Artisanal service: Steven Nicolle’s memoir How I Took a Bartending Course and Traveled for 17 Years
Our intrepid author interviewer, Lois Lane, now investigates legendary and mostly self-taught Canadian bartender Steven Nicolle, whose new memoir outlines his career.
I see you took your bartending course in 1979. Could you take the same journey today, or has the world changed over the past 40 years?
That’s a great question! Back in 1979 there were not a lot of bartending schools at all. The course I took was like what one would take if they were interested in learning how to weave baskets by hand. Bartending was simply not that big a deal forty years ago. It was a course taken for the fun of it and that was it. If you wanted to become a bartender you had to find a job as a bar back or barboy then start off by restocking the beer fridges, preparing the drink garnishes and filling up the juices. Keeping the bar area clean during service and carrying out duties for the bartender who was extremely busy as the evening went on. Such was the job I had working as a barboy at this discotheque while I took the course. From that position as a barboy you would see how everything worked and hopefully move to be a bartender from there.
Nowadays the path is much quicker. There are plenty of bartending schools out there where you can take an intensive two-day course and get your diploma saying you have graduated from a reputable school. Then with that go out and look for a job. Many casual fine dining restaurants will even train you to make the drinks so you can start off as a bartender without ever having to attend a course. As well, there are even on-line courses you can do from home. So yes, it has changed enormously as the world has.
One thing has not changed in the past forty years however and that is you can take any kind of bartending course you like but where the rubber meets the road is whether you can actually do it in front of strangers and handle it when it gets busy. The beginner will always mess up because in this trade you only get good by doing it repeatedly. Something a course can never simulate.
What made you decide to get into bartending?
It’s funny but I do not think anyone when asked what they want to do ever replies that they want to become a bartender. So, unless your Dad did it or your family ran a restaurant it is completely off the radar. I decided to take a bartending course before I ever thought about doing it as a job.
The first big reason I took a bartending course is I saw an advertisement in the evening newspaper that a bartending course was being given at McGill University in Montreal one evening a week lasting six weeks. I thought why not because first it was taking place at a university and thought it would be cool to attend and as well thought I could maybe meet some girls there and try these different cocktails with real alcohol in them. You could say I liked to drink a few back then. So, had I not seen that ad I might not have ever got into bartending.
The second reason is I was always looking for something that I would be interested in doing and good at the same time. I took courses in auto mechanics, electronics, accounting, and worked in many jobs with no great yearning to remain in any of them. A lot were factory jobs which were easy to find and some pharmaceutical companies. I made Maalox the antacid, drove truck, pasted wallpaper, drove a forklift truck around. Jobs like that. I didn’t really know what to do.
When I took the bartending course that is when I thought that maybe I could do this. I was enjoying it, bartending was creative, and it was something I was able to share with others all at the same time.
I guess more than anything I just kept looking for something and bartending was it.
How much does the political situation in Montreal figure into your book? Do you talk about that or does the story focus more on you and your career?
The book focuses more on myself and my career. The bad timing with the political situation occurs just at the beginning when suddenly Quebec went from a bilingual province (English and French) to a French only status. This overnight change made finding a job in Montreal very difficult for someone like me whose main language was English.
Montreal being my home was tough to leave but my goal was to be a bartender, so I moved at the time back to Ontario. I did learn French later on in the book to resettle in Montreal, but my career took a twist, thus I never moved back.
What was the most interesting drink you’ve ever made? Did you get to show off your creativity or did patrons mainly order the same drinks over and over?
This may sound boring but my favourite drink to make was the Martini. Back then it was almost always Gin. Vodka you never came across very often. Back when I got started there was such a thing as a business lunch when men in suits use to take their clients out for a three-hour lunch. Expense accounts had no limits in the early 80’s. The chosen drink was the Gin Martini. I used to love making that cocktail. Take the chilled cocktail glass out of the cooler, stir the martini in the glass shaker, make it with only a couple of drops of dry vermouth. Then let it get even colder in the shaker for another 10 seconds then strain into the chilled glass. Garnish with three olives because they say two is bad luck or if they wanted a lemon zest take the zest then slide the zest around the rim give it a squeeze to release a bit of oil then drop it into the cocktail. I took a lot of pride in that. They say you can tell a good bartender by the way they make a martini. For me that was my signature cocktail. It is a standard that never changes over the years.
What’s one thing most bar patrons don’t realize about what happens on the other side of the bar? What would surprise them, what did you wish you could tell them?
Most bar patrons would be surprised by the amount of preparation that has to be done before the bar opens. The other would be how much a bartender must think about all at the same time. At one time a bartender may need to settle a tab with someone, refill a drink for another, greet a new guest, clean some dirty glass from a spot after someone leaves, answer a question and the list goes on.
I always liked that though because when I was busy, I was making money and had no real time to listen to anyone, just briefly. I never liked the bar when there was only one person you had to pretend to listen to the entire time while hoping someone else would come in. I never stayed long in a bar like that.
What I wish I could tell them is I probably know more about people than they do which surprisingly enough a lot of people have mentioned that to me upon seeing the title of my book at book signings. The bartender also has earned his degree in psychology.
Do you have funny or dramatic stories that happened while you were pouring drinks you can share?
I used to work in a lot of private clubs and fine dining establishments therefore funny or dramatic stories are hard for me to think of at this moment. I served four prime ministers, a king and prince. I had at my table on board the ship where I was serving wine the Mamas and the Papas after Mama Cass passed away a few years earlier. I was invited to a sing along in their cabin the last night of the voyage. Funny thing was they only sang the Beatles the whole night!
Though when I worked at this resort in the Canadian Rockies some of the guests would ask the stupidest questions. Like in July when there would be still some snow on the peaks of the mountain, they would ask me if the snow up there was real? I think as a bartender it is more of what people say that has you wondering sometime. With a couple of drinks people tend to let their guard down then when that happens you never know what they may say or do.
That is the beauty of the business there is never a dull moment and you never know what to expect before your service begins.