Jason “Buffalo” LoGrasso oversees the bar programs at vaunted San Francisco restaurant Quince and Italian spinoff Cotogna. We recently spoke by phone, and Buffalo delved deeper into his background, influences and approach.
Where’d the nickname Buffalo come from?
I’m from Buffalo, New York, born and raised. The first place I worked behind the bar in this city was COCO500. I was learning to bartend from Scott Baiard and had only been in the city for a couple months. I still had this New York swagger. He was like, “What is this? Is this how people act in Buffalo when they get busy?” I started going to events with him and he started introducing me as Buffalo.
Do you consider yourself a bartender or mixologist?
I’m definitely a bartender. I’m not a big fan of the term mixologist, regardless of its alleged historical use or importance. It’s an unnecessary term. I don’t have an Ivy League doctorate or degree that makes me a mixologist. The term sounds overly important for what it is. It’s a little too serious and scholarly. If we’re going to put anybody on a chemist pedestal, it should be pastry chefs. Bartenders are basically just diluting liquor.
How did the opportunity come about at Quince?
This was the first place in San Francisco that sought me out to work for them, rather than me knocking on someone else’s door. I heard they were interested. I was working at Bourbon & Branch at the time, and sure enough I got a visit from the GM at Quince. We got to chatting. Everything worked out. I ended up at Quince a couple months later. It was nice for me to get back into the food service end of the business because I spent a lot of time in the kitchen, and that was lacking for me, working at a bar that only served spirits.
What’s the difference betweent the cocktail programs?
Quince is more of a fine dining atmosphere, definitely a little older crowd. When we opened Cotogna, the idea was to do more of an experimental, all original cocktail list with more fun things and wackier garnishes. More fun, less focused. I took the Quince program and did takes on classics…It’s more about dialing into a really classic cocktail program. I just started doing a second generation of that, which we’ll roll out on the first of March.
The Cotogna list changes at the whims of seasons and what ingredients I’m fancying at the moment. One of the ingredients I’m most proud of, we have seven honey beehives on our roof. We use that in the pastry kitchen, and just recently, I managed to get hold of some and managed to get a hold of some and will use it in cocktails. I’m also working with the beekeepers to learn their trade, so that’s a very cool thing. Approachable may be a good term to use in respect to the Quince program. The older crowd wasn’t really vibing off the more experimental cocktails.
Do you have a first cocktail memory, good or bad?
My first big cocktail memory was back in the Food Netwrok’s infancy, I saw a gentleman making a Cosmo, which I’d heard of but never had. I learned later that it was Dale DeGroff, which I learned 10 years later. I remember he flamed the orange peel, so other kids were sneaking Bartles & Jaymes. I got somebody to buy me ingredients to make Cosmopolitans.
Did you become interested in spirits or cocktails first?
I was interested in spirits first. My grandfather had an abandoned basement bar in the house they lived in. There were all kinds of cool old bottles, which I have now. I’m very proud of the colletion. It was a place I would go as a really young kid and hang out. I was interested in the bottles, but wasn’t really interested in what was inside them then. As time went on, your palate for alcohol evolves, so bottles with subtle nuances, the array of different items, so much to learn. Cocktails definitely came on board later for me. The place I’m from, there wasn’t really any cocktail culture. It wasn’t until San Francisco that I developed any appreciation for cocktails.
Was there moment when you knew you’d do this for a living?
I’ve kind of always vacillated between wanting to be in a kitchen and be in the front of the house. The restaurant/bar industry is where I fit in life. I started at COCO500 waiting tables. I wasn’t all that interested in doing that when I first moved here. It was more about the food for me. [San Francisco] is a great place to work, education and always be learning. It’s the kind of profession that doesn’t ever get dull. There’s always a new restaurant or new product or trend to keep everybody excited.
Would you say that you have any mentors?
Scott Baird would be the ground-up guy for me. I also had great opportunities learning from Erik Adkins at Slanted Door, when he did Flora. A lot of my spirits knowledge I can attribute to Daniel Hyatt at Alembic.
Who are some other bartenders that you really admire, and how come?