Interview: bartender Yanni Kehagiaris (Nopa + Nopalito)

Bartender San Francisco

Just like his predecessor at Nopa, Yanni Kehagiaris got his start with Cheesecake Factory and later charted a more crafted path. He was on a “veritable bartending dream team” at Bourbon & Branch before moving to Nopa, where he eventually replaced Neyah White as bar manager. He simultaneously serves as bar manager of sister establishment(s) Nopalito. On July 6, I spoke with Kehagiaris at Nopa, and he shared several spirited insights.

You’re a hermit?

I’m a little bit reclusive on the scene. I’m definitely the guy that likes to stay behind the bar and run the program and worry about service. I’m either behind the bar or at home. I’m a workaholic.

It would be hard to be a hermit and be in the public every single day.

It can be a challenge. I’ve been bartending for a long time in this city, and I’ve got a gamut of experience. Like I worked for Cheesecake Factory for seven years, as Neyah [White] did previously. We were on separate coasts, but I did that for seven years, and by the end of it, I was helping to run their national bar program and doing research and development. From there I went to Bourbon & Branch. That was the first big jump. I stayed there; I was bar manager for a year-and-a-half with Joel Baker and then I came to Nopa and worked here for about a year. Then Neyah made his move to be an ambassador for Yamazaki. I kind of stepped into the role of bar manager. That being said, this was my first solo program. At Bourbon & Branch, it was collaborative…So it was the first program where I was like, “Alright, what am I all about? What has the last almost decade of doing this and thinking about it and studying and reading, what’s the culmination? It kind of came down to the list and the Spirituals, which are the focuses for what we do.

Tell me about your Spirituals.

On one side of the menu we do our house cocktails, and on this side we always have a focus. Back in the day when Neyah had the program, it would be more direct, in the sense that it would be Spiritual: Gin. Or it would be Spiritual: Cognac, a singular kind of focus. I feel like I’ve gotten a little more conceptual with it. One right now is called The Rum Diary. It’s three producers of rum with two cocktails each. They essentially have akin ingredients between the two cocktails, but one is juice driven and the other is spirituous, so you can kind of have the same experience with that chosen rum and those specific ingredients, in a different manner. So they’re kind of reflective in that way. The last Spiritual we did, which was The French Trinity, was definitely kind of an opus, two Cognac cocktails, two Armagnac cocktails, and two Calvados cocktails, and all of those were entirely spirituous. I’m a minimalist behind the bar.

What happens to these cocktails after you shuffled them out?

I’m a huge Sherry fan, so you’ll have to forgive the analogy, but they get solera’d into the next menu. On this one, for instance, the Paradis was one of the ones that really spoke to me on the last Spiritual. So that kind of stayed on the menu…The dessert menu has a cocktail called the Benediction, which is a Calvados and Sherry cocktail with a little bit of Benedictine as well. So again, the Spirituals live on through being solera’d into the next menus, and as time has gone by, the cocktail list has become bullet proof, by the fact that it’s constantly taking the best or your favorite cocktail – or even the one you believe in – there are plenty of times in the past where a mezcal cocktail wouldn’t sell and it wouldn’t sell and it wouldn’t sell, all of a sudden, people open up to it. Maybe it takes a little while….That’s what the menu’s about. It focused on a given theme, but overall, I think they’re all original cocktails. There’s a lot to be said for history and classic structure.

Was the Cheesecake Factory your first bar job?

It was. And that was just something that as a young kid, I needed a job anywhere and fell into just getting that job and things kind of snowballed. I waited some tables and eventually got to barback.

What do you remember about your very first night behind the bar?

Terror. Sheer terror. You know, I think a place like that, or even Nopa, these are busy places. Your Slanted Doors, or all these restaurant/bars that are incredibly busy, it’s almost like chaos – obviously not as bad as in a nightclub – it’s that chaotic. When you’re new behind a bar, it can definitely be pretty intimidating to look up and see swarms of people there and needing something from you. Everyone’s looking at you. I was always excited for it, though. Even though I sit here and say I was terrified, I was always really excited.

At what point did you know this might become a career?

Right away. It was definitely a sickness, even before the cocktail scene was even burgeoning, at least to my awareness. I think that even Dale DeGroff’s first book – The Craft of the Cocktail – it’s definitely like fundamentals, but that was one of the things that really got me looking at it a different way. It wasn’t just slinging drinks anymore. All of a sudden, there was a history attached, and there was a technique attached. Even as a jumping off point, that book was huge…because there weren’t that many cocktail books that were published with as much regularity as there seems to be now. I knew pretty much right away. I was always kind of destined to work in the restaurant or service industry or as a bartender, but it’s always felt very natural and very right to me. Even at Cheesecake, I always wanted to design drinks there. I always had that want and need. That was kind of my creative outlet, I guess.

Would you say that you’ve had any mentors over the years?

Definitely. So many, I’d be certain I’d leave some out. I definitely had some really big influences, particularly at Bourbon & Branch in the beginning. When I first went there, it was pretty much with the original guys, so I had the likes of Todd Smith, Jon Santer, Dominic Venegas, Neyah White, Eric Johnson, Thad Vogler – this was just the beginning roster. It sounds like a veritable bartending dream team, and it was. I just learned a lot from all of those guys. That was just a very unique moment in time, in terms of this city and its bartending culture. I don’t think you’ll ever see that type of line-up behind one bar again. How can you not learn from all those people? And there are so many different aspects of learning. There are bartenders that are super technical, there are the history buffs, there are bartenders at the personality end of things, which are so important as well. All of those things come together. That’s why when I think about people that have impacted me personally, it’s crazy. And outside of other people and fellow bartenders, it’s also funny where you get inspiration from in general. Just the idea of lazy rum drinking during summer right now, that kind of was the whole idea behind The Rum Diary, and that’s a little wink at Hunter S. Thompson, which is one of my personal favorites. It’s art reflecting art. Even throughout the menu and the drinks, if people so care to ask, they all have stories, why they’re called what they’re called or winks to the past.

What’s your favorite part about bartending?


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Joshua Lurie

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

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