Power Play

I recently saw an excerpt from a KCRW interview with Quentin Tarantino, following the ‘Django Unchained’ release (here’s the full interview). The excerpt highlights Tarantino’s use of dining establishments and dining rituals in his films. They’re often used to establish, or reiterate shifts in power. A glaring example: “This is a a tasty burger!”… The famous Pulp Fiction moment when Jules takes a bite of a stranger’s burger. Tarantino emphasizes how ‘personal’ a burger is – when would anyone share a bite of a cheeseburger with a stranger, let alone the first delicious bite? Jules takes the bite and reiterates his power in the relationship. This is relatively obvious, but fascinating. It’s been heavy on my mind, especially during service… the various forms of social interaction in bars, and how they relate to very important shifts in power, or control among characters involved.

As a bartender who works hard to make high quality cocktails, I also work to present myself as a professional (well kept attire and the ability to discuss any/all products we carry). My audience often relates my professionalism to expertise. Because I’m assumed to be an expert, customers often request or inquire about my drinking preferences. By far, the most common drink request is for my favorite drink. It’s a loaded question. I’m not being asked to prepare my favorite drink. I’m being told: Make me the best drink, because that’s probably what a fancy bartender, like you, drinks. It will be my favorite, and obviously you know everything about everything here, so make my favorite drink, without knowing anything about my preferences… A daunting task. Granted, I’m being cynical. There’s a lot more packaged in their request. I usually deflect their assumption and tell a story about my changing preferences; A spiel about my favorite drink as an ever-morphing entity, shifting with seasons, time of day, and proximity to meal time. Eventually, after a bit of questioning, I get a clue about their general preferences, and make a drink catered to their interests. But have I failed them? The moment I shift the questioning back to them, have I ignored the very important power play transpiring? Are they looking for something else?

A couple nights back, a regular customer asked for the same: my favorite of the moment. Instead of prying for more info, I tested a hypothesis… Maybe it would be ok if I made him something I’m passionate about. I chose to focus on an ingredient with a back-story (homemade butterscotch liqueur). Maybe they would enjoy the story as much or more than the drink. Maybe it would help them feel comfortable inquiring about other contemporary or bizarre ingredients. Maybe I would learn more about a customer who’s visited our bar many times, and has probably enjoyed similar style drinks, giving me an edge when making his future bartender’s choice. They loved the drink. It was practically a ‘buttery nipple’, with the addition of egg yolk, a dash of vanilla, and cream instead of Irish Cream. I knew the drink was likely getting shared. I knew a heavier dessert option, in small doses, is typically a crowd pleaser. I gambled, assuming they’d share. One of those drinks, on its own, is too heavy for a drinker who normally enjoys lighter options. Sure enough, we nearly sold out of the butterscotch liqueur on that table alone. One of the fellas was drinking the stuff neat. Another preferred it in Old Fashioneds. Another wanted his in lighter citrusy rum options. And, when I notice they’re still arguing who’s was better and why while I’m away from the table, I’m reminded why I love my job. Of course we discussed the advantages and disadvantages of each table-side, but seeing them so engaged over one silly ingredient made my night. And who, of all people in their group, was the big winner? The regular. He was likely insisting to his friends that we were experts before they walked into the bar. His friends ordered first, then, with the utmost confidence, he proclaims that he’ll be having my favorite of the moment. If I came back without a delicious drink (in their opinion), and/or without a story, what then? Not only would I look like an amateur, but, even worse, my regular looks like a chump. I could’ve got more info, played it safe, and made something catered to his preferences. But, would the same positive relationship be achieved? Absolutely not. I’m 100% certain those gentlemen will be returning with new friends. And, my regular gets to establish power in his group. His goal was to prove his taste in drinking establishments, and develop more cred. Now, he walks away feeling a little better about himself. I’m ok with that. In fact, given wholesome circumstances, isn’t that my goal? But, achieving that… it comes with my willingness and ability to gamble. And the willingness/ability gets more difficult when the odds are stacked against me… Winning over first time customers is bit more difficult.

With the before mentioned regular, I know he’s enjoyed a couple different drinks. I could bring him something relatively obscure, and feel safe betting he’d enjoy it. But, what about a guest who’s visiting for their first time and making the same demand for my favorite? All of a sudden the risk is increased. Should I make bold assumptions about folks whom I know little about? I could have a slight of error in presumption. Maybe they don’t care for cute stories. Maybe they don’t want the burden of choice, and would rather I make them something asap. Maybe maybe maybe… The ‘maybes’ grind me away. It’s like the classic Tarantino shootout that follows complex dialogue. Over and over, every night, suspense builds when the same question comes from new guests. I’ve gotten very good at diffusing suspense. But, what if I gambled… What if I help them with their request for power? There’s a chance I would disappoint some. What about the chances of me impressing others, and creating long lasting regulars? Is one greater than another?

(There’s many forms of ‘power at play’ between bartenders and their patrons. I’ve isolated one instance. But, here’s Jason Bran naming a few others… Each an article in their own right).