While in New York I had the chance to stop by one of the nation’s iconic restaurants, Eleven Madison Park. Sitting at the bar there was an eye opener for me, as I watched craft cocktails be poured alongside Chateau Haut Brion. This was clearly the upper echelon of the New York bar scene. My tourguide for the night was bartender Matt Seigel. Matt had recently completed his Level 1 sommelier certification so we talked wine, cocktails and fine dining. A former DJ in LA, Matt has found his sweet spot with bartending and creating some incredible cocktails for Eleven Madison. I recently had the chance to talk wine and spirits with him and found him incredible interesting and insightful. For those interested in the Level 1 Somm Certification, he shed some light on obtaining his certification and also talked about the details in some of the incredible craft cocktails at Eleven Madison Park. For more info check out http://www.elevenmadisonpark.com/
Here is my interview with Matt Seiegel, former bartender at Eleven Madison Park
WWB: You have a background in music and were integrated in the LA music industry. Can you talk about what that was like and how you started getting interested in bartending?
MS: Absolutely, I was in the music industry as a record producer and DJ for over 10 years but have always had a strong passion for food/beverage/hospitality. I can recall years ago living with my brother and we were always into different spirits and finding aged rums and bourbons to sip on. Eventually we got sick of drinking rum and cokes and started doing some homework and teaching ourselves how to make proper cocktails. However, I didn’t really learn anything until I got my chance to be part of the incredible team at Eleven Madison Park.
The story of how I got the job is a really long one so I won’t bore you with it, but I still to this day am shocked that they hired me, considering I had absolutely no experience whatsoever. That being said, I do have an incredible work ethic and I think they saw that in me, that’s the key to working at a place like that, if you can’t push yourself to work harder than everybody else, it’s just not going to work. Being that I was self-employed in the music industry (which is one of the most difficult, yet rewarding career choices anyone could make) I had no problem pushing myself to work extremely hard, I knew I had a huge mountain to climb especially since I had to start completely from scratch. Even the most basic things were all brand new to me, however once I worked my way through the dining room and got to where I wanted to be which was behind the bar, which was when I really saw the light. To me the idea of putting a song together and putting a cocktail together are exactly the same process. It’s the same part of the brain and calls for the same amount of science, math, style, creativity, and history. That’s what I love about it, the blend of both the creative process as well as the precision, but even more so than that is my truly genuine love of hospitality. Seeing the look on someone’s face as you are making their day is seriously the best feeling. That is something that I just wasn’t getting from music, yes you have that feeling when on stage, but it’s just not the same. That sort of desire to nurture and give is something that can’t be taught, you can be taught how to do it better but that natural instinct is either inside of you or it isn’t. Whether it’s going in their ears or their mouth via a song or a drink, it’s all the same.
WWB: You mentioned that you have recently passed the Court of Master Sommeliers Level 1 Sommelier Certification. Can you talk about that process and the challenges that comes with learning about the world of wine?
MS: It’s funny, I decided to do it with a co-worker of mine very last minute as sort of a test of how much we have really learned just by being around all of the wine and intelligent people at EMP. I didn’t study much and was actually really surprised at how hard that test was, fortunately I passed but it was a lot more in depth than I originally thought. I was naïve enough to think, “Oh, I can do this, I hear about wine every day.” It’s definitely not that easy and I apologize to anyone in the Court for even having that thought. Furthermore to even begin to think about what some of the guys (and girls) on our team put themselves through to study for Advanced and then Masters meanwhile working at a restaurant as demanding as EMP is unfathomable to me. I really have to shine a light on how absolutely incredible our wine team is. They are so supportive of the whole staff, they even teach classes every Wednesday for whomever on the staff wants to show up, each week a different sommelier picks whatever topic they want and we taste, discuss, learn, etc. Since I have been at the bar, I was guided by my fellow bartenders to really put my head down and study more spirits, classic cocktails, history, etc. and that trying to do that coupled with studying for my Certified was going to be too much to handle. With that in mind I decided to go for more of the spirit and cocktail route and am very happy that I did as it allowed me to prosper more in my actual job, but that being said, I have really learned to love and appreciate wine. Before working there I really had no idea about wine other than just white vs. red, but just being around it really helps you learn. I seriously picked up so much just through osmosis, but I feel like once you start to learn a little bit and you can break through that initial wall which seems so incredibly daunting it really becomes easier. If you truly enjoy it, then you remember grapes, regions, producers, etc. that you like and it is enjoyable rather than feeling like studying. I do plan to study for and take my certified exam some time in the near future, and I’ll definitely have to dedicate some time and really study for that one!
WWB: At Eleven Madison Park you offer some signature cocktails such as the 5th word and the Empire Cocktail. Can you talk about the attention to detail in these fantastic craft cocktail and the challenges with making these perfectly?
MS: Since we met our menu has changed, as it changes every season congruent to the food menu and even mirrors the flavors and ingredients. Since we are now onto our spring menu I’ll discuss some of those cocktails (if that’s ok) in an attempt to keep things current. The way our cocktail program works is we are incredibly seasonal and use our incredibly talented kitchen as inspiration. What I mean by that is we base a number of our cocktails on dishes that are on the menu, as well as doing our interpretations of classic New York cocktails. Those are the two staples of our program and what just about every cocktail on our menu is based upon. Let’s take for example The 5th Word and The Empire Cocktail.
The 5th Word is essentially a Crème Fraiche based Piña Colada. There is a dish on the menu right now that is Mushrooms and Crème Fraiche, so with that in mind I decided to use Crème Fraiche which I fortified with an Agave Syrup in lieu of traditional Heavy Cream coupled with our Coconut Syrup (like a normal Piña Colada) as the sweeteners. However, instead of all Rum I decided to go for a bit of a darker, more savory route to emulate the umami you get from mushrooms. To do that, I used a touch of Amaro Averna and then a split base of Cognac and aged Cachaça (Brazil’s version of Rum made from Sugarcane). I even added a tiny bit of Lemon juice, which is not normally in this type of drink, but I felt it needed some acid to cut through all of heavy flavors (just like Chef does in the kitchen) The result is still full bodied and round like a classic Piña Colada, however this version is a touch more savory, then tart from the Crème Fraiche and the Lemon, and a little less sweet than the classic. The toughest part of this cocktail aside from carefully balancing all of those potentially dominant flavors was making the Crème Fraiche Agave. Using Crème Fraiche on its own was a bit too tart/lactic/savory so fortifying it with some Agave gave it some body and roundness, also made it easier to use (which was as important as the flavor and texture). Too much Crème Fraiche and its too tart and savory, too much Agave and it’s too viscous and sweet, fortunately it didn’t take too long to get it right, but when making proprietary ingredients as we tend to do a lot of, you have to be very careful and incredibly exact.
The Empire is our take on a classic originally crafted by Patrick Gavin Duffy at the Ashland House which was on 24th& 4th (which is now Park) so almost exactly where EMP now stands. The original recipe simply calls for French Vermouth, Dry Sherry, and Orange Bitters, that’s it, essentially a wine cocktail. So with that in mind, when deciding where to go with that particular recipe we had a fair amount of leeway, we also always have a section on our menu for Aperitif cocktails so that one just seemed perfect. In old cocktail books when they mention “French Vermouth” that normally means Dry where “Italian Vermouth” means Sweet. I decided to take that a bit further and use both a Dry and a Blanc Vermouth from France, Fino Sherry, and then for a touch more Orange note as well as some body a bit of Combier, as well as Orange Bitters and a dash of Absinthe. All of these together make for my favorite aperitif cocktail that I’ve ever crafted. I am a huge fan of Vermouth and the way that all of these ingredients work together is just so light and delicate that the execution is crucial. Too much dilution and the cocktail is instantly dead. We serve it in a double rocks glass with a large block of ice to keep the wine nice and cold without over diluting. Since all of the ingredients are very low in alcohol they can’t stand up to the heavy icing that say a Manhattan would get, so we do a very, very short stir and then straight into the glass and garnish with an Orange twist to finish the whole thing off with that beautiful Orange note.
WWB: You have some very strong sommeliers on staff at Eleven Madison Park? What has been the process in learning from them? How can having the sommeliers around you improve your beverage and bartending abilities?
MS: As I mentioned in the previous question, our sommeliers are insanely smart and talented, but above all are so willing to teach and share. That is what sets our wine team apart from everywhere else. Being that I am not part of that team I feel as though I can gush about them without sounding conceited. We (the bar and wine team) work very close and try very hard to make sure the rest of the dining room and even kitchen staff have ample knowledge of everything that we are doing. Not just for the sake of the guest so that they can have the best experience possible (yes, that is the ultimate goal of everything) but also just for the staff themselves, we all strive to have as much knowledge and information as we can because we truly care and are actually interested.
We also keep a large amount of our white, sparkling, and sweet wine behind the bar so we (the bartenders) are literally forced to be aware of what wine is in there. I also will use our somms palates for cocktails I am working on all the time. Every time I make something I have one of our sommeliers taste it and give me feedback. They have the best palates in the building and I love getting as much input as possible when I’m crafting a drink, I don’t think that just because I like it that it’s perfect, absolutely not. Clearly the bar team tastes everyone else’s cocktails, that is how we make our menu, but having the luxury of some of the best palates in New York tasting things with you and talking about flavors, balance, mouth feel, and food pairings is absolutely intangible. I wouldn’t be even a quarter as knowledgeable about anything beverage if not for the incredible wine team at both EMP and The NoMad.