Playing with Fire: One Bar's Charred, Smoked and Grilled Culinary Cocktail Menu
Ever since man first rubbed two sticks together to make a flame, fire has been a crucial element of cuisine. While many of us may no longer regularly rely on an open fire to cook all of our meals, anyone who’s had a hotdog charred over a backyard barbecue or a creme brulee finished under a blazing torch understands the depth of flavor fire can add to a dish.
Of course, fire has the same effect on drinks, too. Which is why we were intrigued to learn of a new bar that’s developed an entire section of their menu with fire as the fundamental ingredient. Campfire's “From the Fire” section exemplifies the magic that can happen when the bar and the kitchen team up: a culinary approach to drinks using the open fire of the kitchen’s grill, using ingredients like roasted beets, grilled pineapple and charred corn as the foundation.
We caught up with Campfire’s Leigh Lacap to talk shop about how the bar program has found harmony with the kitchen, and his advice for fellow bartenders hoping to achieve the same:
Tell us a little about the overall concept behind Campfire's bar program.
Campfire’s program is a tribute to familiarity with a bit of inspiration from the Great Outdoors. We utilize familiar ingredients in pretty simple cocktails with great attention to color and aroma, since sights and smells can be the most memorable parts of being outside. Hints of forest, earth, smoke, and floral elements are found throughout the menu.
What inspired you to pursue the “From the Fire” section of the menu?
Two things; the team and the equipment. The management team at Campfire is incredibly close. The chefs, owner, and other managers are some of my best friends. What better way to show our unity as team than to unify the food and drink menus?
We also have some unbelievable equipment. We have an 8-foot, custom, wood-fueled Grillworks grill and J&R smoker. Because the food menu is driven by seasonality and availability, we decided we could devote a section of the drink menu to the same principles while sharing the exact same cooking techniques of charring, grilling, roasting, smoking, and ember cooking to manipulate these market-determined ingredients into deceptively simple cocktails.
Tell us about the creative process for developing that part of the menu. Did the bar and kitchen work in tandem together?
This menu had an incredibly thoughtful process. With our emphasis on familiarity, we wanted to practice a little restraint and not use anything too esoteric or unrecognizable with both the spirits and the produce. I was a bit shook because I had been playing with tons of fortified wine and amaro on previous menus. I was then introduced to David Chang's Unified Theory of Deliciousness and fell in love with the idea that creativity comes from constraint. Chang was right. Things like tequila and corn were yielding awesome results.
We then thought about how obvious it should be to our guests that these drinks are "from the fire." Because our chef embraces the idea of never “fatiguing the palate,” we experimented on making sure we were creating subtle hints of smoke and wood, emphasizing technique over producing blatant smoke and oak bombs. His idea further tied the food and drinks together.
The biggest challenge we continue to face in doing this daily is consistency. We are truly at the mercy of ever-changing produce and attempts to manipulate live-fire that acts and reacts differently at every moment. A chef’s intuition has become the most essential ingredient to the success of these drinks.
What advice would you offer to bar programs interested in bridging the gap between bar and kitchen?
Start with respect. A greeting from each member of your bar crew to your chef and the members of the back of house everyday can go a long way. A lot of us lose sight of the common ground between bartenders and cooks which creates a house divided. We are all putting out products with intent and good will for the purpose of making people happy. We are all constantly developing, learning, and geeking out. A hello can lead to a conversation. Ask your cooks about how to work with certain ingredients or what they would do. Invite them for a drink at the bar when they get off. Have them try drinks you are working on and ask for their feedback. Watch an episode of Chef’s Table. Ask your cooks if they have read Liquid Intelligence. Create a relationship and shared ownership over drinks that share both of your ideas. Ask if they would be able to produce something for a menu cocktail. Hopefully the rest can just be added to an order guide and prep list.
And what's the reception been like so far?
Our guests are madly in love with the “Fire” cocktails. They are an easy sell. They occupy the bulk of our best-sellers. Our crew is proud to serve and recommend the drinks knowing that the resulting cocktails have a story and are a product of collaboration. My favorite part is when the back of house crew gets off, bellies up to the bar, and shares the same pride over drinking the drinks that they helped create.
Finally: your personal favorite item on this part of the menu?
I have a sentimental attachment to our Charred Corn cocktail. It was the first drink we truly collaborated on, and an immediate success in our eyes. We even drove straight to Chino Farms to pick the corn.