Pittsburgh native Mia Sarazen never intended to become a career bartender. She was working as a make-up artist in New York City and supplemented her between-gig income by working at bars. Soho House gave her an opportunity to help open their West Hollywood branch, and a six-week assignment turned into a cross-country move. L.A.’s tight-knit cocktail community motivated Sarazen, and she embraced the city’s creativity and community. We met when she was working at Big Bar, and she now splits time between Black Market and Harvard and Stone, which is where she recently discussed her background, influences and approach.
What was your very first bar job?
Ever? Well, it was more of a waitressing job. I was 18. It was terrible. I was terrible.
What was the place?
It was in Pittsburgh. It was called Diamond Run, a golf club. My friend was like, “Go to the floor, let’s do this, go to the tables, take orders.” I was so bad that the table just left. It was so embarrassing. Even in my waitressing jobs, I was always just enamored with the bar. I always made friends with whoever the oldest bartender was, because I always felt like they were the wisest.
Is that true?
Not always, but they always had really good experience, and I felt like some really good stories. I always made friends with some of these older, wiser people and would get behind the bar sometimes and make White Russians or Cosmos and stuff like that. They’d teach me things here and there, but I always thought it was really interesting. I always liked the energy behind the bar, the dynamic, and it’s very different than being on a floor.
When did you know that you’d work in bars for a career?
About a year ago, I guess.
What was the turning point?
I had fallen out of love with production, make-up and all that, and I think just starting anew in L.A. in general and just being exposed to this whole world and seeing that people do make careers out of it, and you get to travel the world, and you get to do things like Sporting Life, which is just amazing in itself with education. It’s being brought back from the 1800s or even before that when bartenders, doctors and lawyers were all on the same page as far as respect and making the same amount of money. It’s starting to come back.
So you weren’t going to any Bartenders Guild meetings in New York?
No, like I said, I was really doing it to supplement my income between make-up jobs and I didn’t find the passion and the creativity in it, whereas here it’s just all around. Not that it isn’t there, but I really was exposed to it right away here and met really great people who were willing to show me different things. It’s just been fantastic. Whereas New York and L.A., New York is really competitive, and not everybody wants to show you this and that, whereas here anybody from Matt [Wallace] to Francois [Vera] to Rich [Andreoli] to Dave Fernie, to Julian [Cox], Kate [Grutman], the whole entire scene – Marcos [Tello] – I got to work behind the bar at The Varnish one night before I went to Vegas for the [Bombay Sapphire] competition…The community here is really great. That makes people fall in love with it.
Is there anybody you haven’t worked with yet that you’d really like to work with?
I would like to work behind the bar with Damian [Windsor] and Jason [Bran] at The Roger Room. I think that would be really, really fun. I love their personalities. They’re very different, but they’re super, super knowledgeable, but they’re really good guys. They’re really fun. It would be a fun experience.
Would you say that you have any mentors?
Sure. Pablo [Moix] and Steve [Livigni], absolutely. Juan [Sevilla]?, definitely. That’s where I met Juan, and Chris Ojeda, he was the one really exposed me to all of this. Marcos is amazing. Kate Grutman is very inspiring, all the things that she’s making all the time. I love what Kiowa [Bryan] does, and Dave [Kupchinsky], over at Eveleigh. Everybody can be a mentor. Just to say one person, at least for myself, that’s narrowing it down to much. Being inspired by people can sometimes go hand in hand with them being your mentor.
What do you think are some trademarks of your bartending style?