conley6.gif (2529 bytes)


Bartenders who cook

Photos by Matt Haas

March 2015

Whether it’s shaking a perfect martini, infusing bourbon with bacon or figuring out how to put a new spin on the classic old-fashioned, savvy bartenders not only know their way around a bar, but many times, they also know their way around a kitchen.

Joe Elmergreen of Wolf Peach and Belmont Tavern, Jeff Cleveland of Hue Vietnamese Restaurant in Wauwatosa and formerly of Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge, and D.J. Thompson of Black Sheep sat down to explain how the lines of bars and kitchens are blurring and how their passion for home cooking impacts their bartending.

Jeff Cleveland

Less is more for Jeff Cleveland. "Some of the best dishes we’ve ever eaten have the fewest ingredients, and that can be the same for a cocktail," he says. "If you put together too many things, then none of those tastes are going to be distinguishable. You really need balance in both a drink and a dish."

When he’s not working behind the bar, Cleveland enjoys cooking for his wife, Kat, and his son, Chandler. Since they like to eat healthy, he’s been experimenting with vegetarian dishes.

"My real enjoyment in cooking is to try something new, and even when I make something that turns out really well, I just move on to the next thing," he says.

In the summer, he tries to make flavorful salads. One of the best salads he made last summer was a bread salad with homemade croutons that were crunchy on the outside but soft on the inside with tomatoes and lettuce. Another salad had scallops and grapefruit with a light vinaigrette. "It just had a complex flavor and also a blend of textures," he says.

When Cleveland cooks, he often throws things together as he experiments, but he’s more methodical when he’s mixing drinks. "I give cocktails a lot of thought before I put them together," he says. "If you’re halfway competent in the kitchen, most dishes turn out, but if you put things wrong in a cocktail, you waste ingredients."

Besides cooking, Cleveland likes gardening, especially growing herbs. When a sage liqueur came into a bar, Cleveland thought about the sage in his garden, so he created a drink he calls Sage Wisdom. "I used the sage liqueur, some gin, some lemon juice and a little bit of ginger liqueur and simple syrup, which I garnished with a sage leaf from my garden and some Jamaican Number 2 bitters from Bittercube," he says. "The ginger lightly played with the sage. I think that drink was mostly attributed to my garden and my cooking."

"I think that people shouldn’t be afraid of trying new things," Cleveland says. "See how things turn out. If it doesn’t work out, you’ve learned something. But more often than not, something will work out part way, and you’ll come up with a way to make it better."

Joe Elmergreen

"Both cooking and bartending are related immensely because you’re creating flavor, and the end result is something that tastes good," says Elmergreen.

Elmergreen loves cooking, but he especially loves making breakfast burritos and breakfast hash. "It was right after Thanksgiving, and I had leftover parsnips and sweet potatoes. I did a parsnip, sweet potato, vidalia onion and bacon hash with fresh rosemary and thyme," he says. "I was very happy with the outcome and so was my fiancée, Rayen Singletary."

Cooking has inspired him behind the bar. "Right now, at Wolf Peach, we have a strawberry black peppercorn simple syrup and rosemary simple syrup, and I’ve also done bloody mary infusions with mirepoix. Another one is a bacon washed bourbon and cherry bacon Manhattan," he says.

That Manhattan started with some leftover bacon at home. He seared them off, rendered the fat, and strained it through bourbon. He let it sit overnight, then froze it so the bacon became solid, and then filtered it with coffee filters. Add to that a Door County cherry simple syrup and a cherry bacon garnish. "It worked out just beautifully," Elmergreen says.

Just like he enjoys cooking seasonally at home, he also likes to mix drinks using seasonal ingredients. Since his fiancée loves pumpkin chai lattes, he created a drink that replicates that flavor for her.

This spring he plans to be using a lot more bright flavors and work with more gin, as it is herbaceous. "Bright flavors bring me out of that darkness we call Wisconsin winters," he says.

When Elmergreen’s not making breakfast, he likes making steak, but he likes to use different marinades and spices, especially from Penzey’s. "I also use Penzey’s in my drinks," he says. "One of the ideas I’ve been throwing around is a parsnip simple syrup with rosemary to bring out the herbaceous flavor, and I’m thinking it could be a parsnip gin fizz."

D.J. Thompson

Growing up as an Italian, Thompson’s grandfather was always in the kitchen, so he grew up around cooking. He’s worked in the restaurant industry since age 16.

In fact, it was when he was in the kitchen at Maggiano’s when his managers thought he might have what it takes to be a stellar bartender. "They thought I had a great personality for the bar, and it was always something I wanted to do," says Thompson. "I love being a bartender."

Thompson says that whether he’s cooking or mixing drinks, he’s always experimenting. "You’re always looking at flavor profiles — whether it’s drinks or food, and I think that trying different ingredients and different flavor combinations comes naturally to me," he says. "I have a passion for both, and cooking and making cocktails are things I really enjoy."

At home, Thompson loves to do cream sauces, and he also adores seafood, especially raw tuna in ahi poke. He lived in Hawaii for a while, and he fell in love with this raw tuna dish. "I like to do Asian stuff, like making scallops with a wasabi cream sauce," he says.

When he’s behind the bar, he likes to experiment with fresh herbs, and he especially likes to change up an old-fashioned. "I make an amazing old-fashioned, and you can do so many things with that drink, whether it’s using different bitters or adding some maple syrup," he says.

With both cooking and making cocktails, Thompson says it’s important to learn the basics first. "You have to work on the craft first," he says. "Before you start changing things, you have to learn how to make a dish or a drink correctly."


This story ran in the March 2015 issue of: