Boots is a talkative guy. Ask him about any of the wines, cocktails or foods on the menu of the cozy uptown Phoenix café St. Francis (111 E. Camelback Road, 602-200-8111) and he'll talk you ears off, going into great depth about the methods Trappist monks employ to create beer or the effort wine makers put into their vineyards. He's filled with knowledge that comes from being an industry veteran, having worked at restaurants his family owned -- Baskin Robbins, Togos and Dunkin' Donuts among them -- since before he could drive, as well as Scottsdale eateries such as Fiama Trattoria, the Parlor and the short-lived Tapino Kitchen and Wine Bar. Dues fully paid, he now mans and manages the bar at St. Francis, serving up original cocktails and sharing his wisdom and passion whenever he can.
Where did the name Boots come from?
Ah, yes. Boots. I actually have the tattoo on myself as well. I'm the third generation, so my grandfather, my dad and myself. It's Robert Byrd, actually, but my grandfather's nickname was Boots. When he was a kid growing up in the Midwest, he used to wear his father's rain boots around the house. This was the early 1900s; it was a very formal time, so his sisters kind of made fun of him. When my father was born, he took the generation name of Robert Byrd, but never carried the nickname. When I was born, my aunt on my mom's side used to call me Robbie, and my dad thought that was a little too weak for a generation name. He told my family they couldn't call me anything else -- don't call him Robert, don't call him by his middle name; just call him Boots. That's pretty much how it all started. What became the funny part of the story: I didn't know my name until the first grade. The teacher was taking roll call and was calling for Robert, and I was just sitting there like, this guy's not here, let's keep moving! She tried to tell me that I was Robert and I told her no, I'm Boots. She called my parents and my dad had to explain everything. But I went to school the next day and she asked if I talked to my parents. I said, "Yeah. I'm still Boots." I sign everything Boots unless it's a legal document on which I have to write Robert.
Have you ever run into any problems using that name?
I never had an issue until college prep school, when I had a Spanish teacher who refused to call me Boots. She said she'd rather call me Roberto, since that's my name in Spanish. I told her she could just call me Botas, because that's actually Boots in Spanish.
What's the worst part about bartending?
Dealing with all different types and styles of people. Some people understand what it's like to work in your position and some don't. as a lot of us in the industry like to say, we think everybody should have to work in the food service industry for 3-6 months of their lives at some point, just so they can understand what it's like to work this job and work for tips, and really put your passion and your effort and everything you have out there, trying to make a buck.
How did you design the cocktail menu at St. Francis?
The cocktail situation is a joint venture. The chef has a few on there that are his specialties. My two additions to the menu became the Cucumber Cooler with Hendricks gin and the Strawberry Basil Caipirinha. I basically just took a twist off the classic there. I make a basil-infused simple syrup along with fresh strawberries, fresh limes, and fresh torn basil with two ounces of cachaca, which is a Brazilian-style rum that's a little different from your average rum because it's aged in cognac barrels and made with cane sugar, so it's a little more smoky. It's a very amazing balance between the sweetness and the pure alcohol with a touch of citrus. It's invigorating and a one-of-a-kind taste; you either love it or you don't. It creates a lot of fresh smells in the bar, too. When you're mixing these up, people sitting three chairs down will be like, I can smell that. People love to see you make that stuff because they don't know how to do that at home. We get it all the time -- people try the drinks and ask if we mind sharing the recipe? We share pretty much everything here -- we share all the cocktail recipes, dinner recipes, soup, desserts, it doesn't matter. A guest wants it, we want them to be able to try to enjoy it at home themselves -- do what we do.
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How do you go about making up a cocktail recipe?
Any drink you want to create, you can pretty much assume that someone else has already created it. It's probably already out there. But at the same time, you see a bunch of things and you say, I'm going to look at all five of these creations made with this exact liquor, and you try to something a little different. When I created the Cucumber Cooler, I thought it would be smart to visit the Hendricks website and learn everything I could about the liquor. I do the same with my wine here; I study every inch, I look up 20 web sites and compile that knowledge so I know exactly what I'm talking about and can give the right information to customers.
You obviously know a lot about liquors. Where do you get your knowledge from?
Myself. It's all personal training. The way I grew up in the family businesses, I started working when I was 10. By the time I was 17, my father asked me to star managing two of the businesses. In our family, you had to work for everything. My dad always told me I could have whatever I wanted, but I had to work for it and pay for it. You want this truck? You can have this truck, but you have to pay for it and work hard for it. Starting with that mentality, I've always wanted to pick up on everything the best I can. When I started at the James hotel, they told me they didn't think I had enough knowledge to be a server, but they thought I'd be great to start in the kitchen. The second they said that, my response was, "That's perfectly fine; that's actually better." I like to learn from the bottom, pick up the inner workings and master one thing at a time. When I started at the bar as a barback, I just watched as they made drinks. I would ask little questions and try it at home or ask to make the next drink that came up. I just want to know everything. I've always felt that if someone asks me a question that I don't know the answer to, I don't want to look stupid. So I've always trained myself to study and find out everything I can, play the devil's advocate and ask myself the questions someone might ask me.
Would you consider yourself more into cocktails or wine?
I'm more of a wine person. I've done a lot to study. I'm trying to get to the point at which I've got enough studying in to start taking my sommelier tests. It would be great to have. But at the same time I believe that personal experience overrides a lot of book knowledge and study. If you can go to the vineyards and see them harvesting the grapes, you can really understand and feel the passion. I always tell my staff that if they've tried these dishes and have had that personal experience, people will know; they will feel that passion you exude when you discuss these things. You start telling people about these distilleries, breweries, wineries and farms, what they go through to make all this food that comes to your table, and people are just like, how do you know all this? Because that's my job. That's my life; that's my passion. Until I have my own restaurant, I'm going to keep doing it, and when I have my own place, I'm still going to keep doing it. I want people to be able to feel the same passion about food and drinks that I feel. It's that drive and passion that lead you to success.
Is the ultimate goal to have your own place?
The eventual goal is to have my own little wine bistro café, so that I can have cocktails and beer and it still involves food and wine and the pairing of that. Everyone has their own goals, and I don't mind sharing mine. People always wonder why I know so much. I've been asked if I own this place, which to me is slightly shocking. It's humbling. It makes you feel like I could definitely do it someday.