Gabe Gordon has been at the leading edge of the Los Angeles craft beer movement since his days at Royal Clayton’s, when the downtown Arts District was still in its infancy. The Santa Rosa native and longtime chef relocated to Seal Beach and created what’s become a craft beer beacon, Beachwood BBQ. In 2011, he and wife Lena Perelman opened Beachwood BBQ & Brewing with brewmaster and business partner Julian Shrago, expanding on the exacting Beachwood vision. On May 12, I interviewed Gordon over lunch in Long Beach, and he shared insights into why he’s become an industry leader.
Is it possible to have a friend who’s not into food?
No. I have not a single acquaintance that is not super into food, beer, wine, spirits, something. I eat my meals, and while I’m eating, I think about where to eat next. That’s how my family always was. When we’d go on vacation, we would think long and hard about going to a place that doesn’t have cuisine.
Did you get into food or beer first?
Food first. I really decided I wanted to be a chef at 16. Beer came slowly from 16 on. You can only get so much from 16 to 18.
Where did you first start working in restaurants?
My very first professional kitchen job was at Santa Barbara Brewing Company when I was 18, in college.
Yeah. Kind of weird, ironic, right? The beer was terrible when I worked there.
Is it still around?
Yeah. And actually, the brewmaster there now, I believe is the only grand master BJCP judges on the West Coast. Or he holds some title that almost no one has. He’s a really, really knowledgeable, great brewer, who is brewing in the heart of college party central, and I think doesn’t necessarily get enough love because people our age don’t necessarily want to go drink with 18-year-olds. It makes it really hard to get the recognition when the bulk of people coming through your doors are tourists and college students. That’s not the easiest thing to do. If I’m going out for the night and want to drink great beer, I don’t know that I want to go where they’re blaring whatever the latest music is, so I think he’s got his work cut out for him as far as recognition. I don’t think he necessarily cares though. He makes really good beer.
How important are titles to you, like beer judge, Cicerone, things like that?
I’m really glad if you have them, and I think it’s amazing that you were able to sit and focus and study. My hat’s off to you. It’s great, but I don’t find it to be a necessity where we’re at I don’t feel like I need to go through that. It’s great if you have it. We’ll support any way we can. The offer stands. Any Cicerone, any sommelier, any of those programs that you want to do, you pay for them, you pass them, I’ll reimburse you. I completely support it.
I love beer and I love wine and drink, but ultimately my focus falls on, I like learning hands on and not sitting, reading a book. It’s really cool. I just don’t have the focus to do it. My mind’s in too many places. School was never my strong point. I was a Philosophy major. I would have been really hard pressed to be an Engineering major, where things are expected of you at certain times. Other people structure for me. I have a hard time with it.
That first level Cicerone thing, the server one. We require everyone to take it here, mostly as a way to kind of let people know who are new hires that we are serious about it. Their interpretation of it is that it’s a very serious thing. Secondly, it determines whether a day-to-day employee will want to continue their education. Thirdly, I want to support the Cicerone program. What better way to do it than continue to give it money? It’s good for the industry, and it’s the only thing we have, that’s standardized…
To gauge that knowledge or commitment?
Totally. Especially on that second level. If you’re a second level Cicerone, you studied. You worked hard for that. That means that you give a shit enough about this industry to want to be better at it, and you probably want to be in this industry, as opposed to, “Oh yeah, I really love beer, but I’m a drama major and just want to be an actor one day.” Those people are never going to take the Cicerone program, so are those people worth the time investing? If you come to me and want to take that second level, that second step, I know that it’s worth investing in you.
You’re committed to the cause.
You’re committed to the cause, yeah. Same with the Sommelier program, and I don’t differentiate the two at all. I quite honestly don’t care whether or not you do Somm or Cicerone or both. If you can learn one, the other one is just different vocabulary.
What do you look for when you’re hiring at Beachwood, for somebody to work behind the bar?
The first thing, you have to have experience as a server at a place that has good to great service standards. I don’t mind corporate stuff either. CPK has a really good training program. If Houstons is on your resume, I’m probably going to hire you. That’s where [Brian] Lenzo comes from. They really do a good job. CPK does a good job as well. Other than that, if I don’t know your restaurant, I’m going to look at your reviews for service, if that’s where you come from. If you’re from a different state, or whatever, see what your menu was, what your level of service was. First and foremost, no matter what, you have to have worked at a service place. I don’t care if you have zero stars for food, if you have five stars for service, that’s what I’m looking for in a server. Then, I want you to have some kind of passion for food or drink or coffee or beer. I don’t care. If you come to me like, “I know more than anybody in the world about soda,” good enough, because it’s all about vocabulary. All it is, is learning how to evaluate something with a certain set of flavors. Wine has one set of flavors, beer has another, coffee has another.
Would you rather be better known for food, as a chef, or for beer?