Jeremy Lake got started behind the bar at Jerry’s Deli and skipped a birthday blowout in Cabo to train with industry leader Julian Cox. The gambit paid off. Lake now works as Program Director of both restaurants from chef John Rivera Sedlar, Playa and Rivera. We spoke at Playa, and Lake explained his connection to cocktails, spirits and creativity.
What was your first bar job?
I worked at Jerry’s Deli for three years. They were in need of a bartender and said, “Are you interested in learning how to bartend?” I said, “Sure, why not,” figuring I was going to get some kind of training. They just threw me behind the bar.
The one in Marina del Rey. I didn’t know anything about bartending at all. I didn’t know anything about spirits, and for the first month people came in and asked for a drink and I said, “Okay, you tell me how to make it and I’ll make it for you.”
Did they know how to make it?
Yeah, they knew kind of the amateur recipe.
At what point did you think you would do this for a career?
Coming up on three years ago now, I went into Rivera looking for a job. I got a lead through a friend, found out they were looking to hire. I just went in there and was really at a transitional point in my entire life, and the first person I met was Julian Cox. He said, “I’m going to be doing training for this bar.” I looked over at the bar at Rivera and didn’t recognize one bottle on the wall. He said, “It’s a six-week training and you can come in and join the class, and if you make it through the class, you’ll get hired.” I said, “I’m interested.” He said, “Okay, great.” Let’s say it was a Saturday. He said, “Monday, we’ll start six weeks of training.” It was my birthday on Monday and I was flying to Cabo with a bunch of friends to celebrate my birthday. I told him that and said, “Sorry, I can’t make it.” He said, “Check in again and some other time we’ll hire you if you make it through the training.” On my way home, I just decided I want to do that, so I turned back around and told him I’d be there Monday. My friends went to Cabo for my birthday without me, and somewhere during that training, it clicked. I got it, understood it, liked it, and wanted to learn all about it. Three years later, I’m running two bars and running the bar I started at.
Did you go right from Jerry’s to Rivera?
No, there was probably a six or seven year gap. I’d left Jerry’s and went and traveled Europe just to get out. The opportunity came up, and when I came back, I just waited tables and I was a writer, on-and-off a professional writer in Hollywood for like 10 years. I wrote everything. I wrote scripts for TV and film, I wrote trivia, like when you’re messing around killing time at a bus station, I’m the guy that wrote that. The paying gigs were few and far between, so I always supplemented my cash by working in restaurants. I got so burnt out on this side of the bar, the service side of the bar, I’d done that for so long. I enjoyed being a bartender at Jerry’s, doing martinis and Jack and Cokes. I enjoyed the conversations I’d have with guests. I enjoyed the respect a bartender gets, more than most servers would get. There’s more companionship, camaraderie between a bartender and a patron sitting at a bar than there is when there’s a server coming to a table, in my subjective experience. When I came into Rivera and got into the bar program, I really liked that. I also liked that I was having some of the best drinks I’d had in my entire life. My eyes opened to what cocktails actually could be, used to be, should be. I wanted to be part of that.
What were some of your earliest memories of drinking on the customer side of the bar?
It was never anything of any quality. It was always going out to a dive bar and drinking Jack and Cokes or doing whatever random shot. I think there was a shot called a Red Headed Slut. Girl Scout Cookie. Things like that.
Where are you from originally?
I’m from Northern California, Sacramento area. I moved down here about 14 years ago, so I’ve been in L.A. a long time.
Can you imagine ever living there again?
Yeah, actually I could. There was a time where I think about going back, once I gained some more bar skills, going back and taking this craft to the small town that I grew up in. I don’t know that it would really be perceived well at this point, but maybe it would because it’s wine country and people have palates up there for wine, so I don’t see why they wouldn’t have a palate for cocktails. I just don’t think there’s a lot of exposure. I know there is in Sacramento, which is very close to where I grew up. There’s some grassroots movement there with some craft cocktailing.
Would you say that Julian’s been your biggest mentor, or have there been other people on the way?
Julian, definitely. What was interesting was that right when I got into Rivera, Bill Chait was opening other places, and one of the places that was first on the map was the original Test Kitchen. We just completed our second Test Kitchen. There weren’t that many shifts available to me at Rivera right when we got going because there weren’t that many shifts when I graduated, so I asked if I could go and work at this other spot, not knowing or really understanding what it was. I was brand new, not only to the mixology world, craft cocktail world, but even to this caliber of culinary prism. I didn’t know it. I went over there as a barback and became the resident barback, and was still so brand new that I didn’t know the people I was barbacking for. There were some huge people: Eric Alperin, Dave Fernie was always there, Brian Summers was always there, the Bon Vivants, these people that are still, to this day, my mentors. Because of that, I got to see the best of this craft right away. That was pretty cool. I would say that still, to this day, Julian’s probably my #1 mentor, but I’ve learned from Julian Wayser. I worked alongside him. He used to work here. Dave Fernie, Brian Summers, they all taught me a lot. I learned from Eric Alperin. Josh Goldman, obviously, Julian’s business partner. I could keep going. I learn from so many people all the time.
What would you want people to know you for as a bartender?