Industrial Arts: Tyler Wang of Audubon

August 26, 2014

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Industrial Arts is a series in which we talk to some of our favorite hospitality professionals who’ve been involved in non-culinary, non-mixological arts.

Tyler Wang has served us well-crafted cocktails on both sides of the river, at Drink and Kirkland Tap & Trotter, and, now, at Audubon, in Boston. We talked to him about his background in musical theater (and the influence of jazz hands on his cocktail shake), at Bloc 11 Cafe in Somerville, over sandwiches and strong coffee.

Brayden C. Burroughs: Tell us about Audubon.

Tyler Jay Wang: [Audubon] has been actually there for seventeen years. I got brought into it through Beau Sturm [co-owner of Trina’s Starlite lounge].

When I was at Kirkland [Tap & Trotter], I would walk on home—I actually live behind Trina’s Starlite Lounge, so after work I would go and I’d pop in and have a drink at Starlite. And eventually everyone from Kirkland would also go to Starlite. And so I naturally needed to find another place to hang out where I didn’t, like, see everyone I just had a whole service with. Because I’m a reclusive creature.

So I started going next door instead. I really actually fell in love with Parlor Sports. It’s generally people who don’t want to talk about cocktails, which makes me super happy.

[laughter]

I love them the very most. I love all the people who love talking about cocktails, yourselves included. But, you know, when I’m done with work, I want to have a beer and a shot and—

BCB: After a full eight, ten, twelve hours—

TJW: Yeah. Yeah. I’ve had my twelve hours worth of cocktails.

So I started going to Parlor. And at some point I saw Beau type type typing away on his computer, in a way that—I’d never seen him that intense before. He was putting together part of the business plan for [taking over Audubon].

So about six, eight, ten months ago, they purchased Audubon from the Lions & Tigers group, and their hope was to really take something that was this casual but homey, this slightly nicer neighborhood bar, and turn it into something that more closely resembled Starlite or Silvertone. Not in the same level of casual, I guess I could say, but just in the same spirit of really, really comfortable, on its hospitality.

When they found out it was going to need to be saved, they swooped in before they had a chance to put it on the market, and said, “Look, we want to keep this just the way it is. We want to just—fix it.”

They kept, like, eighty percent of the staff that worked there. And I was lucky enough to get involved because Beau at some point realized that he wanted this space to go a little further in terms of cocktails than it had been.

Christine Fernsebner Eslao: That’s awesome.

TJW: The real reason it opened so fast was they wanted to make sure that all the people who were going to continue working still, you know, paid their rent. So they were very, very good about being like, “Hey guys, we’re going to close for just one month. Thank you for staying with us.” They really wanted to make sure they’re taking care of people.

BCB: So: musical theater? We had no idea.

TJW: I grew up in San Diego. My dad was a professional ballet dancer for the first half of his life—I guess, quarter of his life? And that’s kind of where it started. I have a really adorable picture that I’d love to show you at some point of me at my first dance recital. Because, since he was a dancer, instead of soccer or baseball or things that little boys did—I don’t say that spitefully—he put me in ballet and jazz and whatever and whatever and whatever. And that’s how it started.

And then it was just, you know, continuing on with what I’d been doing. The natural progression for a young boy who has been doing dance all of his life is to then start doing plays and musicals and whatever. Being the recluse that I still am… it was very much the way for my mom to get me out of the house and [get me to] interact with people.

It’s very team-driven, but also a little solo—something that you can very easily do all by yourself, and just practice [alone]. That’s how it started.

Christine Fernsebner Eslao: So, how did you end up doing what you do now?

TJW: In college, freshman year, I got a job to pay bills. I was older than a lot of the other kids because I went to community college for two years.

So freshman year I get a job at a little sushi place on the outside the Prudential Center, called Haru. Have you been?

BCB: I have been there.

TJW: It’s one of those, like, probably too expensive—but looks very nice inside—sushi restaurants. I just got a job because I wanted to pay rent and have a little spending money and buy booze.

And at some point I realized the allure of being behind the bar. They seemed like the most popular person in the restaurant. They had people who came there specifically to see them. They were always doing something—it seemed like a more engaging place to work.

So I did what every hopeful bartender does and I went to bartending school.

At Drinkmasters.

And I realized very swiftly that that was a load of crap.

So I tried to use my “skills” that I got from Drinkmasters to get a job as a bartender and failed miserably. So I continued working as a server. One day the bartender just didn’t show up. And then, you know, “You’re up, kid.”

[It was] a Sunday afternoon and I got my ass handed to me, because I think almost three people sat at my bar. Just got crushed.

I still loved it.

They kept me on the bar a few days a week. At one point I was working the bar fairly frequently and I was, at that point, going down to New York a lot. I had an agent in LA, and when I moved to Boston they sent me to another agency in New York. So they had me going down to New York every two or three weeks, for auditions and callbacks and this and that and this and that.

I had been to an audition, been to a callback for that audition. I had one more that, unbeknownst to me, was going to be the last callback they had. I found out about the audition on a Thursday morning.

Hey, you’re going to have to down to New York on Friday. The audition’s at four o’clock.

It’s going to be a big deal. This is your second callback. You’re gonna crush it. This is going to put you on Broadway.

I also knew that I had a shift on Friday night. Friday night I was supposed to work behind the bar.

My first weekend shift. I was super pumped about it.

And without thinking about it, I blew off the callback. Because I was just way more pumped about being behind the bar. Whether I would’ve gotten it or not, who knows. It was a matter of me being like, I’d rather do this. This is more fun. I’d rather do this on a Friday night.

After all was said and done, I realized that I made that decision so easily, my heart’s not in musical theater the same way that it was just being behind that shitty bar.

I realized it wasn’t going to be the right thing, and I left the conservatory at the end of that semester and went to New England Culinary Institute instead. […] On the way out of culinary school, everyone has to have an externship, so I went to Jackson [Cannon], who at that point was my favorite bartender in the city. He was on a pedestal because he did this online web series: one, how to make a Sazerac; one, how to make a Jack Rose; and then, one, how to make the grenadine for a Jack Rose.

I actually spent a lot of time before I even decided that I was gonna go to culinary school just sitting at the bar at ES just going, show me.

And then I somehow tickled Jackson, somehow, and made him make me a Sazerac. And I guess he thought it was funny that a twenty-one-year-old was super, super excited about flips. So he made me a flip.

So now I would just sit there. They had that little library up in the back. I would borrow a book and read while I drank things. So when I got out of culinary school I naturally went to Jackson and he was super kind and let me stage around the bar and interview with him and Kevin. And he was nice enough to offer me a barback position.

But he said, “Hold on a second. Talking to you about everything, hearing what you want to do—there’s a bar in Fort Point, kind of near Southie, that I think you would really, really enjoy.” Because at that point, I was all about the book “Vintage Spirits & Forgotten Cocktails” [by Ted Haigh].

He sent me to just check out Drink. And after interviewing with Scotty [Scott Marshall] and John [Gertsen] I just never looked back.

CFE: You made the decision to blow off your potential big break and it sounds like you made that decision without really having to think. It sounds like it was the right thing.

TJW: Yeah.

CFE: But if you thought about it in a more conscious way, what is it about working that shift at the bar that was more attractive than what you were planning to do?

TJW: A lot of things.

Growing up, I was a big fish in a small pond. I was one of the better male leads, as a sixteen-year-old, in San Diego. I loved being on stage. I loved being the center of attention. I think what I liked about it, because I am still a bit of a recluse, is that I could be on stage and I could get attention and then I could get the fuck off stage and go home and sit by myself and read a book. And that was it. It was a way of getting all of the social interaction that I wanted in a distant way.

For me the bar has always been a lot like a stage. I am not into flair bartending, per se, but the idea that this is a show and people are paying to come see you and they want some sort of interaction—what they really want is to be in thewonder.

Anyone who tells you that there isn’t a degree of showmanship in bartending is a liar.

Anyone who says you just make the drinks and you let them do their thing—they’re lying.

I saw it as—I can be on a stage, following someone else’s lines, reading someone else’s script, doing someone else’s work. Or, I can be behind the bar, being me.

Or, frankly, whatever character people at that bar wanted me to be. Because that’s half the thing. You can be as outgoing and crazy as you want to be but, as soon as someone sits down at your bar that’s having a shitty day and needs a need a little calmer, more intimate experience, you have to shift. Then you become that character. It’s a less involved than that, but it’s reading the room and making sure that you are the person that the people on the other side of the bar need you to be.

BCB: Improv.

TJW: Improv. Exactly.

BCB: What cocktail sums up your musical theater career, or your approach [to acting, singing, dancing]?

TJW: Probably a brandy crusta.

This is a drink that I’ve known about for a long time. It’s always been really, really cool to me. This is the predecessor to the sidecar.

I would say the Sazerac, because that’s like the go-to, it’s like the requisite answer. Anytime you work at Drink you have to reference the Sazerac at least like four times.

Where the crusta, I think, has everything. The crusta is a song. It’s talking about, you don’t know what this drink is. You on the other side of the bar have no idea what this drink is. You know what a sidecar is, because everyone knows what a sidecar is. This is the predecessor to it. This is the history. This is where it came from. This is why it’s so cool.

So you tell them the story, and they watch you, and they watch the technique, and they watch the dance. Everything from, you know, carefully measuring drinks to putting it all in a shaker and shaking it, violently making this thing happen. Making this thing real.

And then there’s the presentation. There’s the special, giant rim on the glass, of sugar. The perfect, fat horse’s neck twist that sits on top. The beautiful liquid, poured right into it.

There’s something about the crusta that I love that’s so harmonious. The first time—the only time, really—that I could name a cocktail that relies so specifically on that sugared rim. There are so many drinks that have a sugared rim because people tell us: this has a sugared rim. The lemon drop has a sugared rim—obviously. The sidecar that we now make, that everyone makes, as a perfectly balanced cocktail has a sugared rim, too—which just throws the balance all off. There’s something about a well-made brandy crusta that’s so—the drink itself is super dry, almost to the point where you straw-taste it and think: this is wrong, I’ve screwed something up, it’s off balance. When you put it in the glass, you get all that bright, citrusy aroma, you get the sweetness from the sugar, but also the texture from the sugar, on the glass. It melts in your mouth, and melts with the cocktail you’re sipping. There’s something so harmonious and beautiful about that, that really is like a show of its own.

And it’s got a gross name. Who wants to drink a “crusta”?

CFE: Is there a song or musical that you think reflects your approach to your cocktail career?

TJW: Fosse.

CFE: Why?

TJW: I guess that’s not a particular a song, but something that I—I was never good at it, I was never good at the perfect, articulate motions of Fosse style of dance, but it’s something that I greatly respect and I see a parallel in the way that John [Gertsen] works.

In Fosse’s choreography, there’s no show. It’s not big, in your face. It’s a Broadway number, but it’s not a big end of act shabam number. It’s condensed, it’s articulate, it’s very, very exact motions, which is what I really, really loved about Drink. You reach here and the spoon that you need is here. The spoon that you need for something else is right there, and you go right there. And you go right here for the jigger. And everything is right back where it goes every time.

That sort of focus on making sure that everything is exactly in the place where it needs to be, I’ve carried with me. And annoy the shit out of everyone else with.

Because I get mad. I reach here and my strainer’s supposed to be here but instead it’s, like, right there.

BCB: On a related note, has jazz hands influenced your shake technique at all?

TJW: Umm.

I can’t say no.

It is a show. Look up here; look at what I’m doing. This motion is very similar to the way that I hold a cocktail shaker and I shake it. But more than anything else, my shake evolved pretty swiftly just from watching everyone else. I would sit there while I was juicing and just stare at the person in front of me making cocktails, and watch Sam Treadway shake a lot.

I remember during my stage at Drink, I walked up to John and really tried to get him to, like, open up to me about the history and the philosophy of the Drink shake. He was just like, no, you just fucking shake the thing. What are you talking about? Just stop talking to me, go back to the job I assigned you, and remember that when you shake a cocktail, you’re just shaking it. Don’t think about it too much.

I am quite often wont to think about everything a little too much.

My shake nowadays, though, is fairly thoughtful. I talked to a physical therapist about the best way to avoid bartender injuries.

Now my shake is more built on what makes me feel physically more strong: using two hands, using only large muscle groups, keeping it close to the body—supposedly that’s better, so you’re not extending and using more muscle than you need to. And then changing that shake sort of minutely throughout the night so you’re using different muscles repetitively. Keeping this Grecian physique in mind, using all the muscles.

I just did my best to stay as far away from Palmer [Matthew]’s style as I possibly could.

CFE: F—ing explain what the f— Palmer is doing.

TJW: Umm.

BCB: I have watched it and I have thought about how I would replicate it with my own body and I can’t do it. I haven’t actually tried because I’d throw the shaker across the room.

TJW: [laughter]

CFE: This is the point of the interview where Palmer usually interrupts the interview.

TJW [spot-on Palmer impression]: Hi guys. Whatcha doing?

People gravitate towards things that feel more natural for them. To me, there isn’t really a difference between bartending and theater. It’s a different skill set. It’s a different world, completely. But it’s not that different. You work night hours. You work very intimately with other people. You present something to a vast audience, some of which you know but a large majority of them you see once and never see again.

There’s a gentleman named Jeremiah who used to be a regular at No. 9 that kind of opened my eyes to all this and really made a great point about the fact that there’s a connection between hospitality and almost every field. I mean, when you’re a bartender you take care of people. When are a clothes-seller, when you’re working at a department store, you are finding something that’s made for this person, that fits this person, that fits their personality, and you’re helping them find that. Same thing with doctors. You’re taking care of people.

To that point, I think that almost any kind of career can kind of lean into the bartending side of the world.

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