Bergen Hill bartender Sother Teague spent several years in the kitchen before he ever stepped foot behind the bar. After cooking his way through nearly a dozen states, a gig as the Research and Technical Chef for Food Network’s Good Eats with Alton Brown, and a teaching role at the New England Culinary Institute, he found his way to NYC. “I was hired to be a bartender for a six-month commitment and never went back to the kitchen,” he says. “I instantly fell in love with being a part of the guest’s experience, which was something that was nearly impossible from behind the kitchen doors.” After several years spent helming the bar at the bitters-focused Amor y Amargo, he joined the team at Bergen Hill, the seafood-driven restaurant that reopened in Noho this June. Here, Teague discusses his spirit of the moment, the lesson he abides by on the daily, and why food and cocktails have more in common than meets the eye.
BoozeMenus: What's your approach behind the bar?
Sother Teague: As in cooking, I'm a classicist. I like classic cocktails. They've stood the test of time. They have nothing to prove. If you can master them, you'll never be without an audience.
BM: What kind of research went into the creation of the cocktail list at Bergen Hill?
ST: At Bergen Hill the bar-space and back of house is very limited, so we discussed the idea of only offering a limited menu of classics and little else. Our wine list is pretty incredible, and with it being a mostly raw seafood concept, wine is a driving factor. We debated the merits of many classics before settling on our list with the hopes it was broad-reaching enough but still fit the ethos and palette of the restaurant. We're also planning to expand a list of grape-based spirits like Cognac, Armagnac, and grappa to be poured neat or on the rocks to compliment all of that grape-based wine.
BM: Which cocktail are you most excited to introduce people to?
ST: I prefer to think of it as a re-introduction, and it would be the 50/50 Martini. Bracingly chilled but not a complete hammer on the palette or the liver. It's sophisticated and not brutish. Perfect to sip as a preprandial or alongside crudo.
BM: Many people reach for wine when eating seafood - what should they know about pairing up cocktails with seafood?
ST: The dishes that Tony makes here are balanced and can pair beautifully with the wine selections we have available. But, they're also bold enough to pair with a classic. I think people should be aware that cocktails and food can pair just as well. You're not relegated to pre and post dinner cocktails with wine during the meal. If you enjoy a Negroni to start your meal, consider that the deliciously bitter citrus notes will likely play well with seafood.
BM: What's your personal favorite food and drink pairing at the restaurant now, and why does it work so well?
ST: It's a hot one this summer in NYC. If I were on the shore, I'd have a lobster roll and a Narragansett lager, but here at the restaurant, the lobster toast with hearts of palm and a French 75 elevate that notion. Though typically made with gin today, I stick with tradition and use Pierre Ferrand Cognac. It's effervescent and balanced.
BM: What's the biggest lesson you've learned in this industry?
ST: I'm a pretty keen observer of the human condition, so I believe this to be self-taught: In the bar biz, you never know when or where you'll see someone again. It's best to be nice and hospitable to everyone. No one wants to feel left out at the party. I strive to be a great host.
BM: What spirit or liqueur are you loving most right now?
ST: Armagnac has my full attention at present. It's the crafty sibling to Cognac. It's scrappy and tough but still elegant and surprising. It's who I want to go to the dance with right now.
BM: What has been a favorite behind the bar moment for you within the past month?
ST: I had a guest celebrating his birthday. He asked a lot of questions and had a few cocktails. He was really engaged. His older brother was with him and wasn't as fascinated about the conversations we were having. I asked him why he chose to visit on his birthday and he said he knew of my reputation and wanted to enjoy some classic cocktails. I thought to myself "This kid’s going places". Did I mention it was his 21st birthday?
BM: Is there anything you won't eat or drink, or is everything fair game?
ST: If someone on earth eats it, so will I.
BM: How has your knowledge of the kitchen informed your work behind the bar?
ST: I view cocktails the same way I view soups or sauces. I look for balance and exceptional flavor while using simple, honest ingredients. My Instagram profile reads "I used to cook food, now I just make chilled soup.” @CreativeDrunk.
By Nicole Schnitzler
(Photos from left: Interior by Stephanie Kimberly; Sother Teague; Cocktail)