Talking Creativity and Poetry with Barman Christopher Longoria of Runaway Hit Che Fico
And what it takes to bring a drink to epic-jazz-solo level.
June 5, 2018 ● 6 min read
By Maggie Hoffman | Photo Douglas Friedman
You might expect the drinks at Che Fico, San Francisco’s buzzy new line-down-the-block Italian restaurant, to play in the obvious end of the pool: an Aperol spritz, perhaps, and maybe a take or two on the Negroni.
But Che Fico’s beverage director Christopher Longoria—a poet by training and a bartender with two decades behind the stick—eschews the classics. Instead, he riffs on individual flavors and builds recipes from scratch, starting from word, flavor, and color associations that occur to him in moments of improvisation.
In cut-crystal glasses, the cocktails tend to catch the waning early-evening light like precious stones: Longoria has been experimenting with a translucent gold-toned banana, pineapple, and chile-laced milk punch. Instead of many of the popular dark and moody Italian liqueurs, he’s calling on the soft licorice notes of Dimmi and herbal, saffron-yellow Strega. Che Fico’s drinks are a bit more understated than the lush, verdant concoctions that brought Longoria acclaim at beloved modern Moroccan outpost Aziza, and later on at the fruit-and-herb focused bar at 1760.
I sat down with Longoria to unspool his thoughts around the creative process, and what he’s learned about good hospitality and technique over the years.
You and Chef David Nayfield had been talking about this restaurant for a long time—years—before it opened. How did those conversations go?
Chef and I would meet every other week or so and talk for a couple of hours about, like, “What really is a restaurant, what does it mean to be a bar in a restaurant?” We’d get super philosophical. Really the ideas for the menu came last.
What’s changed about you as a bartender since your time at Aziza and 1760?
2017 was the most challenging year I’ve had in my adult life. I cut my fingers really bad, and I couldn’t be as fast and functional as I’m used to being, and then I broke my leg, and I couldn’t stand up for longer than 15 minutes, for three or four months. It was horrible. You go to weird places in your mind when you can’t do much. Different caverns of thought you wouldn’t otherwise discover because you’re always on the move, for better or for worse.
My girlfriend and I broke up, and then my mom passed. It was just like, dude, bring it on, come on. So, I came from a challenging time in my life into a time of energy and speed and inspiration, everything that’s happening here.
I’ve worked with fresh ingredients since I worked at Aziza. I was really comfortable with that, but I wanted to find a way here to bring elegance and simplicity and sophistication. I didn’t want to abandon using fresh ingredients. I mean, we’re in Northern California, we have such a bounty, everything is fresh, but I wanted some of that brown, bitter, stirred style—to me that was always classy, [and] kind of sexy. I don’t garnish everything so crazy any more; it’s like the sculptor’s mentality of taking away to reveal more.
There’s a textural balance that I’m paying attention to in a new way.
Something I’ve noticed is that when you list the drinks on the menu, you often name the fresh ingredient first.
I’ll name the flavor that’s most prevalent, then the sub-ingredients, and then the spirit. To me, the spirit has always been a vehicle with which to get the flavors across. And if people see “gin” or whatever spirit listed first, they may close their mind to it. I encourage people to consider these cocktails as a collection of ingredients creating a whole new flavor.
What sparks your ideas?
I’m not a big farmer’s market person. I’ve been a bartender for 19 years, I don’t get up that early. So I take walks around the city. I’ll walk by something and associations will come to mind. That’s just the way I’ve always been.
I feel like if you go slow enough, and you’re aware, things will pop up at you. I could walk down Clement street and come out with bags of vegetables and fruits and have some ideas. I’ve been thinking about walnut, about orange blossom, about lavender. A lot of stone fruits, since they’re just everywhere. I want a really awesome eucalyptus cocktail. I want to make a cocktail with Amarone. I like the idea of plum and salt together.
Luckily I have my lead bartender here, taking things down; I’d make a drink and wouldn’t even know what it was, and he’ll be like, oh yeah, I got that, it’s this and this. [With] dealer’s choice, man, I love making them, [but] then someone says, “Hey, can I have that again?” And I’ll be like, ...what was that? [laughs] It might be a little bit different the second time around. You can’t play the same jazz solo twice, you know?
Is there a framework you’re thinking about, like a classic cocktail template?
The framework is always balance. But if I give myself a formula or routine I also feel like I’m losing the chance of spontaneity, of something coming from out of the blue that I wouldn’t expect. So I don’t start with a classic cocktail. I know a lot of people do. I do think about what made it classic, though, the tastes that everyone seems drawn to. I always feel like you have to stay open. I study all the time.
What do you study?
Liquid Intelligence, The Cocktail Lab—those books will help you answer your technical questions. And then you want to know historically what was going on, so there’s Drinking the Devil’s Acre, and A Proper Drink. And then. there’s some books you just get ideas from. The absinthe book, [The Art of the Bar: Cocktails Inspired by the Classics], to me, was awesome. Scott Beattie’s book [Artisanal Cocktails: Drinks Inspired by the Seasons from the Bar at Cyrus] was big for me as well.
I’m studying to know the history and the roots, but I don’t necessarily mention those things when I’m with a guest. You don’t have to explain delicious. I feel like the drink should speak for itself, and then you should talk about other things that are going on. Maybe this tequila from the highlands or whatever is interesting to bar people, but it’s not to your average person sitting at the bar.
I also think bartenders should really focus on how the bar is run: Cocktails are always the show, but are you running out of ice? Are you running out of your batch? Is the beer the right temperature? Do you fire your courses on time, how long is the wait for food, how do you greet your guests? That’s tending bar to me.
Do you feel like batching a cocktail simplifies service in a way that helps a bartender be able to connect with guests more? If a drink can just be stirred and served, without grabbing ten thousand bottles, does that help put more emphasis on the personal interaction?
A good bartender can grab ten thousand bottles and still maintain ten thousand conversations. Tending bar isn’t just making a drink, it’s having those conversations, and passing someone a napkin if they need it, and still making a dope cocktail and still firing course 2 on bar 3. That has to happen.
But yes, given the volume of what we do, if we didn’t batch, we would die. I have made cocktails that are over ten steps, then it’s like, how do we make that three steps, how do we consolidate. I think we should be at the level now where we can make really delicious, complicated cocktails in a matter of a few minutes.
What does a good night out look like for you?
I don’t like going out and having cocktails with a bunch of friends, honestly. I like to go and really taste and pay attention. The first cocktail I’ll order is something that I don’t think I’ll like. Either it’ll be done so well that it’s delicious, or it confirms my idea about that collection of ingredients. I’ll learn about different ways to use an ingredient that way. A lot of times I’m reading or writing when I go out for a drink. I went to grad school for poetry, so a lot of times I’ll have little thoughts that I want to keep.
Do you find that drink-making and poetry have anything in common? Do you use your brain in a similar way?
I think I’ve always used my brain for quick associations: movement, sound, color. A restaurant is an amalgamation of all those things. Poetry is very intuitive; you’re a poet because of the way you see the world, the way you understand things. And I guess I do use that the same way, in the sense that there are a lot of quick associations when I think of flavors. There are memories of those flavors, those smells, but I want to keep moving forward, finding new things.
Do you do certain things if you’re looking to let ideas arrive, whether they’re drinks or poems?
I take a lot of walks. If you change your surroundings, you can open yourself up. I sit at the kitchen table, music playing, with a glass of vino. I won’t eat heavy, maybe I’ll already have worked out. It’s a chemistry that I’m putting together in myself to be creative. I’ll be writing a poem and thinking of a flavor, and texting a friend from 20 years ago. Everything plays off of everything.
Maggie Hoffman is the author of The One-Bottle Cocktail, out now!