Words by: Ian Cameron
Jeff Bell is the General Manager at PDT in New York City and has been working there since 2010
His career in hospitality began his in 2003 washing dishes and bussing tables as a college freshman. Originally just a flexible job to pay for school turned into much more as he worked his way up to bartender at the age of 21. His philosophy degree taught him that he would find much more enjoyment out of life pursuing a career in hospitality rather than in the finance job he took right out of college
In 2009, two years after graduating from the University of Washington, Jeff packed up and moved to New York City to see what he could do in the most creative and competitive market in the United States. Bar Manager (at the time) Valerie Meehan of Danny Meyer's Maialino gave him his first promising job in the spring of 2010. At Maialino, Jeff elevated his level of service and sharpened his palate working with an extensive list of Italian wines, grappa and amari. Hoping to learn more about bartending and cocktails he asked Jim Meehan, Valerie's husband and managing partner of PDT, if he could come on board at the highly lauded bar. The only position available was a barback shift once a week that he gladly took.
Just a few months after taking the barback position at PDT, Jeff was offered a full-time position behind the bar. He quickly worked his was up to head bartender in the fall of 2010. During his time at the bar he has traveled to conduct seminars and served his and PDT drinks throughout the United States and internationally in Cape Town, Copenhagen, Vancouver, Berlin, Bangkok, London, Paris, Sydney, Melbourne, Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Dubai, Tel Aviv, Jakarta, Bali, Manila, Taipei, Osaka, Nagoya and Tokyo. In 2013 he received the Starchefs.com Rising Star Award for New York City, named one of Zagat's 30 under 30 for New York City and Diageo World Class American Bartender of the year.
“I think it’s impossible to make a proper Singapore Sling without the Cherry Heering”
Jeff Bell, Bar Manager at PDT in New York, reveals what it's like to work the stick at one of the world's most famous bars.
It's a little difficult to sum up what working at such a highly regarded bar feels like. Obviously there's a huge sense of pride but then you are always on stage, you have no idea who is going to walk in and you have to constantly be at your best. That doesn't make me nervous though: since there's always someone watching I think it makes you hone your skills even more.
I got my foot in the door at PDT while I was working with Valerie Meehan, [PDT owner] Jim's wife. It was at Maialino at the Gramercy Park Hotel. I was always bugging her about PDT and said I would sweep the floor, volunteer, bus tables, whatever. Jim offered me a bar-backing position one day a week, then luckily two bartenders gave their notice and made room for me behind the bar.
It can be tough responding to the same questions and you do have moments when you feel like you're repeating yourself. Everyday someone will ask: is there a password? A secret code? Is it an original speakeasy? How was the Bentons' Old Fashioned created? I try to step back and put myself in their position and think how I would feel if it was my first time.
I've worked at other bars where regulars made up 85 per cent off the business. At PDT it's the opposite so it's not easy to recognise faces. But it's fun to have these wide-eyed people coming through the door, saying they've come specially to New York, planned their trip maybe three months ago and called maybe 60 times to get in. That's a cool feeling and I'm not sure any other bar has that.
There is a group of folks who come for the sheer novelty of the phone booth entrance, but I think for most people it's fun just that one time. Some just want to come through the door and have a hot dog and a beer. That's totally fine, but the way I spin it is to say, if you come back, give the cocktails a shot, they're pretty good. I know other bars have these novelty entrances, but I think people will get over walking though a case or through a vault to get in somewhere, and if you don't have a phenomenal programme behind it they won't come back.
The drink creation process is one of the best most rewarding parts of the job. We change seasonally, looking at what's available locally - farmers' markets are our guide to what's in season and I'll ask what will be around several weeks ahead. We sit around and talk about drinks or there's an email thread if we're not all at the bar: asking what we are going to take off, what about these modifiers, what's appropriate for the season? We think about it then pitch ideas to Jim. Once we get approval we get behind the bar and start tweaking the recipe. Sometimes we nail it in just two or three versions, other times we get to 12 or more before we're happy. I think most bars would stop way before that.
Before PDT, the neighbourhood was kind of seedy, with lot of drugs and crime. But so many areas of Manhattan are becoming more expensive, and gentrifying at the same time. I like to think PDT and Death & Co., which opened roughly the same time five years ago, has had at least some kind of influence on that. PDT and Crif Dog symbolises the neighbourhood: high brow and low brow sharing the wall together.
I think PDT is the ultimate resume builder though I haven't thought about a resume in a long time. There are some bartenders that used PDT as a launchpad for something else. At some point I might open my own bar or do something else, but I want to sit tight and just know that I'm in the prime spot in the world for this industry.
I eat maybe one Crif Dog per week. Their hot dogs are delicious but they are not the healthiest thing - though some of my co-workers eat them every day.