Bar­tender mixes drinks with Sichuan style

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSSAMERICA - By WIL­LIAM HEN­NELLY in New York williamhen­nelly@ chi­nadai­

To bar­tender Ran Duan, the most im­por­tant in­gre­di­ent in a cock­tail isn’t ac­tu­ally part of the drink.

“The first key in­gre­di­ent to a de­li­cious cock­tail is hos­pi­tal­ity,” says Duan, who runs the Bald­win Bar at the Sichuan Gar­den II restau­rant in Woburn, Mas­sachusetts.

Maybe there’s a lit­tle irony in that state­ment com­ing from a 28-year-old who re­cently won Bom­bay Sap­phire’s US Most Imag­i­na­tive Bar­tender contest, which in­cluded bar­tenders from across North Amer­ica. Duan’s vic­tory and his win­ning cock­tail, The Monar­chy, also were fea­tured in the De­cem­ber is­sue of GQ mag­a­zine.

Duan’s un­stint­ing stan­dards are what bring peo­ple from miles away for a seat at his bar in the Bos­ton sub­urbs.

For in­stance, he carves his own ice.

“Ice is one of the most im­por­tant in­gre­di­ents you use in a cock­tail,” Duan said. “It can make or break a cock­tail. It’s all about ice, crys­tal clear, made from a chain belt, forces all of the air bub­bles out of the ice. Slow melt­ing ra­tio. Slower the ice melts, the drink won’t di­lute as quickly.”

Duan came into bar­tend­ing some­what by ne­ces­sity and tra­di­tion. His fam­ily owns two Chi­nese restau­rants in the Bos­ton area — Sichuan Gar­den I in Brook­line and Sichuan Gar­den II in Woburn.

Duan, who was born in Chengdu, Sichuan prov­ince, came to the US at the age of 3 when both of his par­ents earned mu­sic schol­ar­ships to study opera at Louisiana State Univer­sity in Ba­ton Rouge.

The fam­ily even­tu­ally moved to the Bos­ton area when Duan’s fa­ther, Xiaoyi, pur­sued a master’s de­gree in opera at Bos­ton Univer­sity.

Jobs for opera singers are not so plen­ti­ful in the US, Duan joked.

“We had to re­sort to Plan B; that was Chi­nese restau­rants,” he said.

“My fa­ther had a bar … typ­i­cal Chi­nese restau­rant cock­tail pro­gram,” Duan said. “Cut­ting cor­ners, not us­ing fresh juices, not the best spir­its you can find. Scor­pion bowls, mai tais, zom­bies.”

When he took over the bar in 2009, Duan, by then a grad­u­ate of John­son & Wales Univer­sity in Prov­i­dence, Rhode Is­land, with a de­gree in hos­pi­tal­ity, said he made it “a lit­tle more crafted to­ward qual­ity”.

“There’s never been an Asian restau­rant able to el­e­vate the food with the drinks,” he said.

“The thing I love about Chi­nese cui­sine is it brings a sense of umami (from the Ja­panese for sa­vory taste) in all fla­vors — sweet, salty, tex­tu­rally, sa­vory — ev­ery el­e­ment is al­ways en­light­ened.

“All my cock­tails I def­i­nitely try to have the same di­men­sion, same sa­vori­ness, to make them more crave­able; it helps to pair with the food.

“A per­fectly made cock­tail is ex­actly like a per­fectly ex­e­cuted meal,” he said.

“We’ve cre­ated our own niche mar­ket,” Duan said of his restau­rant. “We’re fi­nally catch­ing on; so blessed with in­dus­try peers sup­port­ing us.

Part of the buzz comes from an em­pha­sis on wel­com­ing cus­tomers, which Duan stresses to his bar staff.

“It’s not just about the cock­tail. It’s about the ser­vice, the hos­pi­tal­ity.”

Duan says be­ing cor­dial pays div­i­dends in tips, even if one is mak­ing a sim­ple drink.

“Even if they want a Jack and Coke or a vodka tonic, it’s go­ing to be the eas­i­est $10 you ever made,” he said.

De­spite the ex­otic cock­tails he makes for him­self, he’s not a bar snob.

“I’ll go to Ap­ple­bee’s; I’ll go to the lo­cal dive bar if the bar­tender is right,” he said. “Even if I go to a lo­cal and I get a shot of Jame­son’s and a beer, and they’re su­per friendly, that’s go­ing to make my night.”

Duan’s hos­pi­tal­ity skills were put to the test on Dec 5, the day he be­came in­volved in a tense e-mail ex­change with Har­vard business pro­fes­sor Ben­jamin Edel­man over a $4 over­charge on Edel­man’s take­out or­der.

Duan ad­mit­ted that his restau­rant’s web­site hadn’t up­dated the prices, while Edel­man, a lawyer, cited a Mas­sachusetts con­sumer pro­tec­tion statute that cus­tomers who are over­charged should re­ceive tre­ble da­m­ages.

Edel­man said he would have dropped the mat­ter if he had re­ceived a $4 re­fund promptly, but now wants a 50 per­cent dis­count.

Duan said the company that man­ages the web­site has re­moved the out­dated menu.

Edel­man is­sued an apol­ogy on Wed­nes­day in a let­ter pub­lished on bos­

Their back-and-forth over chili and peanut prawns, among other del­i­ca­cies, found its way onto ma­jor news site in the US, Canada and the UK. China Daily in­ter­viewed Duan be­fore the take­out flap.

Dis­putes over take­out aside, the fu­ture seems lim­it­less for Duan, who also con­sults for restau­rants and has been kept even busier lately by the birth of a son.

“We’re def­i­nitely in a cock­tail re­nais­sance right now, go­ing along the whole vibe of or­ganic foods,” he said. “In the ’80s, ’90s, no one re­ally took cock­tails that se­ri­ously. It be­came more ob­ses­sive.

“It’s amaz­ing to see Bos­ton as a cock­tail city ad­vance com­pared to five years ago,” said Duan, who is look­ing for sites around the city to open another bar.

“It’s def­i­nitely evolv­ing into some­thing that hope­fully can com­pete against New York.”

And what about go­ing in­ter­na­tional?

“Asia loves Western-style bar­tend­ing,” he said. “I have so many friends who have moved to Asia who are just killing it,” in­clud­ing one col­league who opened a bar in Shang­hai called el Ocho that is “get­ting some amaz­ing press”.

“It’s nice to see the cock­tail revo­lu­tion spread across the world,” Duan said.

As for whether Duan sees him­self set­ting up shop in China some­day, he wants to work on his writ­ten Chi­nese first, but he does speak Man­darin and Sichuan.

About that win­ning cock­tail, The Monar­chy (recipe be­low); it in­cluded some in­trigu­ing in­gre­di­ents, such as “brown but­ter fat-washed” house Bom­bay Sap­phire ap­ple liquor, which is best left for Duan to de­scribe:

“Tak­ing brown but­ter and throw­ing it into the ap­ple cor­dial,” he ex­plained. “You let it sit and mix, and all that sa­vori­ness, the vis­cos­ity of the fat in­fused into the gin … you put that in the freezer for a cou­ple of hours.

“All the fat sep­a­rates from the spirit, and floats to the top, like gravy, heavy sauce. Once it sep­a­rates, you then scoop out the brown but­ter fat. You’re left with in­fused spirit that doesn’t have any fat in it. It tastes rich.”

In May, Duan will com­pete in the Bom­bay Sap­phire in­ter­na­tional bar­tend­ing com­pe­ti­tion in London.

“I will be the only bar­tender rep­re­sent­ing Amer­ica,” he said. “Hope­fully, I’ll make Amer­ica proud in the world fi­nals.”


re def­i­nitely in a cock­tail re­nais­sance right now, go­ing along the whole vibe of or­ganic foods.” RAN DUAN BAR­TENDER


Ran Duan, Bom­bay Sap­phire’s Most Imag­i­na­tive Bar­tender contest-win­ner in North Amer­ica, prac­tices his craft in Mas­sachusetts.

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