Monday, July 13, 2009

Tails of the Cocktail....

So a funny thing happened in New Orleans....
Well, actually, many funny things happened in New Orleans at this years Tales of the Cocktail event.

While it was great to see so many friends and colleagues from around the country and beyond, I somehow left with a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. Perhaps it was the swigs from so many bottles of lukewarm tequila, pisco, or flasks of whiskey, mezcal, or pot stilled rum. More so, I feel there was so little need for this hyped up event in order to share what really mattered.

It's pretty hard to get a cocktail in that town, the lines are long, bar staff can be short, if not grumpy. The events are crowded and at the end of the day, most everyone is most interested in just getting drunk. It's not to say that many of the participants didn't bring their A game, I can't say I spit anything out, but the context just doesn't work for inventive, and dare I say, fussy drinks. Hence, I remember few, if any. Panels become overly branded, overly expensive, and in some cases, irrelevant. Events are overly exclusive, and poorly coordinated.

Truth be told, cold beer in the swimming pool, a simple shot of whiskey on the rocks, or some gin and vermouth over ice in a plastic cup made, for me, the perfect balm for the sticky temperature and derelict temperament.

What happens in New Orleans, stays in New Orleans.

I suppose Las Vegas' well known adage, is applicable in this instance. I dutifully left my camera in the hotel room, intent on just going along for the ride. What I witnessed, I can simply summarize as ranging from mild bravado, to downright narcissism, and debauchery making a crowd of talented service industry professionals into drunken caricatures of reckless Hollywood stars. All in good "fun" I assure you, but revealing as well.

The real inspiration I bring back with me had little to do with the circus that Tales really is, but rather the food I ate in that city. This year found me dining far less at the "finer" seats in the city, but more having some amazing, authentic, soulful and unpretentious meals, with some fine company, at a leisurely pace. Heaps of fried chicken and catfish, piles of greens cooked within inches of their lives, yards of boudin, mounds of alligator, fistfuls of shrimp or crab, smothered in sauces rich and satisfying, all served with simple cans of cold, domestic beer or just ice tea and coca cola.

I return with a real sense that this "cocktail thing" may just be a bit out of control. We've stopped being servants and craftsmen and become authors, artists, chefs, and technicians. Do we need degrees or crowns?
Some of the best things in life, as in gastronomy or mixology, require little hermeneutics or decoding. They just present themselves as they are, satisfy, and then resonate. The way a walk in the park might stick with you better than an art history exam.

For my part, I still appreciate immensely the hard work and rich creative resources of my colleagues. I maintain a deep respect for experimentation and innovation, love to be challenged, and whole heartedly give credit where credit is due.

That being said, I come back humbled, wishing only to throw some thick chunks chilled melon into a glass with a small sprig of fresh herb and a healthy dose of blanco tequila and a twist of lime, set it carefully on a cocktail napkin on a clean bar top, smile and be smiled at. Either that or a shot and a beer. It's your dime.