A dull Ojai summer ended up igniting Joel Teitelbaum’s passion for bartending. He graduated to a much bigger city – Boston – before returning to the West Coast. After working behind multiple bars in Berkeley, he crossed the Bay Bridge and eventually agreed to lead the full-tilt, two-story bar program at Zero Zero in San Francisco’s SoMa. We recently spoke over the phone, and Teitelbaum delved deeper into his background, influences and approach.
Do you consider yourself a bartender or mixologist?
It’s got to be bartender for sure. Mixology is nice and we’d all love practice making drinks in a vacuum – you can do a lot of amazing things if you don’t apply them in a bar – but as a bartender, you have to do them in real time. Nobody wants to wait 20 minutes for a drink. You have to find a great balance of great stuff that you don’t see everywhere and what people like. We do things at Zero Zero that would be considered mixology to some people, but we do them on a big scale and do them quickly.
How did the opportunity come about at Zero Zero?
I was hired at a little Italian restaurant rest in the Financial District after a five-month stint of being completely out of the business…I was burnt out on the industry, so I took a sales job and quit after three days because I hated to the whole office dynamic…I got hired at Credo and was bar manager for six months. I got to be good friends with the general manager. He got hired at Zero Zero and asked me to join him.
What’s your approach with the cocktail program at Zero Zero?
[Owners] Bruce Hill and Chris Whaley, besides being cool people and very talented, they are almost militant that if it’s not in season, we don’t use it. I wanted a cocktail list that moved with the kitchen and vice versa. We’ve turned out cocktail menu over four times since we opened [in late July]…We use really high quality alcohol in our bar…when you start with really good products and use in-season fruit from the farmers markets and balance it the right way, you get really good cocktails.
Do you have a first cocktail memory, good or bad?
The first time I had a properly made Negroni a 1:1:1 with the right ingredients, Beefeater gin, Campari and Martini & Rossi vermouth. The guy had phenomenal technique, did the zest the right way, and the oil. It was the first time I saw you could take three ingredients, use them the right way and get a phenomenal result. It’s like alchemy.
Did you become interested in spirits or cocktails first?
It was cocktails first, because that’s what I got exposed to. Growing up, we went out to dinner and cocktails always seemed interesting to me. It was always this thing that wasn’t food. Once you start getting into cocktails, you have to get into spirits to know why different gins make different cocktails. Cocktails got me into it, but spirits started to take over…My main focus now is spirits and how they interact, but it kind of goes both ways.
Was there moment when you knew you’d do this for a living?
It was at Credo, and after I moved to San Francisco. I was living in Berkeley before. I went out and did other stuff and always went back to the bar. San Francisco was the first time bartenders were highly respected…At Credo, Jay Barmann wrote a short little weekly cocktail thing on SFist. I didn’t even know he wrote it and stumbled it across it months later. I met all these other people who were bartenders or bar managers. To come from the mid ’90s when everything was an apple martini in 10-ounce glasses, to this cocktail renaissance, that took an insane amount of work from people who dedicated their lives to make sure we could do what we wanted to do with bar programs, and do it the right way.
What was your first bar job?
I was in Ojai in summer of 2005. I planned on working at a lake as a ranch hand the summer after college. I had to move back to the boat house. I was insanely bored in Ojai, walked into this bar – it was a beer and wine bar called Bodee’s – talked to the chef and the GM that night. They hired me. The owner of the company came down a month before they were supposed to get their liquor license and said they wanted to get a more experienced bartender. I told them to give me a week with the spirits to see if I could handle it. I got myself a book and studied up. Everything worked out well. I was there for about a year. The head chef gave me flavor profiles that worked together and once he realized I had a knack for it, he left me alone and let me figure out what to do.
What most impresses you about the San Francisco bar scene?
The thing that blew me away about this city is bartenders like Erick Castro. When he found out I was doing punch, he called me out of the blue, invited me into the Rickhouse, gave me a tour of the bar and told me how to do punch ice so it works properly. He said that if you put berries into the ice and freeze it they pop and it turns the ice pink. He gave me this education that he got from somebody from New York.
A lot of really well established people went out of their way to show me little tricks. The reason why the bar community here is so strong, Jonny Raglin, Neyah White, Duggan McDonnell, Brooke Arthur, these amazing bartenders who have started multiple bar programs, they share all the information because they want the bar scene to continue to be viable. They’ve all been super cool and super helpful. It wouldn’t even be possible to make the cocktails that we’re making to push this along.
Would you say that you have any mentors?
The guys that have really helped me out, definitely Erick. Neyah, he’s like the captain of detail. Brooke makes awesome cocktails out of pretty much everything. She’s been a big influence. The guys at Comstock, Raglin and [Jeff] Hollinger, and McDonnell – they went out of their way to make sure things worked out. They were really open with information and super cool.
Who are some other bartenders that you really admire, and how come?