Chambar’s Phil Grandbois On What It Takes To Make A New Cocktail List

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We often hear the same names of Vancouver bartenders in local media. They do very well to represent and have done so for years. We work up thirsts following their exploits and look forward to trying whatever it is they come up with next, but we seldom consider the individuals who toil in relative anonymity alongside them, and we’re often late in introducing those destined to join them in their starry pantheon. This series of short interviews looks to introduce our readers to this new breed, one talent at a time. 

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by Andrew Morrison | An admitted industry lifer, “Phil” came to Chambar to lead its bar this past summer after many years working for the Ritz Carlton hotel group in several cities, among them London, Bangalore, Shanghai and Montréal. I recently sat down with Grandbois – an International Sommeliers Guild grad and Certified Spirits Specialist – in one of the back booths at Chambar. I wanted to pick his brain, not only on the pressures inherent in taking over a bar with a history of being helmed by legend after legend, but also about the challenge of dreaming up and executing for service a brand new cocktail list in time for the start of Chambar’s crazy season, which coincides with the first home game of the Canucks’ NHL season — this Saturday,  October 15th.

Current Bar: Chambar | Previous Bar: Krafty Kitchen (Kelowna) | Years in the Game: 14
Career Highlights – working bars in 11 countries on four continents 

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What’s your ancestry? I’m French-Canadian.

Where did you come from and how long ago was it that you arrived in Vancouver? I arrived in January from Kelowna, where I had helped to open a small farm-to-table restaurant called Krafty Kitchen & Bar.

And how did you get here, to Chambar, between January and August? I was with the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver for the first period of time. I moved here for that job but then this role [at Chambar] became an opportunity and it was something that I quickly transitioned into. It was a much stronger and better fit. I’d been the general manager of restaurants [at the Fairmont] but I wanted to take a more creative role and work more specifically with the bar. So it was a dream opportunity.

How’s the new job? Wonderful. It’s absolutely fantastic. Chambar is a business with an 11 year history and a tremendous amount of culture. I’m still learning everything I can about the history of the restaurant because so much has gone here. There’s a lineage of cocktails and personalities to study up on, and I never knew the “old” Chambar next door; I’d never been through its doors so I come here with a completely fresh set of eyes.

I can think of three or four former Chambar bar managers who have moved on to become successful restaurateurs. Is that something you want to do eventually? I’ve already done that. I’ve been a partner and consultant in four restaurants already. I loved the idea at the time. It was very romantic, but I’ve sort of ticked that box now. I’m more interested in growing myself as part of a larger company and being part of a family rather than the head of it.

Chambar’s bar has something of an historical reputation for excellence in Vancouver. Does that put any added pressure on you knowing that there have been so many greats who have worked in your position before? Yeah, absolutely, but no more pressure than I’ve experienced in any other job. I just have to uphold something great. To me that’s a little easier than having to create something great from nothing. I see it as an opportunity to leverage all of those things – the history, the personalities and such – as a positive rather than have to fill any particular shoes.

You’ve already created a brand new cocktail list. Were there any drinks that Karri and Nico (owners) told you that you had to keep? Any sacred cows? Only one. The Blue Fig Martini. Other than that our bar is fully set and trained up to prepare 30 Chambar classics that are no longer on the list.

Describe your first ever bartending shift in three words? Complete fucking chaos.

The moment that bartending went from a part-time gig to a career? When I graduated from university . I knew I had a greater love for hospitality than business. I started my MBT and then got an internship with the Ritz Carlton, which led to me going around the world.

Through your Ritz career, which city was your favourite? London. It was my gateway to Europe. I could go pretty well anywhere on the continent for $100 or so; it really opened the door to so much knowledge and experience.

Favourite bartender you ever worked with? Angus Winchester when he was with Diaggio. He really showed me what it meant to be a professional.

Three local bartenders you’d really like to work with? Jay Jones (Vij’s), Sabrine Dhaliwal (Uva), Tarquin Melnyk (Bambudda).

If you could be a Brand Ambassador for any brand, which one would it be? I’ve already done that, working for Remy-Martin. But I’d happily take Dave Mitton’s job at Lot No. 40, working with Canadian whisky.

Favourite city in the world for food and drink? Paris. There’s been a French cocktail revolution going on.

Any bar in the world that you’d love to do a one-night stage at? “Employees Only” in Singapore.

A trend that should have been 86’d a long time ago? Improper treatment of wine-based ingredients (eg. vermouth, sherry).

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Best skill outside of work? Research.

Good service or speedy drinks? Good service.

Favourite Vancouver neighbourhood? Gastown.

Jigger or free pour? Both.

Favourite chef? Curtis Luk of Mission in Kitsilano. I’m a closet fan boy.

Mixologist or Bartender? Bartender ’til I die.

Favourite ingredient to work with? Strega.

Your “go to” bar for a cheeky beer? With the guys next door at Devil’s Elbow.

Twitter or Instagram? Instagram (@philippegbois).

Good customer who tips bad, or douchebag who tips huge? Good customer who tips poorly. At least I had a good conversation.

Jager or Fernet? Fernet.

Bar tool you can’t work without? The right spoon.

Post-work drink: what is it and where is it? It’s a Manhattan at The Keefer Bar in Chinatown.

Another person you would recommend for this column? Tarquin Melnyk from Bambudda and Max Borrowman, formerly of Torafuku and now at Juniper.

How many cocktails are on the new list? 20.

How many of them are yours? 19.

How long did it take you make it? It was about restrictions and theme. I took Nico’s European and North African background and limited myself to flavours, profiles and stories that would work within that schema. That took a few days, and then it was about framing classics and inventing new creations that fit with the flavours and could deal with the high volume we face. Creating it took a couple of weeks and now there’s been a couple weeks of evolution, making it about four weeks . I’ve been tweaking everything over the last couple of weeks.

How do you come up with them? What’s the process? I start with either one of three things: a strong name that goes with Chambar’s theme, an ingredient that stands out and applies to the theme, or a classic that I can find inspiration within.

What’s the big seller on the new list? “The Suffering Bastard”.

Let’s single one out that exemplifies the list as a whole. What’s it called? “The Artemisia” is a good representation of my style. It tells a story of Persian influence on Europe. Artemisia was the Queen of Halicarnassus during the First Persian Empire and a naval commander during the second Persian invasion of Greece. “Artemisia” is also the latin genus for what is commonly called “mugworts”. Wormwood is known as Artemisia Absinthium, which is the primary bitter flavour present in the drink. The Artemisia travels the Persian routes with Vermouth from Northern Italy down to the tip of Sicily with Marsala; across the straight to get Star Anise from Tunisia then onto Jerez in Spain where the sherry comes from.

THE ARTEMISIA

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So what’s in it? 1 oz Martini Dry Vermouth; 1 oz Floral Martini Bianco Vermouth; 1?2 oz Sherry – Med Dry; 1 bar spoon Marsala Wine; and 1 Star Anise Pod.

And how do you make it? Prepare a small coupe glass with ice and soda to chill. Add the ingredients to a mixing glass. Stir well for 30-45 seconds. Julep strain into chilled coupe and garnish with a burnt star anise pod.
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