Profile: Rael Petit

Fig.9 Rael Petit serves up another ace!

SS: (Opens thick dossier with Rael’s name on it) If you had to give up one of your senses, which one would it be?

RP: That’s tough, ‘cause–I need them all. (laughs)

SS: I went with touch. I decided I could do without touch, but I needed everything else.

RP: Without touch. That’s tough. I never thought of that, actually. (laughs) Behind the bar it’s just like, it’s just so noisy, and everything’s just going fast, it’s like you need all your senses. At the end, knowing where everything is, like maybe seeing–

SS: Oh, really?

RP: Yeah. I’ve done dining events in dark rooms where you don’t see anything, so I’ve experienced that, I’ll say that would be my choice. Like the only one maybe, in a way.

SS: Okay. Fair enough.

RP: But I do need to touch and smell and things like this.

SS: Okay.

RP: Maybe I’d choose smell.

SS: All right, so now you’re gonna go with smell?

RP: Yeah.

SS: Okay. (Makes important note in Rael’s dossier) When was the last time you were in a fight?

RP: Last fight was eight months ago.

SS: That’s recent.

RP: Yes. But it was a quick one. It was just somebody at the bar being too drunk and I had to escort him out, and instead of leaving nicely, he started to try to swing at me, so I just protected myself but I didn’t go too far.

SS: Okay, good. We’re here at Lot 45, but how many places are you involved with now?

RP: Hard to tell–hard to count. I’m doing multiple projects right now, I have my own consulting company and catering, and then I also like manage couple hotels and bars.

SS: How do you split your time in a way that keeps everybody happy?

RP: Happy? A lot of yoga (laughs)…helps me keep my ADD in check…

SS: And do you plan for the week, do you say I’m gonna be here then, I’m gonna be there then–

RP: I plan 2 weeks in advance, so I can make sure everybody’s happy, and I do achieve the things that people ask me to do.

SS: And so far you’ve been able to–

RP: Yes. (laughs)

SS: Okay. Good. How did Lot 45 come about?

RP: Lot 45 started this summer. Bushwick is full of street art, and I’m a big fan of street art to an extent that I like I actually like learn how to do my own pieces, how to do stencils, how to draw them, and so that’s why like I wanted to do this project in this neighborhood, and I decided to do couple of pieces of mine and then work artists from this neighborhood, like Cost or Solace, and I did their pieces on the drinks, and then my own pieces as well.

SS: Oh, great. And when you start a place like this, how do you get the word out and build up your clientele? Do you advertise, is it word of mouth, what?

RP: It’s mostly word of mouth. First thing I do when I start a project, I try to know the neighborhoods. I walk around, see what other bars there are, what they’re doing. I’m kind of acting like a spy for a second, and I just see what they’re using, what products, and then from there I’ll try to make sure it fits for the neighborhood.

SS: Were you aware of this neighborhood before you started thinking about Lot 45?

RP: Yes. I’ve been living in Williamsburg for over 10 years. It’s actually where I opened my first business, a little shop where I was cooking with my sisters, it was called Potato Cafe, we were making baked potatoes, different toppings, we’d just spend the whole day in the kitchen, basically, and having fun with my sisters.

SS: Walk me through your levels of experience in the service industry, up to when you started to think about cocktails in a different way.

RP: Well, basically, I moved to New York when I was 19, and like aspiring singers or actors or things like this, you start working in the restaurant industry. I got a job at the Coffee Shop in Union Square, and I did every single position that I can think of over there, which means being a busboy, a server, a maître d’, a host, a coffee boy, service bartender, barback, bartender, line cook (laughs), and–it was basically school.

SS: Right. And was there a point, when you were working there, that you started to see yourself being in this business and being in business for yourself?

RP: Yes. The rush, the speed…it’s kind of like entertainment. When I started being behind the bar, I just felt like that was my stage. And, fortunately enough, I ended up at L’Orange Bleue with a bartenders who was also one of the owners of Employees Only, and he inspired me to do cocktails. From there I just experimented on my own drinks and every time I was bartending somewhere else, I would always try to get involved in the cocktails.

SS: Let’s talk a little about the difference between bartending and mixology. How would you chart the difference between these two things?

RP: Well, lately, I’m mostly managing, I’m not really bartending anymore, so now I can kind of use the term mixologist, because bartenders are behind the bar the whole time, and they work 5, 6, 7 nights a week behind the bar, and I don’t do this anymore, I’m the guy backstage now, or just watching everybody and showing them techniques and how to do things, so now I feel comfortable using the term mixologist, but when I was behind the bar, I always used the term bartender. I never used the term mixologist, because a mixologist can be somebody that doesn’t bartend.

SS: And what are the qualities that make someone a good mixologist? Is it based on what you like, I mean–

RP: –yeah–

SS: –have you ever created a drink that you think someone else would like, but that you wouldn’t necessarily like?

RP: Oh, I’ve done it like a dozen times.

SS: Oh, really?

RP: It happens quite often. When I was at Mulberry Project I was doing bespoke cocktails, and people would ask me to do something that would not be my taste, but they’re just like trying to make sure they taste right for that person, and you’re having a conversation to try to see what they want exactly. Everybody has different taste buds. Some people like sweet things, some people like it sour, some people want dry, it’s not one thing, you know, like in New York you have so many places that do great burgers, and you can have arguments for hours and hours about where to find the best burger or the best pizza, because everybody has a different taste bud.

SS: Right.

RP: So there’s no best place.

SS: What are your tastes?

RP: I do like using spices, which means in autumn and winter time, I use a lot of Allspice and Punsch–

SS: Punsch?

RP: Punsch. It’s a Swedish liqueur spice.

SS: And when you do your stencils, you’re using what?

RP: For stencils, like for coffee stencils, I use powder, like cinnamon–

SS: Right.

RP: –nutmeg, things like this, which is fun to do, but for cocktails, I actually use bitters, like Amaros or Cynar, or some Angostura bitters.

SS: And have you found anything new in the last few months?

RP: In spices, I like something like Solbeso that’s something new that I’ve been playing around with, which is made with cacao, but Punsch has been one of those products I’ve been using a lot for the last 6 months. And Allspice is something that I use every year for winter, ‘cause it’s perfect.

SS: If you run a place like this, how many new spirits are brought to you in a month?

RP: In a month? Around 25 to 30.

SS: Really? That many?

RP: When I do a new project, like this, yes.

SS: Wow.

RP: People bring me new bottles, and I taste them and try to play with it and see if it works with what I’m working on.

SS: See, if I’d known that the competition was that stiff, I never would have starte…

RP: Well, it all depends. Singani has a clear taste, so it’s a spirit you can use by itself. There’s a lot of spirits that you have to use just as mixers. You’re not gonna do a full cocktail using just Bonal, or just Combier grapefruit, or St. Germain–you’re gonna use other liquors with it, so that’s the difference.

SS: And is that a smaller target to hit, or–

RP: Yeah. It is. It is a smaller target, because some of those products, you actually can do it yourself as a syrup, for getting the taste, or you’re just using fresh pro–produce instead.

SS: Will you just for pleasure, or just to experiment, take a traditional, classic cocktail
and try and tilt it–

RP: Oh yeah.

SS: –one way or another?

RP: All the time. The classics are the basics. To create any new kind of drink, you think of how those classics are balanced, and you’re able to create a new kind of cocktail by using those components.

SS: Right. What’s your favorite classic old school cocktail?

RP: My favorite is Vieux Carré–

SS: I don’t know that. What is it?

RP: Vieux Carré is a cocktail made with Peychaud bitter, Angostura bitters, orange oil, we use cognac and sweet vermouth, and rye whiskey.

SS: Oh.

RP: And–

SS: Oh, okay, I think I have had that.

RP: And then you use a spoon of Benedictine. And I did variation of this with by using Singani once.

SS: Oh. And?

RP: And it was amazing.

SS: Oh, really! (laughs) I’ll have to try that. What won’t you drink?

RP: Any spirits or bottles that have insects, or like a liquor that has a snake in it, like how like Mezcal used to put in scorpions or bugs, things that have nothing to do with the spirit. It’s just a marketing scheme.

SS: You were bothered by it conceptually, or were you just disgusted?

RP: For me, it was mostly, “Oh, we can’t sell it so let’s put a scorpion in there and sell it.”

SS: Right.

RP: And then, you know, the snake thing is just not very appealing (laughs).

SS: Right. Now, when when you were growing up, you were an athlete.

RP: Yes.

SS: So when did you start drinking?

RP: Well, I grew up in Europe, in Switzerland, so you go to bars at the age of 14.

SS: You have beer.

RP: Yeah, you drink beer and, and since you’re 14, you have no clue of what to drink, so you’re drinking the fruitiest and girliest drinks and you think you’re manly. (laughs)

SS: And at that time, you were playing tennis, right?

RP: Yes. I played tennis, I was running, cross-country skiing, 50 percent of my time was sports.

SS: Right. And was it while you were working at The Coffee Shop that you had a moment where you had to make a decision about what priority–

RP: Yeah. The adrenaline rush got into me.

SS: It was more than sports even? It lasted longer?

RP: It’s similar to when I do sports… I’m addicted to being busy, like having the place packed and thinking, “How am I gonna serve all these people right now?” And to be organized and do it, running around, it’s the same thing in sports. If you’re just concentrating and moving slow, you’re not getting the adrenaline rush, and then once you’re getting closer into the game, you have an adrenaline rush and you’re points are getting faster, you’re thinking faster, everything is more accurate, and same thing when you’re running, after 5 miles, you start getting the adrenaline rush, and you don’t feel the pain, you’re just like smiling the whole time. And in this industry, all you do is, basically you serve things, you’re getting crushed, but you’re smiling. You keep a happy face even when you shouldn’t be (laughs).

SS: Right.

RP: But it’s also like a stage for me, I see it like that.

SS: Right. So what part of the business do you find frustrating?

RP: I pretty much enjoy everything.

SS: Even the business part?

RP: Even the business part. It’s a hustle, but the hustle is part of the business and once you’re getting people in the door, you see that you did something right.

SS: Do you feel like you’re still learning?

RP: Yes. Every day. I try to learn something new almost every day behind the bar, a new trick, a new cocktail. On slow days, I usually ask my bartenders to give me a challenge, like any ingredients they think of, I create a cocktail with them.

SS: What do you tell people who are just getting started? How do you teach them?

RP: Usually, when I give classes or when I’m training people, I start by showing them first cocktails. I try to inspire them on how to make a good drink, a balanced drink, and why it’s important to learn how to measure drinks, like you’ll meet bartenders that bartend 5, 6 years, 10 years, and they would not know how to make a Manhattan, they would not know how to make a Sazerac or Old Fashioned, so it’s always fun to show that aspect. I’ve been surprised a couple times, like a lot of people would not know how to shake a drink, they’ve been in this industry for years and just never actually shook a drink properly. So it’s always fun, and then when you actually show them those tricks, they get excited and they want to learn, and that’s where it makes my job easier.

SS: What’s something that’s trending lately?

RP: One thing that’s happening more and more lately in bars, are cocktails on draft. I’ve been seeing that a whole lot more.

SS: I don’t even understand what that means, like a pre-made–

RP: Pre-made cocktails on tap.

SS: Really. Like what, what’s an example of one?

RP: They’re doing it in the Hamptons, in Brooklyn, even the Upper East Side.

SS: And what kind of drinks are they?

RP: It could be pretty much anything.

SS: Are they classics?

RP: They’re classics.

SS: Interesting. I wonder why that would be? Is it the speed?

RP: It’s the speed. (laughs) It’s for volume and it’s kind of fun to do a drink like this, it’s just, “Here you go, here’s a cocktail.” It’s quick and easy.

SS: So weird, I never heard of that.

RP: But one of those trends, you know, it’s starting now, you never know, it could disappear in 2 years.

SS: Right.

RP: When I started bartending, there was no such thing, people were just drinking vodka soda, vodka cranberry, and then people started asking for Mojitos, Manhattan and Old Fashioned, and that was it. And then all of a sudden, people changed their taste buds and started getting into cocktails and you’ll meet 21-year-olds that are drinking bourbon cocktails, and they know their drinks. It changes by generation.

SS: Right. How often does somebody ask for something that you haven’t heard of?

RP: Oh, that happens all the time. A lot of people will be name-dropping a cocktail and I say that’s from just from a bar that you went to that you like. That happens quite often.

SS: Right.

RP: But I always try to accommodate them, so you ask them what kind of spirit was it, and how it tastes, and you try to create something different, but in that taste bud that they were asking you for.

SS: Right. And how do you, from the business side, bring in new stuff without harming your pre-existing relationships with other spirits? Could someone say to you, “Why did you take on this new thing when now you’re doing less of what we send you?”

RP: Yeah. I try to not give preferred treatment, I like using spirits that fit for each place and each venue, how they look, where they’re located. Like there’s multiple gins they can use, and sometimes I’ll be using one for a certain bar, and then the other one will have another one, and another one, because of what kind of spices they use, you know, and if I’m doing a bar in Brooklyn I’m gonna try to use a gin that’s made in Brooklyn to show the face of the neighborhood. So you just have to see what fits for the place.

SS: Right. But you haven’t had somebody from Tanqueray come in and go, “Why are you using all these local gins?”

RP: Oh yes, it happens.

SS: Oh, it does?

RP: Yes. I’m not gonna say Tanqueray, but a major brand will come in and ask me this, but when you’re making cocktails, if you made a cocktail for a reason with some particular spirit, you can’t really swap it, you know, it’s like some use more juniper, some use something else, so there’s a reason why you’re using those products, you know. Brand ambassadors will come to you and be, “Hey, but my product is better,” and it’s like, yeah, it tastes great for a certain kind of thing, but it doesn’t work for this. But maybe at the next place I’ll be doing, that might be the product I will be using. I’m doing so many projects all the time, at the end I’m able to satisfy people. (laughs)

SS: Do you feel like maxed out?

RP: No.

SS: No?

RP: I think I’m an adrenaline junkie, I get excited by doing more and more projects all the time and being busy. It wakes me up early and gives me a big smile every time.

SS: What do you think the next 5 years are like in this business? Where do you feel like things are going?

RP: It’s unpredictable. When you open a project and it could be working for right now, but then 5 years from now, it might not work out. In New York it’s such a fast pace, a new place opens every day, so your place will be hot for a good 2 years if you’re lucky, and then afterwards it’s gonna be something else, and then you have to change a little bit of your project.

SS: How do you find the balance between responding to what people seem to want and being proactive, because sometimes people don’t know what they want until they’ve seen it.

RP: Yeah, but even like McNally, like he opened Pastis, and Pastis was great, it was perfect for the neighborhood at thetime, but then the scene changed. 10 years, 15 years ago, people were going to places to be seen, and then it became more like, No, I want to go to foodie places more than just being seen. Not saying the food was not great–the food was great at Pastis–but it was a place to be seen, you know. People don’t really care about this anymore, so it changes. Who knows, maybe 5 years from now, it’s gonna be back to that again. Like the Sex and the City days.

SS: Right. What impact do you think economic circumstances have on this business? Do people seem to always find money to go get a drink?

RP: They always find money to go get a drink, but there are changes. Before the crash, people would be buying more expensive bottles of wines, that’s one thing that got me moved into cocktails, ‘cause I saw people couldn’t afford wine anymore, like as a regular thing. I remember, I used to sell 500 dollar bottles of wine, like at least like 6, 7 times a week. And that was regular. All of a sudden, the crash happened, and it would be maybe once a month, twice a month, like a huge change, and then people started drinking more cocktails.

SS: And do you have any theories or feelings about the psychology of numbers, in terms of how things are priced?
How do you price a cocktail?

RP: It’s mostly by neighborhood. If you go to Meatpacking, a drink will be 18 dollars, sometimes even 24, depends which places you go to, but it does go all the way to that extent, which is–which is insane. But that’s their rent, the rents are like 30,000, 40,000 dollars, and then you go downtown, the drinks will be 14 dollars. You go to Brooklyn, the cocktails will be 10 dollars. So it all depends what neighborhood you have.

SS: God.

RP: Oh yeah, I got pushed out of a couple places that I owned, because my rent went from 14,000 to 28,000. It doubled. You can’t afford that.

SS: Have you ever put your own money into one of your projects?

RP: Yes.

SS: Have you ever put your own money into somebody else’s project?

RP: No. Only mine (laughs).

SS: Can you imagine switching courses into something completely different and being as excited about it as you are about this? Or do you feel like this is your thing?

RP: This is my thing. It makes me happy every day, going to work and doing what you like to do is the number one thing. I’m always motivated, and motivation is the key, I think.

SS: Are you able to have a life outside of this?

RP: Yes.

SS: Yeah? From 2 to 6 in the morning?

RP: Yeah. I run at 4 o’clock in the morning, I do all my training, I keep running marathons, Ironman triathlons, play tennis, ski, hike, like everything. (laughs)

SS: Are most of your friends in this business, or are they all over the place?

RP: Most of my friends are in this business.

SS: When you get together, what do you talk about, do you talk about the business, or you talk about other stuff, or both?

RP: It’s a little bit of everything. It’s the industry, and then afterwards, other things.

SS: Right.

RP: Like, luckily for me, I’m able to do a lot of sports, so I’m able to do things outside of the business, so my mind gets–

SS: Recharged.

RP: Yeah. Recharged. Yeah.

SS: Have you ever encountered people who want to be in this business and you can tell from a personality standpoint they’re gonna have a problem?

RP: Yes. Many times. (laughs) Like, I’ll be training somebody and I just know from the get-go this is not for them. You can tell from their body language and how unexcited they are, you just see it, it’s just like–please try to find something else (laughs).

SS: What do you do in that situation, what do you say?

RP: I’m Swiss, so I try to be as neutral as possible (laughs).

SS: Right. What’s the most common element of someone who you feel isn’t really made to do this? Is it enthusiasm?

RP: Yes. You have to entertain your guests, you have to show them a good time, and you have to be able to talk to them, and deal with people.

SS: And do you find there’s a difference between people who view this as an interim job and people who get into this business early and decide, This is what I want to do.

RP: Well, I’m seeing more people aiming for that. When I first started in this industry, a lot of people were not lifers, they were like: this is my part time job, I’m in college, or I’m taking acting classes, or, you know, modeling, things like this.

SS: Right.

RP: Now people say, Oh, I want to do this, you know, I want to learn how to serve, I want to learn how to make drinks, I want to learn how to manage, or cook, and I see more and more of that.

SS: Right. Is there a kind of place you can imagine that you haven’t had the opportunity to create yet, your Xanadu, you know, if you had a blank check–

RP: No, but I would like to get a little bit more involved uptown, which is one market I haven’t hit, like the Upper East Side, Upper West Side, there’s a lot of movement, there’s a scene that’s starting up there.

SS: Right. How often do you travel?

RP: I try to travel as much as possible. My dad used to work for Swissair, so when I was a kid I pretty much grew up in a plane. Actually, my first trip, I was 3 days old. I flew from the U.S. to Switzerland. I had my first American passport at two days old.

SS: (laughs) Wow. And when you go somewhere, do you always check out the cocktail scene?

RP: I try to, yeah. I was in Puerto Rico and I found a great cocktail bar down there, in London I went to a couple cocktail bars out there too, so every time I travel, I try to see things. I’m seeing a lot of things happening in Texas right now–

SS: Oh, interesting. You mean like Austin or–

RP: Austin, Dallas.

SS: Dallas?

RP: Yeah.

SS: Interesting. I’m assuming university towns are good targets–

RP: Yes. When I was 21, I was drinking the cheapest thing possible, I was not even thinking of having a Sazerac–

SS: Right.

RP: –and now they do.

SS: Right. How important is the food component?

RP: When I try to make a drink for a restaurant, I try to make sure those two fit together, that you’re able to have that dish and that drink, to try to make it fit like a marriage.

SS: When you started Lot 45, tell me your process of determining what kind of food you thought you should have here.

RP: Well, the chef here is French-Algerian, and she likes to play with a lot of spices and herbs, so I try to create cocktails using sage, rosemary, thyme, go Mediterranean on that. This one drink I do here is as Mediterranean as it gets, I use some Ilegal Mezcal, some yogurt, homemade rosemary syrup, and lemon and bitters.

SS: Wow. That sounds great.

che-sour

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Profiles in Pourage Volume II Tiffany Short

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Profiles in Pourage Volume III Rael Petit

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Profiles in Pourage Volume IV Ivy Mix

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actually, no, i’m not interested, take me back to where i came from. NOW!