Interview: bartender Devon Tarby (The Varnish)

Bartender Los Angeles

When Devon Tarby graduated from high school, she knew two things, that she wanted to live in L.A., and that an office job wasn’t for her. Since she’d been playing the piano and singing since age 11, Tarby followed her passion to USC, majoring in Music Business. She keyed on audio engineering and enjoyed the hands on aspect, but ended up falling for bartending instead. Tarby still equates mixing a song to making a cocktail, “taking raw materials and making them balance, making them make sense.” She ended up working at Asia de Cuba on the Sunset Strip, and almost soon as The Varnish opened, started pursuing a job with co-owner Eric Alperin. He eventually granted her a single host shift, which eventually resulted in a full-time bartender job. She currently works behind the bar at The Varnish from Friday through Monday nights, and also devotes time to Proprietors LLC, working for Dave Kaplan and bartender Alex Day on consulting projects. We recently met at The Varnish prior to service, where Tarby better explained her background and approach.

Would you say you’ve had any mentors so far?

Eric, he’s taught me so, so much. He’s taught me so much about process. That’s something a lot of us talk about here. Really, what it means, it’s not just about a recipe and putting a million things in a glass. It’s really about repetitively paying attention to every single detail and every single thing matters. I learned a lot from him in terms of technique and stuff, but also as a leader, he is incredible, because he really get excited about everyone having ideas. His ability to step back and let everybody do their own thing is really where his power is and is really an amazing thing to watch.

And then Alex [Day] recently has been a huge mentor to me. I’m working for his company now a little bit and doing some consulting and Dave as well. Just learning how to be creative. How to say this? I’ve been trying to put this into words myself lately. Alex’s sense of hospitality is really beautiful. Anywhere he is, you just feel like you’re in your home and everything he does is with the utmost integrity, so I’ve learned a lot from the two of them.

In what ways have you been able to contribute creatively at The Varnish, and how has that changed since you’ve been here?

It’s all little things really, like maybe we should put the bitters here instead…That’s the beautiful thing about The Varnish as well. Everything’s so dialed in. I don’t want to say it’s not about being creative. It’s about a machine that works really well.

What about in your duties with Proprietors?

That’s been a whole new set of challenges. Learning what it means to create an experience for a group of people that I’m not used to here. Here it’s very niche and people want crazy fancy vermouth and old cocktails and they know the whole history of everything, so knowing how to appeal to different palates and a different audience has been really interesting. Sometimes it’s more difficult to do something simple than to do something really esoteric with a beautiful amaro. I’ve been learning a lot so far.

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

Yeah. The first memory of a cocktail that I felt really cool about was one summer afternoon – I think I was 16, and my parents, I don’t know where they were – I think they were out of town. I had a bunch of friends over and I decided to make a pitcher of whiskey sours in the middle of the day. Man, we were drunk. Nobody got sick or anything. It was fun. This is legit, and I actually remember my mom talking about making pitchers of whiskey sours when she and my dad were probably my age now, in the summers, so I thought it was definitely cool that I was doing this thing that she used to do.

Did she ever find out?

Oh god. Maybe not the details, but I’m sure they knew there was some drinking going on. They kind of left me alone. I got good grades, so they left me alone. I was pretty responsible, sadly.

Have you had the opportunity to come up with an original cocktail lately that you’ve been excited about?

Yeah. I’m really, really into amaros right now. It’s so beautiful in every way, but one that I’ve been making a lot is called a Pop Quiz, and it’s Elijah Craig 12-year Bourbon, Ramazzotti and Bitterman’s chocolate mole bitters, and an orange twist over a big rock. So Old Fashioned style, kind of chocolatey, a little bit bitter.

It seems like Italian style cocktails are becoming more popular these days. Why do you think?


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Joshua Lurie

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

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