Interview: bartender Neal Bodenheimer (Cure + Bellocq)

Bartender New Orleans

New Orleans native Neal Bodenheimer first stepped behind a bar in Manhattan and initially became a bar owner in his hometown, post-Katrina. He currently co-owns Cure and Bellocq with Kirk Estopinal and Matthew Kohnke. We met on November 6 at Alex’s Lemonade, and Bodenheimer shed more light on his connection to cocktails, spirits and more.

What was your very first night like behind the bar, and where was it?

The first night I ever bartended was in New York, at a busy restaurant on the Upper East Side called the Atlantic Grill. I was kind of pressed into action, and it was on service bar, it was too many drinks and not enough experience, but I think that’s when you know if you like it, if you get that busy and you say, “Wow, I really enjoy this.” That’s kind of how you end up getting into the career.

What’s the criteria for a cocktail that goes on the menu at Cure?

There is no specific criteria. What happens is we have a submission process and the whole staff, including myself as an owner. I still submit to other people. If my cocktail’s not good enough, it doesn’t make it on.

Do you have a first cocktail memory, good or bad?

Like the cocktail that turned the light on for me? You know, as far as craft cocktails go, it was going to Bemelmans Bar. One of my mentors, Evan Klem, he walked us through the list back when Audrey Saunders was there, and it was really an eye-opening experience for me.

Any drink in particular?

No, because we were tasting so many. We went through them little by little. It was a group of us, and the idea of getting to taste so many, there was not one that turned the light on, but that one experience.

What did Evan Klem teach you?

Evan taught me a lot about cocktails. He was a molecular mixology guy, and he taught me about the creative aspects of it. My really good friend Vincent Favella, who’s still a bartender up in New York. I think he works at like four places, and he really taught me what it was like to be a bartender, and the service aspects of it. The reality is, as an owner of a cocktail bar, you spend less time bartending and more time doing all the other tasks. I spend more time fixing things than I do actually fixing drinks.

How did Cure come about?

Cure came about because there really wasn’t a great stand alone craft cocktail bar in New Orleans. That was my passion. I was initially going to try and open it in New York when I was up there, and then post Katrina, I wanted to return home, because I think a lot of people in New Orleans felt like, if you were from New Orleans, if you didn’t go back to New Orleans, New Orleans wouldn’t survive, so I went back home, and it took me a few years to even get it off the ground, but it ended up being a great thing, because a lot of people needed a venue to make drinks, to make craft cocktails, and that’s really how Cure came to be. It was an idea and at the right time, when people wanted to get into making cocktails. We were able to find those people around town.

What do you look for when you’re hiring somebody to work behind your bar?

It’s different now than it used to be. At first, it was people that I knew, and I knew they needed a venue to do what they needed to do. Now it starts off with someone that’s interested. Really, there are only a handful of ways to get behind the bar at Cure. There’s to start as a doorman and work your way in to being a barback, or to start as a barback and work your way into being a bartender, or to be a cocktail waitress and to work your way into being a bartender, or to being in the kitchen. There are very few people that go directly into an apprenticeship at Cure. We like to bring people in, get to know them and see if they’re going to fit in our family, but every now and then we interview someone we think is qualified and we’ll bring them into the apprenticeship program.

Who’s one person you’ve never worked with behind the bar that you would most like to work with?

That’s a good question. I don’t think I know the answer to that. There are so many people that I would love to work with, and everybody’s got different styles, that’s one of the reasons I like coming out to different events. I love to work with Eric [Alperin] and Chris [Bostick] and see how they do things over at The Varnish. Getting to work with the folks from The Hungry Cat. And I think that’s one of the great things about events like this, and about getting people in the industry to do things together. There’s a great exchange of ideas and it’s neat for them to see what we do, and it’s really cool to see what they do.

What was the most recent cocktail you came up with and what was your inspiration?

The most recent one was called King Victoria’s Cobbler, and it’s a Zucca Rabarbaro Amaro. I wanted something that was very bitter, earthy amaro, and I wanted to add a little fruit to it, so we added strawberry to rhubarb and made a cobbler. I really love the old format of the cobbler, and it’s something we’re getting ready to do for our new place in New Orleans, it’s going to be in the Hotel Modern, it’s going to be called Bellocq, and we’re doing a cobbler bar. That will be a project launching in December.

How will Bellocq be different from what you’re doing at Cure?

It’s going to be more specialized. At Cure, we like to believe someone can come in and get almost anything, whereas at Bellocq, it’s going to be much more aperitif and digestif focused, and then really one style of cocktail, but really, it has so many different iterations within that cocktail, so it’s really us getting down to our inner cocktail nerd.

Where and what do you like to drink when you’re not working?

It’s tough. I hate to say I love to drink at my own bar. One of the reasons why I love it is there are so many different styles behind the bar. I think that’s one of the things that makes us great for what we do, but it depends. If you were going to look at the back bar at Cure, it’s the perfect example of why I don’t know what I like to drink. It’s so many bottles because I’m always looking for an interesting combination, or an interesting bottle. Sometimes I drink mezcal, sometimes I drink Scotch, it can be anything. I think that’s one of the things I love about the spirit business, is the diversity, but as far as going out in New Orleans goes, if I’m going to have a cocktail, there are a few restaurants I’m going to go. I really like to go sit with Chris Hannah over at French 75 because he’s so good at making at house-made historical reproductions.

If you were going to only drink one more cocktail, what would be in the glass and how come?

It would probably be a Van Winkle family reserve 13-year rye Old Fashioned, because it’s the most pure cocktail form in my mind, with a beautiful, beautiful, clear chunk of ice.

Who would you allow to make that for you?

One of my business partners. I would allow Kirk Estopinal. He’s one of the best, he’s just so detailed with his cocktails. I just know if it was my last one, it would be exactly right.

Who are your other business partners?

My other business partner is Matthew Kohnke. He did all the design and build. Kirk came on as an employee and has become a partner. Matt was an original partner and really laid Cure. The reason why Cure looks the way it looks is because of Matt.

They’ll be partners in Bellocq?


Finally, what’s a great simple cocktail for people to make at home?

Actually, this is a great one because it’s a simple sour. This is a punch version of it. So this is 2:1 tequila, you could end up going 1.5 ounces of Nobalezo blanco, and then a half-ounce of Sombra mezcal. You can do 1 ounce of orange juice, 0.5 ounce of fresh lemon juice, then 0.5 ounce of cinnamon syrup. If you didn’t want to make cinnamon syrup at your house, you’d use simple syrup and then grate cinnamon on top of it. Either way, you’d want that spice element to it. You can add a spiced pepper to it as well. Simple sour, spice, that’s about as easy as they get.

Address: 4905 Freret Street, New Orleans, LA 70115

Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

Leave a Comment