Ssäm Bar and PDT's John deBary Talks Forthcoming Fall Menus, the Bartender on Star Trek, and Dodging the Law School Bullet
There is no shortage of old-timey, Prohibition era-themed cocktail bars in this city. It's much more difficult to find places that are making truly innovative modern cocktails, of the sort that can be found at PDT, which is rolling out its new fall cocktail menu this week. Another such bar is better known as a restaurant. Momofuku Ssäm Bar is gearing up to launch a rather unorthodox new fall cocktail menu in the next week or two. The teaser? Pretzel foam. John deBary, who works at both establishments, sat down with Fork in the Road to talk forward-thinking drinks.
Kelly Samardak John deBary
Are the two bars very different to work at?
I would say I spend a little more time at Ssäm, but it's a pretty even split between the two. At PDT, we have Jim [Meehan] running the show, but at Ssäm, we have another bartender from PDT, a bartender from Mà Pêche, a bartender from Dutch Kills, and we all get to collaborate. We work a lot with the kitchen to develop ingredients that we wouldn't know how to make, like foam.
Does working at a restaurant with such an innovative food menu push you to create crazier drinks?
I definitely want the drinks [at Ssäm] to be at the same level, but at the same time you're in a restaurant and you want to make sure the food is the focal point, and the drinks are there to offset the experience. It's also challenging to create food-friendly cocktails.
What are you excited about on the cocktail menu these days?
We're on a late-summer kick, so we've got a blueberry-shiso drink, a raspberry-ginger-and-rye sour, and an adaptation of a classic Singapore Sling on the menu. And we're going to be doing fall drinks in a couple weeks, which are going to be pretty bonkers.
What's your favorite food-and-cocktail pairing on the menu at the moment?
I would say that one of my favorite dishes at Ssäm is the spicy pork sausage and rice cakes -- it's one of our most famous dishes -- so I tend to have it with something tall to wash down the spiciness. Don [Lee] put together a really awesome Dark 'n' Stormy with fresh ginger syrup that we make. It's super-refreshing.
How did you get started behind the bar?
I came back from living in Japan and was unemployed. I was looking for a job anywhere, considering going to law school. I was college friends with Don Lee and on a whim said, "Hey, Don, are you guys hiring?" And he said yes. I trained for a while with him and John Deragon, then Jim stepped in and taught me a lot. I realized that working in an office is so not for me. I quit my office job and it's been a progression ever since.
So, do you still think you'll go to law school?
Oh, God, no!
So many cocktail bars in the city are Prohibition era-themed. Are you over that style of bar?
Personally, I'm over it. It was a good way to establish the cocktail scene. It helped to find a tie to the past to give it a feeling of being legitimate and not just a bunch of drunk people throwing drinks together. We saw that it's a tradition and involves scholarship and all that. But at this point, it's already established as a real, truly American thing, which is cool. So, now what? We know we don't have to dress like Orson Welles to make a good daiquiri. ... I do wear suspenders, though. Suspenders are a key element when I'm behind the bar.