17 July 2014

"Pouring Reign (The Director's Cut)", Part II: Will Isaza of Fairsted Kitchen

Will Isaza of Fairsted Kitchen, Brookline, MA
Photo courtesy of Will Isaza
In April 2014, I wrote a cover feature for The Improper Bostonian entitled “Pouring Reign”, in which I interviewed twelve Boston bartenders I admire. Six are veteran talents I felt had been overlooked by local media; six are newcomers promising enough to get themselves situated in some of our top bar programs. All had many more interesting things to say than I could fit in the space allowed.

How many more? My initial draft ran to 10,000 words, but the feature was allotted 2500; I begged my editors for more room, and they generously let it swell to 3500, a very long feature for the publication.

As happy as I was with the piece (and especially the gorgeous accompanying portrait photography by Adam DeTour), a lot of great material got left on the cutting-room floor. I got permission to run the unexpurgated interviews here. Here’s the second one, my unedited interview with Will Isaza of Fairsted Kitchen, an independent restaurant in Washington Square, Brookline. I first got to know Will as I was researching my review of Fairsted for The Improper, where he impressed me as a relatively new talent.


MC SLIM JB: Will, you've probably seen my Improper Bostonian review of Fairsted Kitchen, in which I note its extraordinary hospitality ethos. You may have read my essay about the importance of hospitality to the bartender's game. Is hospitality something that can be learned, or is it purely innate? Did you come in with that inclination already built-in? How does Fairsted cultivate that attitude in the staff?

WILL ISAZA: I think that if someone wants to make a career out of this industry, hospitality should be the first priority. We are in the business of satisfying people through food and drink, but having that little extra flair to make a guest smile I don't think can be taught. I've always loved meeting new people and interacting with many different personalities, it's pretty cool to have a job where I can do that on a nightly basis. My bosses; Andrew Foster, Steve Bowman, and Patrick Gaggiano, have instilled much of that philosophy at Fairsted. They want everyone who walks through the door to feel as though they're at home having dinner/drinks amongst family. Of course that only works because of the staff, we all kind of have that family sense as a staff including management and ownership, therefore that is reflected when we are in the middle of service. Being a small staff helps a lot, but we all genuinely like each other and I don't think that was a mistake. Those guys just really enjoy creating a home style environment and having a great time with guests, which not many places in Boston can do. 

MC: Measure or free-pour?

WI: Mostly measure.

MC: Drink that you wish more customers would order?

WI: Vieux Carre.

MC: Drink you wish customers would forget existed?

WI: None, they all should be consumed by those who love them!

MC: What is your most prized bartending accoutrement, e.g., spoon, ice tool, ice mold, shaker, mixing glass, knife, Lewis bag, cocktail book, serving glass, other piece of barware or glassware?

WI: Just give me ice and a Boston shaker and I'll figure out the rest. I'm not really one to be picky about that stuff.  

MC: Most annoying customer behavior?

WI: To quote Mr. [Andrew] Foster, "Never really had annoying guests, just people who don't know what they want". And that's what we're here for. 

MC: Every bartender has a collection of Fiasco Moments, e.g., the tray of glasses smashed into the ice bin, the flyaway tin that resulted in a guest wearing a shakerful of cocktails, the strangers you introduced at your bar that ended up in a murder/suicide, your proud original creation that customers hated, etc. What’s a particularly egregious / entertaining one of yours?

WI: Back when I first started tending bar, I was working a busy Friday night service bar, and the guests in front of me got into a really huge argument and proceeded to start their divorce as they had dinner. I gave them a couple shots and told them to love each other, the woman involved immediately started crying and left the bar. Whoops. 

MC: Spirit, wine or beer that more customers should be trying?

WI: Rum or rhum [agricole]. You would think people drink more of it, but they really don't. 

MC: Your favorite cocktail or bottling to introduce a newbie to it?

WI: It all depends on the individual and what flavors they naturally enjoy. Everyone is different. I never really have a "go-to" recipe without interacting with someone. 

MC: What’s the best day of the week and time of day for a customer to engage you in a leisurely, educational five-minute conversation about drinks?

WI: I would say Mondays at around 6pm or Tuesdays at around 5pm

MC: You may have seen this New York Times article on the in-house lingo of certain NYC bars. What’s one of your house’s code words/phrases for intra-staff communication in front of customers?

WI: "Getting Crowed" is unique to Fairsted Kitchen. We treat our VIP guests to a fantastic shot of Old Crow Reserve. 

MC: What’s your typical end-of-shift drink?

WI: Whisky or whiskey, that's it.

MC: What’s a great book / film / record / play / TV show you’ve consumed recently and recommend?

WI: Esquire's Handbook for Hosts (1953). An awesome handbook on how to be the life of any party. 

MC: Do you have a guilty-pleasure drink, the kind of thing you wouldn’t want your peers or customers to catch you drinking?

WI: Daiquiris all around, please. Guests seem confused when I tell them that, but most of my peers share my affinity for daiquiris -- don't you?

[MC: Yep.]

MC: What’s the last astonishing restaurant meal you had (what and where) other than at your employer's?

WI: In Boston I haven't really had time to go out and about because of work, but on vacation, Sylvain in New Orleans was the last great memorable meal I had and would recommend in a heartbeat. The meal was solid from start to finish and the one dish that stood out the most to me was a braised Wagyu beef belly on a bed of toasted parsnips. Just saying it makes me want to go back! 

MC: What are a couple of dives you favor on your own time?

WI: Sligo in Davis Square has always been great, but recently, O’Leary’s on Beacon Street in Brookline has slowly but surely become a black hole of greatness. 

MC: Dr. Bartender, what’s the best cure for my hangover?

WI: Cure? The key is to never go to sleep. 

MC: Most interesting current trend in cocktails, beer or wine?

WI: I would put bottled cocktails and beer cocktails at the top of the list for current trends. 

MC: Most ridiculous / overhyped / bullshit trend?

WI: Bars calling themselves "craft cocktail bars" as opposed to just bars. Over-hyped and bullshit. All great bars should be able to make you a great cocktail and tell you everything you need to know about the ingredients used. 

MC: As a bar customer yourself, what’s one aspect of Boston’s bars that you wish more operators would do a better job of?

WI: As a guest, I wish that bartenders would focus more on helping me have a great time, rather than just feed me information on what I'm drinking. Most of the times I go to bars to drink, eat, and have a good time, not to be educated.  

MC: What Greater Boston bar is absolutely killing it right now? Of all their qualities, what’s the single standout attribute that makes you want to drink there?

WI: I think Boston as a whole is killing it right now. It's really tough to single out any one bar. 

MC: What are the top destinations on your Bars of the World Bucket List?

WI: Bar High Five in Tokyo is definitely up in my Bucket List. The Floridita in Havana and Bodeguita Del Medio in Havana, which I have had the pleasure of attending were the two bars that I really wanted to go to for a long time. I remember the bartender at Bodeguita Del Medio looked at me and said, "Here is the first mojito you have ever had, all the rest have been merely an imitation". Paired with a handmade Cohiba, it was by far the best bar experience I've ever had. 

MC: Offer a sentence or two of advice to aspiring bartenders.

WI: I would tell an aspiring bartender to always keep in mind that your job is to make other people happy, not just yourself. And to enjoy every moment behind any bar, because if you don't enjoy what you’re doing or where you work, then what’s the point? Cocktails, beer, wine, etc. can always be taught and you will only learn as much as you allow yourself to learn.

MC: Say a few words about your most influential bartending mentor.

WI: The first bar manager I ever worked for definitely showed me the ropes and gave me a chance when a lot of people wouldn't. I would say that my style of tending bar was greatly influenced by what he taught me. Also my brother, Moe Isaza, currently a manager at Grafton Street, always pushed me to try new things, and from him I learned the most important thing of all: if I'm not having fun while I'm behind a bar, the people I'm serving won't be either. 

MC: What’s the most surprisingly useful life skill that bartending has taught you?

WI: Communication in every aspect has definitely been the most useful life skill that tending bar has taught me. You would be surprised how many people start problems and/or misunderstandings by simply not being able to communicate.