Labels can become very important to many people. It draws lines, it creates definition, it abandons, or embraces tradition, and it can sometimes create separations. Is it important to have a label which clearly provides separation between the "artist" and the "craftsman"?
Recently, "Bar Chef" has been bantered about as a term that perhaps provides an appropriate title for the visionaries of the industry. While in a purely literal sense, it probably does get the idea across, for some reason it just doesn't provide what I feel is the appropriate essence of the intent. But what exactly are the issues, and options available here?
For my regular readers, it is well known that I am intent on raising the visibility of cocktails as a form of cuisine that is every much a craft, or even art, as the food that might be served in the best of restaurants. The roll of both the bartender and the master chef is to carefully mix up a variety of ingredients in order to provide the customer with something that doesn't just satisfy their hunger (or thirst) but provides them with a taste experience that is carefully crafted and balanced to maximize all of the flavors involved.
As the name of course implies, a Bartender is somebody who works behind the bar and mix drinks for you. They in essence "Tend the Bar", fulfilling the same roll as their predecessors have been doing for hundreds of years. If you look at their compatriots in the kitchen, you will find a variety of names, titles, and designations used to differentiate the various tasks and abilities, but for the bartender there is only one recognized name commonly used.
When I consider the title of "Bartender", I can't help but to equate its scope to similarly simple job designations such as Goatherder, Groundskeeper, Bookkeeper, or Salesman. Simple, no nonsense titles for positions that rarely need more then a semi-trained individual to fulfill the duties at hand.
Of course herding goats or maintaining somebody’s property isn’t very similar to working behind a bar. Let’s look at some positions of a similar "style", and as I've already pointed out we don’t have to go much further then just a few paces away where the food is being cooked. In a restaurant, the closest thing to working behind the bar, is working behind the stove. In either position, the individual is combining and preparing ingredients in a skilled and professional manner that the customer has ordered and wishes to ingest. Hopefully the similarity between these two positions is obvious.
In the kitchen, you have prep-cooks and line-cooks, which are the "beasts of burden". Working long and hard, executing on the designs and inspirations that come from those above them. You can think of them as the "goat herders" of the kitchen. Depending on the size and organization of a kitchen, there can be many different "labels" applied to describe the various jobs involved, but at the top of the food-chain (no pun intended) would be the souse chef and "chef" (a.k.a. Executive Chef). The souse chef is "second in command" of the kitchen, while the chef is the one who is ultimately responsible for the entire kitchen, and the food that comes out of it. The chef owns the "vision" of the menu, designing the dishes, researching the ingredients, and making sure that the delectable meals that they create are possible to be re-created in a cost-efficient manner by the staff at their disposal.
In my own mind, I view the term "bartender" as being roughly similar with "line-cook". They know the recipes, the processes, and the procedures. They follow through with quickly churning out the product based on the incoming orders. They know how to work efficiently and diligently at their craft, and while their overall job description doesn’t really include any requirement to create new additions to the menu, they probably like to dabble in this from time to time.
In some restaurants, there may be no "chef" or "souse chef". A restaurant that individually doesn’t regularly need "new" dishes on their menu can usually do quite well with having an experienced team of "line-cooks" who can learn the dishes and serve them out. The actual recipes and menu items they will use come from somewhere else. In many ways this is similar to how most places run their bars. There is no creative "inspiration" going on in the menu. There is no culinary "vision" in the quality of the product. There is no need to do more then regurgitate the recipes which long hours of training have burned into their memories.
Thus, at least in this frame of context, we have the definition of a "bartender". Somebody who "tends the bar", and is capable of efficiently churning out a multitude of recipes that they have committed to memory.
But what if your obligations extend above this? What if your role is more visionary, more creative, and more individualistic then simply being a "Drink Herder"? Does the term bartender still apply? Bar Manager doesn’t quite fit the bill, just as Restaurant Manager or Kitchen Manager wouldn’t come close to being the right label for an Executive Chef or Souse Chef.
Besides such labels as Bartender, Bar Chef, Master Bartender, or Beverage Director, "Mixologist" is a term that is also attempting to provide some support here. But while the differentiation between line-cook, souse chef, and chef is one that denotes a certain "chain of command", the term Mixologist is more representative of a personal level of ability and knowledge, then it is of position.
Myself, I am quite accomplished in the exquisite preparation of both cocktails and food. But since I don’t "work in the industry", I am neither a bartender nor a chef. For me, the term "mixologist" works well, specifically because it does refer more to "ability". While there isn’t really a similar term for my cooking experience, the usage of "Gourmet" works well enough.
But where does all of this leave us? What is the proper label to apply to those individuals who rise above the proletariat expectations that the simple term of "Bartender" might imply? Personally, I don't think the right title has yet been brought to light. However, when you think about it what would such a title be, but simply a label that can be applied to somebody who has already proven their abilities. When you get right down to it, I could care less what they might call themselves as long as the bartender mixing up my cocktail shared my passion and enthusiasm for the liquid cuisine that was their craft.
Perhaps we should first concern ourselves with encouraging the craft of the cocktail amongst bartenders, and then once this is clearly accomplished, the names and labels used to designate the various duties and abilities will gradually evolve out of both use, and need.