Pennsylvania native Dave Kupchinsky has been working in bars since the late ’90s, but it wasn’t until the past couple years that he started to consider working with cocktails and spirits a career. He managed his first bar, the now closed Tar Pit, and moved to the Sunset Strip to head the program at a seasonal, market-driven restaurant called The Eveleigh. We spoke with Kupchinsky on April 18 at The Eveleigh, and he shared spirited insights that hint at why he’s been successful.
What brought you out to L.A.?
The weather, I guess. I’d always wanted to live in L.A. I’ve been in L.A. since the end of ’99.
What was your very first bar job?
It was a little semi-trendy bar in the area, for the Poconos, and I didn’t really know what I was doing there. I kind of just met the guy that owned the place and we hit it off a little bit. I didn’t know what I was doing when he hired me on as his bartender. I don’t think he really knew what he was doing either.
What do you remember about your very first night behind the bar?
I got fired, but not on the first night. When I got behind the bar, I was just lost. It was like training. Everything was being taught to me, but it was very unremarkable. It wasn’t anything exciting.
Was it a given that you’d work in bars for a career?
No, not at that time. I liked working in bars at that time, but I never thought of it as a career at that point. I was still in college. It didn’t really occur to me. I figured I would just do it while I was in college.
At what point did it become a career for you?
Last year. It was while I was at The Tar Pit. We didn’t have a manager. Are you familiar with The Tar Pit?
It was after Audrey Saunders was there to open up the place. The partners didn’t really get along, so they split up. She wasn’t involved any longer and we didn’t have a manager for awhile. I stepped up to kind of be the manager until they found somebody. And they didn’t find anybody. I just kept the job. From that job, I kind of got poached from there to come here. I didn’t really think about it until I was doing it. I didn’t really think about it as a career until I was actually in it.
Were you working in bars when you first moved out here?
Yeah, bars and restaurants in different capacities, but I could never get any good bartender jobs or anything I liked doing. I’d never worked in any cool bars that I would have liked to hang out in or be a part of. I had gotten fired from three consecutive places, just from having a bad attitude. I have a hard time holding my tongue if I think I’m working for someone who’s an asshole. The last place I was bartending was Roy’s, a corporate Hawaiian place downtown. I got fired from that place and was unemployed for like six months. Then I was kind of over the whole bar thing, and then I saw an ad that Sona was looking for an expediter in the kitchen…I had eaten there. I was like, “Okay, it’s not bartending. I won’t have to deal with anybody. I’ll just be in the kitchen. I won’t have to deal with front of the house. I won’t have to deal with guests. It’ll be cool. It’s an awesome restaurant. I’ll see what it’s like to work for a top-notch place.” I did that for a year, and it ended up being the hardest job I’ve ever had in my life. The expediter job was just insane. I’d never been more stressed out in my whole life. It was just that difficult. It was like being an aircraft controller in a snow storm in Chicago. It was ridiculous. They’d gone through six expediters in a year and a half, or something like that. When they offered me the job, I’d shadowed for a week, trained for two weeks, and trained for a week, before they ever offered me the job. And then they offered me the job and made me promise to do it for a year because they kept going through expediters. I was like, “I’ll do it for a year.” At the same time, my year was up and I was completely over the job. I was counting down the days until that year was over. At the same time, Comme Ca was opening up and it was the same owners. They were putting in a legitimate bar program. Sammy Ross was coming in and training everybody and setting up the program. I saw what they were doing over there, so I was like, “My year’s up. I’d like to try bartending again. I want to do what they do.” I got in at Comme Ca and that’s where I started taking bartending seriously again.
Would you say that you’ve had any mentors since then?
I kind of wish that I’ve had a mentor. I was fortunate enough where I worked with some really amazing people for very short periods of time. Sammy Ross was over at Comme Ca for a short time. He wasn’t there for very long. I kind of overlapped, because I wasn’t on the opening bartending team. I came in kind of after, and actually Julian Cox was the one that trained me. And he just got trained, so he was brand new himself. He trained me and Marcos Tello was over there and I worked with him for a little bit, training. Not for a long period of time. Most of the shifts I had at Comme Ca were by myself. We had a great program, we had great product, we had a great base, great recipes and structures. I would do it learning on my own, in a great environment. And then I went to The Tar Pit, it was great again. They had Audrey. Marcos, again, was there, and Chad Solomon and Christy Pope were there, but they were only there for like three months. I learned a lot from them. There were great bartenders there. Naomi [Schimek] was there, and Matt Goodyear was there. Daniel [Eun], who’s working at The Varnish. There were a lot of good bartenders there, and we kind of learned from each other, then that was it. I got thrown into managing. I guess there was so much I had to learn on my own. I was lucky to have a little bit of time with some good people, but not very long. I’m still learning. I’m still trying to figure it out.
What’s your favorite part about working in bars?
I like the social aspect of it a lot, being around people. I like the environment that it’s creating in a bar. It’s a party atmosphere. Everybody’s just out to have a good time. I’m kind of a shy person. I’m kind of forced to be at least part of the center of attention when you’re in that kind of environment. I like the social aspect of it, and with the style of bartending we’re doing. I like the craft of it. I have respect for it. Before, I never really had respect for it. Now I feel like what I do, the care that goes into it, the product that goes into it, the creativity that goes into it, it gives me a sense of pride. It’s a creativity. If I didn’t have the creative outlet, I don’t know how long I could do it.
What does a cocktail have to be if you serve it at The Eveleigh? Are there any common threads between all the cocktails you serve here?
I’m looking for a certain type of classic balance. I like to do spins on classics, but only because in classic cocktails, there’s an inherent structure and an inherent balance that goes into it. Basically, it just has to be good ingredients, and a good balance to it.
What would you want people to know you for as a bartender?