From Barista to Bartender: An Interview with Laura Lindsay

By on Tuesday, January 18th, 2011

La Primavera from 1886 vs. Capuccino from Intelligentsia

La Primavera from 1886 vs. Capuccino from Intelligentsia

Laura Lindsay must have luck on her side. The 30-year-old has seamlessly segued from barista to bartender, working first at Intelligentsia, one of Los Angeles’ hippest coffee houses and, more recently, stepping behind the bar at recently opened 1886, a shoebox-sized, cocktail-driven bar in staid Pasadena.

Lindsay, who has lived all over the United States, from New Jersey to Colorado, has been in L.A. since 2005. A bit of a renaissance woman, Lindsay, a trained mechanic, can discuss the proper stirring technique for a Manhattan as easily as she can replace a cracked muffler. We spoke to her recently about the differences between slinging lattes and straining cocktails.

How did you become a barista?

Alinea West: Laura Lindsay, Marcos TelloI had been a barista in high school and college and had always liked making things, but it wasn’t really a career path. I went through trade school to be a mechanic and ended up out here working in parts and service. But the auto industry has not been doing good for the last few years, and I was laid off from my job. It made me step back and ask myself what I wanted to be doing.

I focused on things I had a passion for, and coffee came to mind. I started working for a little cafe: M Street Cafe in Sherman Oaks. I had applied at Intelligentsia before and eventually started working at Intelligentsia when it opened. I was part of the original crew. We opened the store in June, but we had barista bootcamp prior to that.

1886: Bottles Line the Bar

Tell me about Intelligentsia’s legendary barista bootcamp.

It was absolutely awesome. It was supposed to be four weeks, but pretty much any new store has construction delays, so it ended up being nine weeks. It was 40 hours a week, Monday through Friday. We learned every brewing technique you can think of. We also learned a lot about the history of coffee. There was a huge essay you had to write to pass the training. They don’t do this for every barista ever, only before they open a new store.

Intelligentsia (Pasadena): exteriorHow did you move from that to bartending?

I wasn’t exactly what you’d call an educated drinker. If there was a popular cocktail or your favorite movie star liked it, I would order it.

As you know, LA has been going through this cocktail renaissance for a few years. The story that piqued my interest was the Jonathan Gold piece, The New Cocktailians. I had a new appreciation. I started seeking out these new places and going to new bars and getting more curious.

I wanted to be able to deal with a set of ingredients that weren’t just coffee, milk and water. Bartenders have a whole range of ingredients: syrups, infusions, fruit. You can basically do whatever you want. I started doing research and started talking to more of these bartenders.

What did you learn?

Before I got the job I had the luxury of practicing by making cocktails at home.

There are worse ways to study.

I didn’t have that luxury with coffee because espresso machines are so expensive. One of the bartenders I met, Edwin Cruz from the Tlapazola Grill, helped me in terms of my shaking and stirring technique. I practiced at home while waiting to see if I got the job [at 1886]. Then, when I got the job, Marcos spent about a month teaching us how to use ice and make different cocktails.

1886: Hot Cider ToddyHow would you compare being a barista to being a bartender?

Bartending has its own set of challenges, and, obviously, I’m a beginning bartender. With bartending there’s a whole set of techniques to make all those liquids, juices and sugars meld together. I’m still learning. It’s not just taking a bunch of ingredients and putting them together. It takes technique to build a cocktail, to make it come it out at the right dilution level.

I like both. I just feel like being a bartender, I’m able to be a lot more creative. There’s a whole lot more to grasp at first. It definitely has been a challenge. But they are both focused on doing the best you can with the ingredients you have.

How do you feel about the revival of classic cocktails like Manhattans, Negronis, Sidecars and Gimlets?

An educated public is an awesome public. They know what they’re drinking, what goes into it and they appreciate it. I love that.

Written by Elina Shatkin

Elina Shatkin is West Coast editor for Toque as well as restaurant critic and staff writer for LA Weekly. Shatkin was a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times and has written for a variety of publications in print and online. She's the co-founder of the incipient food blog Guzzle & Nosh.

10 Comments

  1. Amy Zavatto says:

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  3. Erika Kotite says:

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  4. Food GPS says:

    Cool story. Laura’s clearly a woman with serious range. I wonder what’s next for her.

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