It was a nomadic upbringing that instilled in Employees Only bartender Dev Johnson a passion to engage with others. “I moved quite a bit as a kid — almost every 2 years,” he explains. “I learned over the course of my childhood to communicate with people from all different ideas and walks of life.” So when the opportunity arose at Johnson’s first restaurant gig (Chaya Venice in Los Angeles) for him to move from bussing tables to the more conversational art of tending bar, he didn’t hesitate. “Of all the people in the restaurant, the bartenders were the coolest,” he recalls. “The thing that struck me the most was the interaction with the guest — it was more relaxed and friendly, and it seemed to be more on an equal footing.” Here, we chat with the Los Angeles native about the drink he’s most amped about serving, the three hats he wears on the nightly, and the reasons behind Employees Only’s cult following and nonstop accolades — including a #5 spot on this year’s World’s Best Bars list.
BoozeMenus: How would you describe your approach behind the bar?
Dev Johnson: Nonchalant, no nonsense, relaxed yet focused and fun. I do my best to please my guests and find the thing that they really want. A lot of people come in asking for "something with gin/whiskey/vodka/tequila/rum" for example. Or they say, “just make me something.” That is the perfect time to start a conversation with them. Asking questions like "do you prefer boozy drinks? Light and refreshing? Fruity? Not to be confused with sweet." Or I'll simply ask, "what do you normally drink?" I'll try to determine the mood of the person or persons I’m serving. Are they on a date? Are they feeling like getting after it a bit? What is the occasion? I also consider if and what they are eating, if it's the first drink of the night and if they sit with me for a while, I try to take them on a journey.
BM: One could say it's easy to bounce around in NYC's hospitality industry because of the sheer volume of reputable establishments. What has caused you to stay with EO for as long as you have?
DJ: Simple. The owners and the brotherhood that they created and that we continue to pass down to our Apprentices, which they pass down to their Apprentices, and so on.
BM: Most establishments also don't require the extremely thorough behind the bar training that EO does. What was that experience like, and what led you to stick with it?
DJ: It's an intense experience. I had been tending bar already for almost 10 years when I got in the door at EO. I had to start at the bottom just like everyone else. I was happy to do it. The moment I walked into that place I resonated with the energy there. There was something very special about the interactions with the owners, who were still tending bar at the time, and their employees. And I think that reflects in the way our guests feel when they sit at the bar.
BM: How do you leave your mark on a cocktail list that has remained fairly consistent for almost a decade?
DJ: Whew! Hard work. Trial and error. Practice. Study. Many failed attempts and it just takes that one that everyone is like "That’s the one!"
I think when trying to leave your mark on a list that has such a strong history, it behooves you to pay respect to the style of cocktail that is already there. Then elevate that style, try to improve on it, add to it. Be the progression of it rather than trying to change it. I believe the cocktail menu can in some ways be the identity of the bar, an expression of the lineage of that bar.
BM: What are the top three most important traits for you to exhibit as a bartender?
DJ: The Sage, the Rockstar and the Mixologist. The Sage is the wise man. He's the one that knows when to serve this or that or when to just watch, etc. The Rockstar is the one who knows how to throw a party, to move the crowd, as it were. And the Mixologist is the one that knows and understands his tools: the shaker, the spoon, the ice. All of the different tools he has sitting behind him in all those pretty sparkling bottles on the back bar.
BM: What cocktail are you most excited to turn people on to?
DJ: The one that will make them the happiest. But that is different for everyone. I also enjoy the one that they didn't expect they'd like. To see that smile cross their lips when they realize, "oh, I actually do like that!" I sometimes like to challenge people’s ideas about what they think they like. But only if they are open and receptive to it.
BM: When's the last time you needed to pull up a drink recipe?
DJ: Maybe once or twice a month to be honest. Sometimes, if I've forgotten the recipe to a drink I haven't made in 10 years. Sometimes it's a cocktail that I've never heard of. I'm still learning everyday.
BM: What do you find to be more important in the bartending game: technique or tools?
DJ: Technique without a doubt. Tools can be made to serve a purpose they weren't necessarily meant to serve. Technique is the foundation.
BM: Who has been your biggest mentor in this field?
DJ: As a group, the owners of Employees Only. The owners showed me that this "job" could actually be a career. They gave me what I jokingly like to call my Master's in Bartending. I'm still working on that Ph.D.!
BM: What did a successful night at EO look like when you started, and what does it look like now?
DJ: To be perfectly honest, the same as it did when I started: People leaving the bar in a better place than they were in when they arrived.
BM: What food/drink do you crave post-work?
DJ: It differs from night to night. But after being behind the bar for 10 plus hours, any food is welcome!
By Nicole Schnitzler
(Photos From Left: Almost There cocktail; Dev Johnson; Royal Charter cocktail)