To say that Naomi Schimek has taken a roundabout path into the L.A. cocktail spotlight would be an understatement. The Vermont native bounced around the Southwest before jumping behind the bar in Vegas, the moment she turned 21. As she’s progressed from bar to bar in Los Angeles, Schimek has become increasingly known for her farm to glass approach, which sprouted out of an ingrained commitment to gardening. At First & Hope, she lines the bar on Thursday nights with market (and home garden) finds, which she utilizes in mix-and-match cocktails. On December 1, we caught in front of the bar, where Schimek better explained her background and approach.
What’s the drink that you’re working on today, and what’s your approach?
We are putting together our Christmas menu, me and Matt Goodyear, who’s our new bar manager, recently from The Tar Pit. We’re just basically going through different Tom & Jerry recipes, trying to find the best one, trying to take everything we can from different ones and perfect our own. We’ve got some hot buttered rums on the Christmas menu and just some different things that we’re really excited about.
Do you like working with hot cocktails?
I do, very much so. I like dessert cocktails in particular. I did one for Thanksgiving called The Great Pumpkin that was pumpkin puree, hazelnut and allspice liqueurs, Jamaican rum and a float of heavy cream and nutmeg. So it was basically a deconstructed pumpkin pie. It’s nice. I think cocktails on the dessert menu are fun, especially when you’re sitting down with your date, trying to decide what to order for dessert, and you have options that have alcohol in them. I think that’s a lot of fun.
What brought you to Los Angeles?
What was your first bar job?
My goodness. I worked for this Italian family outside of Vegas. I was waiting tables for them, and when I turned 21, they just put me behind the bar. I had the day shift, and it was very slow, so I’d just read books and teach myself pretty much everything. A few months after that I lied to get into another house, and my bosses lied for me, saying I had all this experience, but I was barely 21. That’s how I got into fine dining, and I worked for Boison’s Fine Food and Wine for a long time. We got Best of Las Vegas Wine List every year. We had 75 just by the glass. It was great. So a lot of my formative years were spent there.
Did you become interested in cocktails or spirits first?
I think I became interested in wine first. Before I was too educated on spirits themselves – cause this is the mid ’90s – it was considered the Dark Ages where I was, maybe not in New York, where Dale DeGroff and them were already doing things. For me I was just so fascinated by the methodology of it all, the layering, the shaking, the bar tools, the process. That’s what fascinated me from the get-go. Later on it would be the apothecary side and learning about the spirits.
Is that what continues to inspire you?
Oh definitely. I like reading about old soda fountains and apothecaries. I look at the bar very much like that now, especially when it comes to bitters and tinctures and making your own liqueurs. It’s like we’re scientists in that way. I like that.
Are you involved in all of those processes?
What are examples of bitters and liqueurs that you enjoy making?
I made a sage mugwort bitters that I wanted to complement some mezcal and tequila drinks I was working on. I like the mugwort element in there. A lot of people aren’t familiar with that herb. It was used for centuries before hops when brewing beer, which is how it got its name – mug wort. It’s said the tincture will give you psychedelic dreams. So that’s fun.
Have you seen that effect on people?
I haven’t taken enough of it to actually give it a go yet. I doubt the minuscule doses – because even in the bitters, the mugwort tincture’s only one element of the bitters.
What do you enjoy about making bitters?
I just love all the different layers of flavor in there. Learning about different roots and barks and herbs and their effect on the human body, and how those can also be used in the culinary world. It’s good stuff.
What was your first Los Angeles based cocktail related job?
Fraiche, in Culver City, when it first opened. I went there to mentor under Albert Trummer and only ended up working one shift with him, and he was off to New York. A couple people left all at once, and the next thing I knew, a couple weeks after that, I was running a bar, basically. That’s when I really got the books out and started delving into the world of cocktails, which was new to me at the time.
Would you say that anybody’s been a mentor to you?