Davidson “Dave” Fernie was born in Charlotte and grew up in Atlanta. He stayed in town for college, attending Georgia Tech University. While earning a Bachelor’s of Science in Science, Technology and Culture, he started working in bars. Once he moved to New York, he got a crash course in cocktails at Brooklyn’s River Café and worked in several other establishments before moving to Los Angeles. Fernie started at Church & State, since he heard such good things about chef Walter Manzke, and he got two more breaks when he simultaneously started working at Test Kitchen and La Descarga. He had a short stint at Playa and now works at Harvard & Stone, with plans for him to become head bartender at another Houston brothers bar, Pour Vous, a Parisian-inspired venue situated on Melrose. On November 8, we met at Harvard & Stone before the start of his shift, and Fernie better explained his connection to the cocktail and spirit world.
Do you feel like your degree in Science in Science, Technology helps you at all in the work that you do?
I think that having a good education never hurts because it provides a larger base of knowledge from which to approach every guest. It’s also not bad to have a good working knowledge of history and culture when trying to create drink menus. A big part of bartending is just staying up on your pop culture and reading quite a bit, just so you have a litany of fun information and facts to present to people, especially in down times.
Are there any down times here?
Yeah, basically before 10 p.m. every night it’s a little quieter, then it gets to a point where it’s so crazy you basically can’t hear people order drinks. It’s a nice gamut run through the course of every night.
Do you have a very first cocktail memory, good or bad?
The very first cocktail that I had, or the very first cocktail that I made?
That you had.
I can’t remember the first cocktail that I had. I do remember the first cocktail that really blew my mind, and it was an Old Fashioned. I had a really proper Old Fashioned. I believe it was at Dumont in Williamsburg. I was just sitting at the bar, with some mussels, maybe, and the guy next to me had an Old Fashioned. I was like, “Let me see what this is about.” It was before I even started bartending. I was like, “That’s so simple and so good.” It kind of spurred me on. I remember the first time I went to Death & Co., that really blew my mind. And a place where I had one of the best cocktails I had in New York was at a place called the Richardson. It’s a cocktail called The Jam. It was Rhum J.M. with honey, a dash of soda and a lemon twist, and it’s basically like a honey Old Fashioned. I don’t remember the bartender’s name, but he reminded me of Pee Wee Herman. I would go in all the time and order that cocktail. I still make it for myself to this day.
Is that a good thing, that he reminded you of Pee Wee Herman?
Yeah. He wasn’t as nerdy as Pee Wee Herman, but he had that skinny, tall, combover hair kind of look.
What was your very first bar job?
My very first bar job was at a place called Three Dollar Cafe in Marietta. It was this high volume sports bar with more than 50 beers on tap and 190 beers in the fridge. Basically I was a barback for a guy that played bass in my band, and just lugged kegs around at 110, 120 pound, six-four, lanky punk rock kid carrying kegs and cases of beer around. It felt like I got a hernia twice every day. It was good exercise and hard work.
From there you ended up in New York?
That was I guess when I was a sophomore or junior in college. From there I held down a couple restaurant jobs in Atlanta. When I graduated college, I briefly tried to work for Bell South and wasn’t really feeling the cubicle style job. I had a girlfriend who was modeling in New York at the time and she talked me into moving up there, so we moved up there to Carroll Gardens, and I just lucked into this job at a place called the River Café under the Brooklyn Bridge and started bartending there. I just got a battlefield commission one day. A bartender, his mother fell deathly, mortally ill, and they needed somebody to step into the position, so I did. I didn’t even know how to make a Cosmo that first day.
What year would this have been?
Either late 2004 or early 2005.
What was your first night like behind the bar? What do you remember about it?
I just remember feeling woefully unprepared, just being really embarrassed, and going to my phone and Google searching cocktails. I think we had a Mr. Boston guide back there. This may have even been before I had a smart phone. Then the next day I went home and thought, “That was a disaster,” and then the next day I went on Amazon and bought a reprint of Jerry Thomas, Jimmy (Late of Ciro’s), and I started pouring those. I took home a copy of our cocktail book and just learned the specs. It was funny because every bartender at this space seemed to make the drinks a bit differently. I tried to seek out the best way I thought to make the cocktails.
What brought you to Los Angeles?
I was living in New York for five years and I started dating a girl about two years into my time there, and we dated for the duration of my time there, and she wanted to move back to L.A. She came to New York from L.A. It become one of those things, like, “Yeah, we’ll do it eventually, honey.” And then finally she convinced me to come out here. I heard about some pretty cool things happening out here, so I finally agreed. In August 2009, we decided to move out here together, and I got a job pretty much immediately at Church & State. I heard really good things about Walter Manzke in New York, so I really sought that job out, immediately, and it turned out to be a pretty good move.
Did you work with Michel [Dozois] there?
I didn’t. Michel, while legendary in the scene, had left Church & State before I started, but I quickly learned about his iconic place in L.A. bartending.
From Church & State, you went where?
Church & State and I kind of parted ways in September 2010 and I started the same week at both La Descarga and Test Kitchen. Both Steve Livigni and Julian Cox took a chance on this guy they heard was making decent drinks at this place. I wasn’t really established at all. I wasn’t even part of the Sporting Life at that point. I was just happy to go along and get along because there really wasn’t much of a community in New York, like there is here. That step out of Church & State and into Descarga and Test Kitchen really put me in a place where I could branch out and learn a lot from some really amazing people, and also get plugged into the cocktail community, so to speak, in L.A.
Would you say that you’ve had any mentors related to cocktails and spirits?
Two of the guys I really looked up to were Matt Biancaniello and Brian Summers, because the owner there really wanted me to focus on this market fresh mixology that I guess was very en vogue at the time. I had really only had a lot of experience with classic cocktails in New York. Going to the Library Bar and seeing this spread that’s almost like a salad bar, on the bar, that was the kind of cocktails they wanted me to make there. I really took a lot of cues from those guys. Walter Manzke and Josh Smith were really the biggest influences on me. Their sous chefs, Allan Buhay and Jon Butler, those guys really all took me under their wing and taught me more than I’d ever seen before about flavors, flavor profiles, they got me into the Flavor Bible, they got me really tasting and eating in a way that I really hadn’t thought of before, and they were really spurring me along. So I’d say the chefs and sous chefs at Church & State. For bar guys, Summers and Biancaniello.
What would you say some hallmarks of your bartending style?
Now I’m really known for really silly cocktail names. You know, people kind of expect from me, fun classics redone or reimagined in interesting ways. Obviously the French flavors are big. I play with those a lot. I also like to bring a lot of pan-Asian flavors. A lot of the same things I do when I cook, I do when I make cocktails. I think you can expect to see a lot of that kind of French and French Colonial interplay. You’ll see a lot of French, French-Caribbean and Indochine flavors when we do Pour Vous here in a few months.
So you’ll be heading that program?
Yeah, I’ll be the head bartender. Me and Steve Livigni are working pretty closely on the cocktail menu.
What’s that collaboration like?
It’s great. He brings things to the table I wouldn’t have even thought. The other day he brought in some really cool ingredients like blue green algae that we’ve been kind of experimenting with. He’s got some really amazing ideas. We’ve got great chemistry together behind the bar, so he has an overarching vision where I tend to sometimes get overly focused on singular cocktails.
What’s the criteria for a cocktail that goes on the menu at Pour Vous?
We really want to blow peoples minds, give them the pinnacle of cocktails they can get in Los Angeles, but also in a party kind of environment. We want everybody to have fun, be relaxed, and to be able to enjoy either an amazing cocktail or just a great cognac or a beautiful glass of Champagne. That’s really the idea there. As far as the cocktails, we don’t really want to do anything that’s been done before, but I think as long as we’re working within the realm of French flavors and French ideas, that’s kind of the idea we’re looking for.
So no classic cocktails?
They’ll be available, obviously. They won’t be on the menu. If a team like the one that’s being assembled there can’t make you a really amazing Sidecar or a great Champs Elysee, then we don’t have any business being behind the bar, period. We want to introduce people to some things that maybe they haven’t even tried before.
It doesn’t have to be for Pour Vous, but what was the most recent cocktail that you created, and what was your approach and inspiration?
Most recently I was working on a vadouvan lassi. Vadouvan is this French curry. It’s very en vogue right now, I suppose, in France and Spain. It’s similar to a Moroccan curry, but much more European. The fun thing about that curry and using it in a drink you’re getting these dried shallot and garlic flavors as an undertone, and then using that in a lassi, it makes sense I suppose because the curry goes really well with Indian flavors. Then we were toying with the idea of using a Haitian rum or maybe a French gin. I haven’t really come up with a working title yet, but that was the most recent cocktail we were working on.
What’s your general thinking when you’re naming cocktails?