two were talking about on Facebook?
NB: World Class Diageo does an international competition every year. We’re going to Portland and doing the regional competition. It’s a scary competition. Usually you just go, make your three drinks and then you’re done.
MH: Someone drinks it and they decide? So what makes it scary?
NB: There’s three challenges this year. The first one is classics with a twist. So you have to make a classic cocktail then put your own twist on it and there’s a theme for it. The theme is day to night or night to day. You have to take a brunch cocktail and make it a night cocktail or vice versa. The second challenge is ritual theater. I was reading it like “what the hell does that even mean?”
MH: Anything that starts with the word ritual sounds scary.
NB: Right, blood sacrifices? So you have to take the bottle and the spirit in the raw form and create a ritual for how you would serve that. The best way I can describe that to other people is bone luging. Have you heard of that?
MH: Um, no.
NB: Jager started doing this thing where you eat the bone marrow out of the bone and then you pour the spirit through the bone hole and it’s supposed to enhance the flavor and it’s a ritual. You know how hard it is to come up with something that would stick from market to market or bar to bar? That’s damn near impossible.
Incase you’re still not sure what bone luging is all about.
MH: That sounds like fun!
NB: The next challenge is a speed round. It’s not a difficult speed round. It’s four cocktails in six minutes, which is no big deal. And you don’t have customers bothering you but you have to talk to the judges. And you have to make up your own drinks. The hardest part is trying not to beat yourself and make something too difficult that you can’t get done in the amount of time. Or going too easy and you made a rum and coke and someone else made a flaming daiquiri. You have to find the middle ground.
MH: But you can practice ahead of time?
NB: I’m actually doing a guest shift at Z Bar Sunday. They have all the stuff I need. I left the Eldorado in January and I haven’t tended a bar in three months and I’m terrified.
MH: What if you drop it??
NB: I’d be so embarrassed if I do. The speed round isn’t too bad.
Nicole relays a story about her little brother entering his first cocktail contests in Las Vegas where he forgot to use the gin in his gin drink. He was mortified.
MH: So what are you allowed to tell me about the mysterious restaurant?
NB: Very little, my husband says.
MH: Well I don’t know much about it at all so anything you say will be a surprise!
NB: I’ve been wanting to open my own place for a long time. Doing it in Reno made the most sense because I grew up here. We decided about a year ago we were actually going to do this. And we started looking for a property. My husband won’t let me jump into any passion project I have in my heart at the time. He’s very rational, which I am clearly not. So he’s constantly telling me no.
MH: I think that’s why people get married?
NB: Yeah, you have to balance out each other’s retarded. I get excited about things and go balls to the wall. I don’t do things that are intelligent or anything of that sort. I’m a female, I can’t help it. If I want it, I’ll have it! So after quite a bit of my husband telling me no…
MH: ‘Fine I’ll read something about business owning,’ geeze.
NB: Fine, I guess. We bought the property in April 2013.
MH: Where is it?
NB: It used to be a daycare with six tiny toilets on the corner of 6th Street and Elgin. My three year old is going to lose her mind when we take them out: ‘They’re just my size!’
MH: I assume there’s no kitchen.
NB: It was built as a duplex in the ’50s I think, then converted into a daycare shortly after. We had to take the building through entitlement which was very difficult. Probably the hardest thing I’ve had to do.
MH: Why’s that?
NB: I think lack of experience. If you don’t know how to deal with the city it’s a difficult learning curve.
NB: Yes because I assume everyone is like me and you know, when you come into my job and I’m serving you, I want to make you happy. That’s the goal. I want you to leave here with a little smile on your face and you’re going to tip me and everything is good. At the city, that is not how things work. It’s much more like the DMV where no one leaves happy.
MH: So it’s ‘Red Creole Fusion?’
NB: Yes, it’s Red Creole Fusion and everyone looks at me and says “what’s ‘Creole Fusion’ ” so I guess when you make up words and sentences and phrases and put them together in a way they’ve never been put together before, I guess you have to explain it to everyone. So first I have to explain Creole in Reno.
MH: What is ‘a Creole’ in Reno?
NB: Generally we’re talking Louisiana.
MH: The boot shaped one?
NB: The bottom state. We’re taking Louisiana Creole food and making it a fine dining spin and adding a worldly influence.
MH: Isn’t Creole already worldly?
NB: Yes and making it more worldly. And flip-flopping the influences. Of course you’re looking at French automatically and then South African and Caribbean.
MH: I never knew it was South African and Caribbean.
NB: Yeah, so we’re taking the traditional Creole, which is not all that traditional, and influencing it with more South African so you can see that influence, picking dishes apart, replacing ingredients that will make it different and more upscale. If you’ve ever eaten Creole food in Louisiana the problem is it’s really ugly.
MH: It’s not great food porn. It’s kind of brownish.
NB: Everything just looks like a bowl full of brown. Making it a bit more plate worthy and more approachable for the Reno market.
MH: Is Reno squeamish?
NB: They’re traditional. But they are starting to change. Beaujolais has a lamb-tongue salad and it is, by the way, amazing.
MH: I have to go there right now. We’ll have to continue this later.
NB: I was just happy to see something on the menu that wasn’t conventional. Not what everyone else dictates to be safe. I think the casinos really play it safe. Nobody does esoteric on a big scale. It’s not Claim Jumper style that is something for everyone. I mean, Cheesecake Factory, are you fucking kidding me, why? I’m so upset. I read that and (she makes a frustrated growling sound).
We digress into a conversation about 775 Gastropub being replaced by Cheesecake Factory and the problems of a novel-sized menu with everything, ever, on it.
MH: Do you have an opening date yet?
NB: We can’t give a date until the permits are totally approved. At this point we’re looking at June but a month ago we were looking at May. It will open it’s just that we’re at the mercy of other people at this point. The good part is that we have all the details down. Building menus and sanding down chairs. But it’ll be good before the building starts, so it’ll move so fast my head will spin and I’ll puke a few times. It’s a lot of hurry up and wait. Hold you breath (she holds her breath) and go.
MH: So you have certain employees ready to go?
NB: I probably have 60 percent of the staff lined up and waiting and calling me every day, ‘Is it ready yet? Is it ready yet?’ – ‘No! It’s not fuckin’ ready yet!’ And I’m flying people in from other cities as well. Putting some fresh meat on the table. People with big city experience.
MH: Where are you bringing people in from?
NB: I’m speaking to one guy from Connecticut right now. It’s not official but he’s coming down to check things out. I’ve got a guy from Seattle. Another one from San Diego. Lots of irons in the fire. I think it’s good to have people from Reno and people from the outside.
MH: That’s where a lot of Reno’s celebrity chefs came from.
NB: It helps the existing staff to step up their game because when you work in a bigger city and come to Reno, it’s very easy to quickly ascend the ranks because you know what hospitality is supposed to look like. We have a high saturation of restaurants and we’re waiting for the population to catch up.
MH: What makes yours different?
NB: In my mind it’s people. Yes we’re focused on great food, yes we’re focused on great drinks but you must have great people. You can make up for not having perfect food with a good server. But you can’t have great food with shitty service. I go to a lot of places in Reno that are okay. What I notice most distinctly is not that my drink is okay but the guy who gave it to me is an asshole. Like Mark Estee preaches, a rising tide raises all ships. And that’s the goal. It’s not that I want to make a restaurant that’s better than everyone else I want to make a restaurant that inspires Reno as a whole to be better. Success doesn’t come from smashing everyone else down.
Nicole talks about some of the excessive squabbling between business owners in Reno and how much that brings us all down. In Sacramento where she worked before, the bar owners helped each other and didn’t try to crush each other. But it’s difficult for her as a women running the bartenders guild because a lot of the men in town don’t want to join or participate. They’ve passed that onto their bartenders and it’s created a divide. If Reno can gets past that and continue to grow into its second generation of bartenders, then it can really become something bigger.
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