Words by: Ian Cameron
Zahra Bates cut her teeth bartending in London at the Sanderson Hotel in the early noughties before returning home to Los Angeles in 2006. She now heads the bar in Providence, the city's only restaurant with two Michelin stars, and takes a suitably culinary approach to mixology. She articulates not just Los Angeles' rising star in the world of high-end drinks but a distinctly Californian approach to cocktails.
When I first came back from London it was a shock being part of the LA scene, it was so backward. The word 'balance' meant nothing and if a drink didn't work, they would just add more alcohol. Using fresh juices was an alien concept - they were still adding water to dehydrated sweet and sour mix. They didn't understand the words coming out my mouth.
The LA bartending scene can still be hit and miss but it is improving. Bartenders are open-minded and experimental and that allows our customers to be open-minded and experimental too. Just like when they go to a sushi bar and ask for omakase - chef's choice - there are more customers who come in ask for whatever we'd like to make them. There was a time when they would come in, not even look you in the face, and order a Grey Goose Dirty Martini. Now most of our guests come in and ask to see cocktail list. In the last two years people have begun to trust us as bartenders.
Working in a two-star restaurant really challenges me every day. Having diners with high expectations is a good thing for everyone. The way our chef approaches cooking is the way I approach bartending. You have to honour what you're working with. If you are going to take a beautiful fish and cook it, if something's going to die, you should honour and respect it. Nothing died in the bar, but I do believe you need to know how something is made, the conditions, its heritage and history. If I didn't have that interest and passion I would not be able to articulate that to our guests.
Providence is primarily a restaurant and our cocktail list is not on the website. We gear everything towards the dining experience. But I feel lucky they let me in the kitchen - I've learned so much and I think it that has definitely influenced my cocktails. I think I've perfected an Oyster cocktail. I cryovac Manzanilla with Japanese cucumber, celery and heart of romaine lettuce then cook it in an immersion circulator for 30 minutes, then I add Tanqueray gin and some salt. There's no oyster in it but it tastes exactly like the liquor from one. We serve it as an amuse bouche. We're bridging that culinary gap between the bar and the kitchen.
I was in London from 2000 to 2006. I went there to study but really I wanted to learn about bartending. I went to LAB, thinking it was the best bar in London and thinking that I knew something about bartending - I'd worked behind the bar in LA at Bar Marmont, then considered the best place in the city - but they literally laughed at me. They were very open with me and sent me to 57 Jermyn Street. It was more appropriate for me then: I was a grunt bartender, I got the job done quickly but I was hardly finessed.
Working in London was a revelation. It wasn't just a different style but the breadth of knowledge. I got to know Dan Wilks and Charlie Homberger who ran the Purple Bar at the Sanderson. They let me come in and watch them work and help out, and they taught me how to approach cocktails and the London bartending ideology. I was in good company - Henry Besant started that programme and a lot of good people started there at that time including Rebecca Almqvist. There was a great sense of friendship and family. In the end I was there for five years.
I've discovered bartenders in general are some of the most creative people you can come across. I know fine artists, photographers and production staff who work in bartending. I'm hoping to develop a bartender art event 'outside the glass', where every aspect of the arts is represented by bartenders. Where every piece of art is done by bartenders, everything that is written about it, where it's filmed by bartender videographers, where there are even bartender actors in character as Jerry Thomas.