HOTELS Interview: Raising the bar

Mike Ryan began his career firmly on the culinary path, attending cooking school in Chicago and working as a line cook and sous chef at Chicago restaurant Moto. While he was at Moto, however, he was asked to try his hand at bartending, and the experienced changed his perspective.

“This whole cocktail thing was really exciting to me,” Ryan said. “I’d done the food thing — at the time I was just really stoked to learn something new.”

He moved on to a job at Chicago cocktail lounge The Violet Hour, won a scholarship in the Cocktail Apprentice program at the annual Tales of the Cocktail event and helped launch Sable Kitchen & Bar in Chicago in 2010.

Most recently, Ryan was named to the newly created post of national manager of bar education for Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, a position that will allow him to oversee training and education for Kimpton’s bar teams and help open or refresh Kimpton bars and lounges across the United States.

“This role is something I’ve been working to create,” Ryan said. “I’m trying to work on my skill set, connecting with people — teaching, motivating and educating — and figuring out a way to activate that across the entire company.”

HOTELS spoke with Ryan about exactly what his new job entails, the explosion of the bar and cocktail culture and his favorite things to drink.

HOTELS: What appealed to you most as you worked to create this role?

Mike Ryan: My overall goal is constant improvement of the bar cultures at Kimpton, and that starts with education. It starts with understanding the spirits we’re using, really understanding guest interaction, and education is really where it all starts. It was a way for me to use my abilities translating all the various super-nerdy bits of information out there and package that into something accessible for people who maybe aren’t used to working at a crazy-high mixology level.

H: How do you accomplish that? 

MR: Education is the big focus. Every two weeks I lead a conference call with all of the lead bartenders and as many of our regular bartenders as want to dial in across the company.

We break that into a couple different components. One week we’ll have a call and discuss how to work with your PR person. What are the important things when dealing with PR? What sort of things are PR-worthy? How quickly do you need to respond to media? Then the next call we’ll do bourbon training. I’ll send out a bunch of information on bourbon distilleries and bourbon production, different types of bourbon — going through everything from the grain to the bottling to the water that’s used. I’ll lead the call and try to translate this information into a mode that’s more easily digested. Then I encourage our bartenders to turn around and give this information to their staff so it will continue to roll downhill.

I do a lot of traveling right now. There’s a lot of hands-on training with the bartenders, getting them to understand everything from the intricacies of the German beer that we’re pouring to the history of some of the classic cocktails we’re doing to the basics of fermentation to something as simple as guest interaction.

“It’s okay to say we’re not going to have everything people might ask for. We’re going to have to say no a few times. That’s the stuff that’s going to be more interesting in the long run.” – Mike Ryan
“It’s okay to say we’re not going to have everything people might ask for. We’re going to have to say no a few times. That’s the stuff that’s going to be more interesting in the long run.” – Mike Ryan

H: Why do you think there is so much interest in bar and cocktail culture today?

MR: It has been going on for a long time and sort of is an offshoot of the interest in eating well. Now when a new restaurant opens, it can’t just have the same cuisine everybody serves. The bar and cocktail thing is the same thing. It’s where people spend their disposable income. It’s where people go to forget about their troubles for a little while. Whether you’re a whiskey aficionado or whether you’re hip to the hottest mixology trends or whether you just like going out and having a good time, it’s something anybody can relate to.

H: Does your earlier experience as a chef help you behind the bar?

MR: Absolutely. There are plusses and minuses. I talk with my friends who have bartended their entire adult lives. They have a very specific perspective, sometimes a deeper understanding than I do. From a culinary perspective, I understand production. I understand methodology. I understand recipes. I understand work ethic. I understand hierarchy. Hierarchy in the bar world is kind of reinvented every time somebody opens a new bar. We have this generalized understanding that the leader of a bar is the head bartender or maybe the bar manager or maybe the F&B director. We still haven’t figured out what that leadership position is called.

The kitchen is a much more stratified chain of command. Behind the bar, everybody is almost their own animal. I think one of the biggest things that culinary experience brings to me is the ability to communicate and translate what it is we’re trying to do into something that’s repeatable. Also, I can go into a new property we’re opening and I can talk to the cooks and the chefs as a peer. I can show them my burn scars on my arms — I’ve done that.

H: Do you think you’ll ever return to the kitchen?

MR: I don’t think so. I’ve been out of the kitchen for so long now. I still love cooking. Actually, I’m pretty happy with it now because I cook at home more often. I actually enjoy it.

H: What are some common mistakes or misconceptions about bars and cocktails you see in the hotel industry, and what would you like to see change about hotels’ approach in this area?

MR: I’m really fortunate because Kimpton is dedicated to its F&B programs having their own identity. We don’t have cookie-cutters. Our bars and restaurants are all very independent.

I see a lot of restaurants take this very safe and almost banal approach. They try to go out of their way to avoid offending people. You don’t want to actually offend people, but it’s okay to have tight concepts. It’s okay to say we’re not going to have everything people might ask for. We’re going to have to say no a few times. That’s the stuff that’s going to be more interesting in the long run. That’s what’s going to give you a more independent identity.

Longer term, that trend is going to start to play out. Especially with changing demographics and where a lot of spending dollars coming from, there’s a lot of talk about the Millennials being the core up-and-coming demographic, and everybody is chasing that dollar. One of the big touchstones for that demographic is that sense of authenticity and that you’re doing something because you’re really excited about it, not because you’ve made money doing it before.

H: What is your go-to drink order?

MR: It really depends on where I’m at because the things I love to drink I’m not going to find everywhere. One of my favorite things is a nice chilled glass of fino sherry, which you definitely can’t get everywhere. I tend to go for fairly simple things — a classic gin martini is one of my favorite cocktails. It’s boozy and refreshing and complex. I tend to drink a lot of wine as well. I’m a big fan of lighter skins, fruity varietals, that sort of thing.