Welcome back to Dirty Work, our series of dispatches from the MUNCHIES Garden. We're inviting chefs, bartenders, and personalities in the world of food and drink to explore our edible playground and make whatever the hell inspires them with our rooftop produce. The results: MUNCHIES Garden recipes for you, dear reader. This time, we hang with Sydney-born bartender and writer Naren Young of Dante and his blog, Fork & Shaker. Young walks us through how he came to be a walking cocktail encyclopedia, the endless possibilities of the negroni, and the power of bringing the kitchen and the textbook behind the bar.
"I kind of had my eye on bartending from a pretty early age."
Naren Young told us the unlikely story of how he started his bartending career while he raided the MUNCHIES garden in search of fresh pineapple sage to put in what he described as a twist on a classic, fruity smash.Young said he saw the Tom Cruise movie Cocktail when he was a kid growing up in Australia, and told his mother that he wanted to be a bartender. Supportive mom that she was, "she bought me all these like very basic, rudimentary cocktail books—cocktails that housewives make. It just started there and then it developed into a full-blown obsession." Young soon had memorized over 100 cocktail recipes, even before he could legally drink them.
Young is the bartender at Dante, the current iteration of the classic space that was Caffe Dante for 100 years in Manhattan's Greenwich Village. The Italian café, which opened in 1915 and served coffee and pastries to New Yorkers for a century, closed a year ago, to the dismay of many. But Young and a group of Aussie partners bought the place, and he and the other owners say their restaurant and cocktail bar is "a love letter to the original," promising to stay true to its heritage. Young's extensive negroni menu is a fine testament to that intention.
As Young returns to the MUNCHIES kitchen with an armful of fragrant sage, it becomes plainly clear that he is not your average bartender. A true student of beverage history, he has combined two careers—bartending and journalism—since his teenage years in Australia.
"So I'm thinking of doing a smash, with muddled herbs and fruit. Then shake it up and strain it on fresh ice at the end. This pineapple sage would be a nice garnish, it releases a lot of smell," he said as he began to slice pineapple.
RECIPE: Pineapple Gin Smash
Young told us that he started cleaning restaurants when he was 15, and by 18 was both a published journalist and a working bartender. With an impressive list of publications and an equally long and eminent list of bars and restaurants (from Bayswater Brasserie to Pravda, the Pegu Club, Locanda Verde, the Empellón Mexican restaurants and more) on his resume, he says his two careers have informed each other."As a journalist, I'm mostly reading, studying every day, which allows me to take a bit more of an academic approach to bartending. I've always had a great handle on recipes, history, that kind of research side of it that comes from the journalist side. It makes me a more knowledgeable bartender," Young said.
Furthermore, Young explained, "Working in bars has allowed me to be a better journalist because I've got my finger on the pulse—I'm actually in there working. You know stuff before people who are writing about trends. I've already been doing it. So generally you're one step ahead of most of the other writers."Having cut up the pineapple, Young asks for the gin, but also for some vinegar. "There's almost no drink in existence that doesn't benefit from a little salt and pepper. And vinegar. I put salt and vinegar in almost everything these days—vinegar adds a really beautiful acid," he said.
Young said that working with restaurant chefs has really informed his style as a bartender: "If you worked at just a cocktail bar with no kitchen, you're missing out on all this knowledge of chef's equipment—dehydrators, rotovaps, immersion circulators—all this kind of stuff that can add a real exciting element to a cocktail program. [Restaurant bartenders] have to know all the food specials, how to recommend wine, the specials list, beer list, dessert list. To get to work with chefs has opened up a whole other world for me. The crossover is great and having that kind of meeting of the minds can be inspiring."
Young explained that adding some green Chartreuse to the smash will complement the sage because, "It's a super herbal liqueur—so that enhances the fact that there's fresh herbs in the drink."
What are Young's favorite drinks? "In no particular order: negroni, margarita, and I love a good martini as well—gin, of course. Stirred, up, twist," he said.
Young pulverizes some ice, and with a good shake, the smash is ready to be strained and poured. The result is fruity, herbal, and downright delicious. Not surprising from a man with an encyclopedic knowledge of drinks, honed on housewife recipe books and a long and storied career.