Paul Sanguinetti grew up in New Bedford, Massachusetts, started as a chef, added wine to his repertoire, and now works as the Ray’s and Stark Bar‘s Beverage Director when he’s not rapping or revamping other Patina Restaurant Group bar programs. On February 11, we met at Kendall’s Brasserie, before a bar training session, and Sanguinetti shared several spirited insights.
What’s happening at Kendall’s that you’re here every day from 2 to 4?
I’m here longer than that. I’m just here for a bar training today. I’ve been asked by Patina to work on – it’s kind of a new directive where they’ve asked me to start going to each unit to implement a bar program, like I did at Stark Bar. They’re obviously very happy with what I did at Ray’s and Stark Bar and understand there’s a lacking at their other units. I’m kind of the guy they’re sending in to do “Bar Rescue.”
Are you still attached to Ray’s and Stark Bar?
I’m still overseeing the program. I’m going to be writing the menu soon, and it’s possible I’ll be going back to Stark Bar in between doing properties to make sure that’s still running the way it should be… That’s my baby.
What does a cocktail have to be at Ray’s and Stark Bar versus Kendall’s or any of the other properties?
I try to treat every unit differently and every program differently. Obviously Ray’s and Stark Bar is at the LACMA museum. We had to start fresh, so the idea was to be cocktail driven. We have the whole Mid-Century theme going on, so you have a certain style to the glassware, to the seating, the whole look of the place. It was designed by architect Renzo Piano, who also designed the Resnick Pavilion and the Broad at LACMA. It’s got that sleek, modern look. The whole idea was to be fresh, California-driven, Mid-Century, playful and fun.
Kendall’s Brasserie is a traditional French brasserie located downtown. My idea over here is to go French themed, still try to keep it a little playful. I’ve got my own personal style, even though I like technique to be there. I don’t try and take cocktails too seriously. To me, one of the biggest disappointments is when you go into a place and they’re too serious, to the point where you can’t even enjoy it, where it’s too stiff or too much by the rules. Rules and technique should always be there, but sometimes they’re made to be broken too.
Did your interest in wine come before your interest in cocktails and spirits?
Actually, I started drinking gin when I was 16, before I was seriously into wine. My love of booze actually came first, but I grew up in a family with wine. My grandfather made wine. It was always part of my culture growing up, so it’s kind of hard to say which came first. Probably wine, but I liked drinking whiskey and gin until my early to mid-20s when I took food and cooking a lot more seriously.
What was your first professional experience with cocktails, spirits or wine?
I started off as a chef. Me and a buddy of mine, back on the East Coast, started our own restaurant when I was 23 or so. We had a great, successful restaurant, doing things outside of the box where we were living. We had a really fresh approach and were really successful. It was while I was there that I realized I had very little wine knowledge. My partner, he liked drinking wine, and to me, I thought that in order to be a good chef, every chef should have a strong knowledge of wine. At that point, I sought part time employment in the wine business. I got a part time job promoting wines at trade shows. I would represent different wineries, importers and distributors. I got to work with different portfolios, which was nice. I had this woman take me under her wing. She said, “You have a knack for this. You should take some classes and actually pursue a career in it.” To me it was fun, getting to taste different wines, meet different chefs. The idea of getting to travel. All of the people I was working with, they were just coming back from France, Italy or Spain. “I want to do that. I love cooking, but being stuck in a kitchen sometimes sucks.” I kind of thought it would be better money, a better opportunity to travel, and it still tied in my love of food. That’s how I got started.
What was the restaurant that you and your friend ran, and where was it?
It was this place called Libads Bar & Grill. It’s named after this Portuguese guy that owned the place. It was kind of a hole-in-the-wall dive bar and grill, and we took over the restaurant portion and we ran a restaurant out of the downstairs of this biker bar and grill. We took it over, had a fresh approach, almost a gastropub type situation in a city that lacked a food culture, for the most part.
What was the city?
New Bedford, Massachusetts. It was where I grew up. It was a blue collar fishing town, maybe 100,000 people, big Portuguese community, a lot of Cape Verdeans, Puerto Ricans, African-Americans, a very diverse city, kind of roughneck. Fishermen, a lot of drugs, gangs, bikers. It’s a pretty seedy town, but at one point, it was the richest city in the world. Herman Melville used to hang out there. Part of “Moby Dick” takes place in New Bedford. Mark Twain, Frederick Douglass, all the enlightened minds of the late 1800s all used to hang out there. After the whole whaling industry collapsed, the city went bankrupt and it became a seedy sort of place.
Who’s the woman who took you under her wing?
Her name is Cara Hafferty. She’s an amazing woman. Her husband, John Hafferty, was a major buyer for M.S. Walker. They were a distributor in Massachusetts, very well known. They now own a store called Bin Ends in Boston. Basically, their concept is to buy great wine closeouts and pass on the savings to the consumer… It’s a cool concept, and they were doing it before anybody else was doing that on a consumer level. So just a great couple, very natural, and they’re the ones who I give credit to, getting me started on this path.
What’s one piece of advice that’s really stuck with you from them?
I don’t know if they gave me any piece of advice, but they just had the right way of doing business. They were smart. They were educated. They just did things the right way. And also just being natural and congenial. They were never stuck up about wine. They always kept it fun and kept it light, even though they were some of the most knowledgeable people I knew. I kind of take that with me too. I try not to be pretentious about it.
What got you out to L.A.?
That’s a long story. I lived in Colorado for awhile, moved back east to help family out, and all my friends from Colorado came to L.A. because they were film students. One of my best friends out there got married, so I came out here for the wedding. Then I met a girl… I came out here, hung out here for awhile. I was trying to get into the wine business, had a lot of friends out here, and needed to get out of the East Coast. It just all made sense, so I made the leap.
What were you doing leading up to Ray’s and Stark Bar?
When I first came out here, I got a job with a small importer distributor that specialized in Australian and New Zealand wines. So I did that, and it wasn’t quite full-time, so to supplement my income, I got a job cooking with Joe Miller, who has Joe’s in Venice, which had a Michelin star at one point, and I worked for him at Bar Pintxo, his Spanish place. I took a job cooking there, but he hired me because I had a wine background. It had an open kitchen, and it was his idea that I could work the line, make tapas for people, some gambas al ajillo, but I could also pair wines for them on the spot, at the bar. For me, it was one of my favorite places I ever worked, because I got the best of both worlds. I could recommend some Riojas, some nice wines, while at the same time, cooking up some paella or frying up some croquetas. To me, that’s my ideal type of place, where you can do it all. It was a really fun atmosphere, and that’s kind of how they do it in Spain…I was assistant manager and helped run the wine list.
I left there to help a friend out at The Mercantile, which was opening with Kris Morningstar. I came on board to help out and help train and was selling them wine. Then I moved into a management role over there. Then we opened District, so I worked with Kris Morningstar at those restaurants. We had a great time working with each other. We saw eye to eye on a lot of things. I admired his passion, and it really ignited my passion too. I’d never really worked with a chef like that, who thought outside the box and really was so bold with his flavors and really put his balls on the plate, so to speak. Literally, if you’re talking duck testicles, and stuff like that. I worked with him there, and we all left that, because we had different visions from the owner at that point.
I went to Fraiche in Culver City as a sommelier for a little while. That’s where I met Kiowa Bryan, who’s now at The Eveleigh. We saw eye to eye on a lot of things, and at that point, I was really trying to get into cocktails. I left to take the job at Ray’s and Stark Bar. By the time I joined Stark Bar, I was already looking at taking cocktails seriously. I took the BarSmarts program. I had this guy Arthur Botting help me out. He worked at The Edison. He was our bar manager at District. He helped me get started. I was like, “Arthur, I’m really looking to get into cocktails. I want to make cocktails like you do.” So he took me under his wing, gave me some books, told me about BarSmarts. We’d go out drinking together. He taught me about the basic formulas, what makes a sour, what makes a fizz, all that stuff. By the time I went to Fraiche, I already had a bit of a foundation. What I’d do, I’d just go home and practice drinks all night.
Oh yeah. My girlfriend at the time hated me. She was a nanny and had to be up early. I worked at restaurants and would be home late. I’d be cracking eggs in my kitchen, practicing Old Fashioneds, my Manhattans. And then I was experimenting with Pisco. I started experimenting with all these basic formulas. “What if I switch out vermouth with benedictine? Or switch this out with some Chartreuse?” I just started playing around every single night for about a year, and at Stark Bar, worked with Michel Dozois on the cocktail program. I was Beverage Director, and he was putting together the cocktail program, so we worked very closely together, and I learned a lot from him as well. He departed, I stayed on board at Stark Bar and took over the cocktail program from there.
How do you go about naming cocktails?