How I Got My Job: From Bartending to Building a Drinks Company and Founding a Nonprofit

How I Got My Job: From Bartending to Building a Drinks Company and Founding a Nonprofit

John deBary started bartending at the legendary New York City speakeasy Please Don’t Tell before PDT was, well, PDT. In early 2008, the award-winning cocktail bar was just a cool restaurant-industry haunt that deBary’s friend helped open. Though deBary had no experience making drinks, he asked if he could have a job there — and they said yes. Luckily for all parties involved, deBary was a natural who went on to mix cocktails there for a defining five and a half years that were pivotal to the revival of craft cocktails. This newfound talent for beverages led deBary to a nine-year role as bar director for the Momofuku restaurant group. And for about four years, he was splitting his time between the two gigs.

Now, deBary has taken his expertise beyond the bar with Proteau , a nonalcoholic botanical aperitif designed to be drunk straight out of the bottle. He also co-founded a nonprofit , Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, that became a major crisis relief organization during the pandemic. On top of it all, deBary authored the cocktail book Drink What You Want: The Subjective Guide to Making Objectively Delicious Cocktails and continues to write about drinks for publications like Food52 and Punch. In the following interview, deBary explains how he fortuitously ended up working at the best bar in the country and details his unexpected current situation.

Eater: What did you originally want to do when you started your career?

John deBary: I wanted some academic job. I thought I would maybe be a lawyer or maybe move to Japan. It really was not fleshed out.

Did you go to culinary school or college? If so, would you recommend it?

I went to Columbia University for undergrad and I studied Japanese history, but I actually did take the bartending course for a semester. I forgot about it until I saw an article in Punch about all the Ivy League bartending schools . Needless to say, it didn’t really prepare me that much for being a professional bartender, but it was a good intro. One of the things about having a liberal arts education is that it teaches you to be generally conversant in a lot of different subjects. Columbia has a core curriculum it requires you to take, which includes philosophy, world history, and classic literature. All the teachers say, “You won’t need this for your job, but you’ll be really good at cocktail parties.” And then sure enough, my life became a cocktail party. In a very oblique way, it prepared me nicely for bartending.

What was your first job?

Funnily enough, my first job was in the restaurant industry, but I didn’t come back to it for about 10 years. I was a server at a French cafe in the town where I grew up in Connecticut. I lasted three or four weeks. I was 14 and I didn’t know anything about anything and I wasn’t really that into it. It didn’t light me up at all.

When I graduated college, I had a job investigating allegations of police misconduct for the city of New York from 2005 to 2007. It was extremely interesting and it was during the era of Mayor Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk policy, so there were a lot of complaints and questions about the Fourth Amendment, about ethical search and seizure, and about improper stopping of people in the street. That was in line with me wanting to go to law school.

How did you get into the hospitality industry (again)?

I did some traveling and when I came back, I had no job. I was desperately searching for a place to work and my friend Don Lee was on the opening team at PDT. He invited me to have drinks there a few times and I thought it was really cool. I asked if I could work at this awesome bar and they said, “Okay.” I started training and it felt very natural and I took it from there. I went right to bartending. This was before the place blew up and got really famous. It was still kind of a local industry haunt. I was able to just slide right in, which is something you can’t do anymore. It had only been open for nine months, so it was a very well-timed entry.

What was the biggest challenge you faced when you were starting out in the industry?

I didn’t know anything about whiskey or cocktails. I was completely clueless. I was kind […]

source How I Got My Job: From Bartending to Building a Drinks Company and Founding a Nonprofit

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