Maine Restaurant Chat – With Adam Woodfin
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Welcome to The Chefs Of Maine first of many Restaurant Chats. In these series we’ll be asking Chefs & Bartenders around the state of Maine questions that’ll give you a glimpse into the wild world of the Maine culinary scene.
Where Do You Work Now?
What’s Your Position?
Where Else Have You Worked?
I split my time between Portland and Bar Harbor. I work at Boone’s Fish House and Oyster Room through the winter and spring, then I worked at Jack Russell’s Steakhouse though the summer and fall. At both restaurants, I had the title of simply, “Bartender”. I’ve taken management roles in the past and realized long ago that the paperwork and headaches aren’t for me. I like to make drinks, talk to customers, and spend time behind the bar. Previously, I’ve made a bit of a rotation around the Portland area.
How Did You Get Involved In Restaurants? What Draws You To This Line Of Work?
My restaurant career started washing dishes in the cafeteria of a small college in Bar Harbor. I was 14 and my friend and I took the job together. I didn’t know it until I actually showed up to the first day of work that I was going to be the dishwasher and he got to refill the buffet, but his dad ran the kitchen and favorite cards were played. During my next two summers, I took a job as a busboy at a restaurant on Main St. and on my third summer I moved up to waiting tables. I was probably the worst server you’ve ever seen. 17, and absolutely no knowledge of food or drinks. I was just trying to get through the shift without having the owner yell at me from behind the line. I stuck with it for a couple of summers and finally began to pick up the nuances of the job. I got bigger and better sections and finally started to be able to fake like I knew what I was doing.
I went to college in New York and got a job waiting tables in my “spare” time. I lived about a block away from the restaurant I worked at. I remember we were getting a huge snowstorm one day, the head bartender lived miles away and kind of causally said, “You can handle this tomorrow, let me just show you how to work the QuickDraw machine” and threw me to the wolves. I survived, and began to like the fact that I got to make something to present to the guests. These were nothing more than shots and beers, but it felt totally different than just being an errand boy bringing things to tables.
After college, I moved to Portland and applied anywhere I could. I landed a job at an upscale steakhouse that was leaps and bounds higher than anything I’d done before. I applied as a server but they saw bartender on my resume and tossed me behind the stick. I was terrified. I remember my trainer bringing me back to the walk-in and grabbing an entire case each of lemons and limes. I couldn’t imagine garnishing that many drinks. Oh, we’re SQUEEZING those?
Little did I know, I’d been tossed into the pit with a cocktail legend, John Myers. I remember my lightbulb moment where everything finally clicked and I realized there was an art to this. John and I were closing up and he went on a Hendrix-fueled rant about how Hendrix is everything that’s wrong with gin. Until then, I had thought people just drank what they wanted because of brand loyalty, advertising and all that. I spent the next three years working side by side with him absorbing every bit of knowledge I possibly could. I suppose the rest is history.
I love this industry because nothing else ticks the same boxes. I like the hours, I like the social aspect, I love creating cocktails and that moment when you slide a drink across the bar and see a guests eyes light up. The best compliments I’ve ever received are the ones guest don’t think I hear.
What’s Your Favorite Drink To Make?
I don’t think there should be a favorite or a least favorite, we’re here to make all of them. When I train bartenders, I tell them that they’re absolutely going to make drinks that are downright repulsive, but we’re not here to judge. If someone sits down and orders a gin and milk, you make them the best goddamn gin and milk they’ve ever had.
How Do You Feel About The Mixology Movement? Does that term appeal to you, not appeal to you? What do you think it means to be involved in the bartender culture if you agree that there is one?
I’m 100% for elevating one’s craft. I would never attempt to do anything and not try to be the best that I could possibly be at it. There’s always something new to learn or a new technique to master. That said, I hate that title. I’m a bartender. “Chef” works just fine for every level, we are no different. I don’t think that just because one person is clarifying lime juice and smoking glasses, it qualifies as a different career than the person pouring shots of Doctor and popping Bud Lights. But, most hipsters I meet always say they hate hipsters…
On your days off, what kind of places do you frequent? A lot of industry folk are happier with a Miller High Life and a Fernet than composed cocktails or craft beer. What about you?
I have the same handful of hangouts, and I drink different things at each place. I think it’s more important to choose the bar based on what you’re looking to drink rather than the other way around. Don’t order a Sazarac at a dive, don’t start ripping shots at a fine-dining spot. I’m not picky, I’ll always find something I’m into no matter where I’m meeting up with people. But read the room. And if I’m the one calling where we go, it’ll be the spot that’s got live music.
What do you always keep stocked at home? Are there different things you like to drink or to make for special occasions?
I don’t overthink things at home. I’m usually looking for the easiest thing that tastes good after a shift. I keep a decent bar but nothing more than the basics honestly. The “five bottle bar” seems to handle most of the itches I ever need scratched. But, these days 9 times out of 10, I’m drinking gin with crappy store brand diet tonic and a splash of grapefruit. Although if there’s food happening, it’s always wine.
Are you excited about one spirit in particular? Are there any spirits that you find to be overrated or underrated?
I’m excited about all kinds of spirits coming out, but there are so many classics that deserve the respect they’ve earned. I appreciate putting new spins on classic cocktails and the classics revolve around classic spirits. I suppose to my point on “mixology”, don’t forget where you’re coming from.
Vermouth is completely underrated. The world thinks that vermouth ends at the same bottles I’ll leave unnamed that every bar has behind it, but that’s a rabbit hole that runs deep. Amaros are finally getting their due respect as well, although they can easily be overdone.
For overrated spirits, anything you’ve seen too much advertising for. Tall bird-clad bottles of vodka or short stubby tequila bottles aren’t even close to the top shelf for their price range. There’s always a direct competitor to the big ad campaign stuff that’s way cheaper and just as refined.
What’s something you wish the average guest knew about your job, not service-wise, but related to the craft of bartending. (In other words, apart from common courtesy and being a good guest, what’s something you think everybody should know about bartending?)
This Is my job. I’m not doing this while I wait for my screenplay to take off. I haven’t been to college in 11 years (although I appreciate the fact you think I look that young). Yes, I got my degree. No, I’m not just doing this because I haven’t found anything else. That’s great that you used to bartend when you were younger, I’m sure it was a different world then.
I do this because I love the craft (see above). I’ve tried other things and absolutely hated them. I’ve chosen to stick with this because I love it. The combination of creation, socialization, lifestyle, and heck, even exercise are what draw me to this craft. Come sit at my bar and let me pour you one. To quote the great Sother Teague “Tell me I sent you.”