Letter to a Young Bartender, from Jackson Cannon
Bartenders have been overtaking the saloons, restaurants, and cafés of New Orleans over the last week thanks to Tales of the Cocktail, a multi-day conference celebrating the mixology world. Panels for the trade-only event included the “Physiology of Shake” and “History of the Old-Fashioned.” It was truly a drinks-nerds-only affair.
One event we attended, however, left us covered with goosebumps: At a panel called Letters to a Young Bartender, renowned bar director Jackson Cannon (of Boston’s The Hawthorne, Eastern Standard, and Island Creek Oyster Bar) took the stage alongside New York’s Julie Reiner and Washington, D.C.’s Derek Brown. And his letter to himself—what he wished he’d known when he was young—had a roomful of hungover millennials on their feet, delivering a standing ovation. It was the sort of sharp-edged, beautifully rendered wisdom that applies to anyone with a passion for his or her craft. Here, Cannon shares his words with us:
Pick your destination. Think carefully about what you really want. Look at your shoes.
Your first step: Get new shoes.
You will not have to map your route to your destination. You will be guided. All of the people you work with from now on will be your guide to the destination you have chosen. If you are clear about what you want, are truthful when people ask you what you want, and make yourself humble and available to guidance, you will reach that destination. If you chose Local Sports Bar Owner, you will be guided there. If you chose Celebrity Bartender On A Reality Show, you will be guided there.
Some of your guides will explicitly help you and say, “Your next step is to put this glass in this spot.” Some will be less obvious and say, “I’m not sure this is a great fit.” Some will shrug and their disinterest will help you. Some guides will be outright warning signs. All of them are guides, and none of them know how to get to where you want to go. Your destination is yours alone. They may have some idea of how they themselves can get where you’d like to go, but their path and yours are not the same thing.
Your first job is to observe. Watch the way the other kid in the black shirt puts away the glassware. Watch the way she puts away the beer. Watch the way your boss looks at the beer when she’s done. Turn on all of your sensors. Observe with all of your senses. Watch the way the bartender holds his hands when nothing is going on. Watch the way he dries his hands. Watch the way his boss looks at him when he’s working. Notice how you feel when you observe that.
Your second job is to do. Jump in. Ask questions. Get your feet wet. Get your hands dirty. No matter what you are told, do it. When you have to do it a second time, do it faster. When you have to do it a third time, do it faster and cleaner. Get on your belly and clean something. Find a ladder, get up there, and clean that. Faster. Catch your boss watching you. Notice how you feel.
Your third job is to get watched. All the time. Feel the eyes of your peers upon you. Sometimes you will feel their envy. Sometimes they will cringe. Sometimes they will look awed. Sometimes they will laugh. Ask for feedback. Ask how they would do it if they were you. Feel the eyes of guests on you. Begin to notice that you are on a stage. Try moving more artfully, knowing that you are being watched.