The tender: Chris Lingua
The bar: Kazimierz World Wine Bar (7137 East Stetson Drive, Scottsdale, 480-946-3004)
The pedigree: You could say Lingua came into Kazimierz, as most do, through the back door. He had long been a cook -- first for sandwich-board places throughout high school and college, then at Cowboy Ciao. He was about to take off for California two years ago, but personnel changes at Kazimierz prompted owner Pete Kasperski to offer Lingua a bar management position. He took to designing a new food menu and a good portion of the cocktail list, and February he'll have been behind Kazimierz's bar for two years.
You were about to leave Arizona, but this place's owner asked you to stay and gave you a promotion. Were you that great a cook?
I wasn't bad. I was good enough to work at Noca during its heyday, and my palate's pretty good. I've done the menu for a couple wine dinners when we've had big wine makers come through. What it all comes down to, if they were going to have me wear a blazer and walk around the floor and just manage, I'd hate it. I have to be giving the guest experience, dropping off the drink myself, telling the story of the drink. The only reason I do this is to hand out experiences to people. You know, teach them a little something, and just create a memory. Being in the back of the house, I could still do that, but I wouldn't get to interact in the same way. I wasn't by any means looking for a bartending gig; it really, really came to me. And it's been great.
What do you drink?
It's like music; I go through stages. I'll explore something, and give it a full shot. The only thing I really don't do is vodka. It's not interesting enough, I guess, though sometimes I'll have one really, really cold bit of Tito's vodka before I start my night. There's nothing wrong with starting with that -- ending with that, however, is a bad thing. I always do cocktails; rarely stuff on the rocks. Though if I do drink anything straight, it's going to me an aperitif or digestif. If I could have one thing, my desert island drink, it would be Amaro Ramazzotti. That's the bottle I would die with.
Coming first from the food side of things, how does that affect your approach to making and choosing drinks?
It's all about palate education. The food side taught me balance, so building cocktails is like the most seamless transition ever. Wine is different because you're associating and picking out different flavors. You have to build your little mental rolodex of all those flavors. I like to build cocktails just like dishes, the fewer ingredients the better. Cooking just prepared me to trust my palate and react accordingly.
Did you have wine knowledge before landing this job?
Yeah. I'm from north Orange County, and my family had a little place north of Santa Barbara. All my wine knowledge came from going to tasting rooms up in that area. We'd probably go every couple months. But no formal training -- all just research on my own. But my biggest thing with my staff is, your knowledge of wine doesn't have to be big. But you have to know how to sell it, and to know how to sell it, you have to know how to read people. That comes from experience. You have to enjoy it, and if you don't it's all for not. You can have all the knowledge in the world, but that's when you end up being a snot-nosed, total prick who's more into flexing knowledge than delivering somebody the right wine. That's the most annoying thing about some bartenders, that some feel like they're superior because they have more product knowledge. In the end, what really matters and what brings people back is being able to put somebody on the exact right drink, and being able to read them and know what to give them.
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Is that the most important aspect of being a bartender?
It's like being a mechanic who can't figure out what's wrong with your car or a doctor who can't diagnose a problem. You might have a ton of knowledge, but if you can't diagnose or read something, then your skills and talents go to waste.
What would you be doing if you weren't bartending?
The plan is to have a café somewhere on the coast of California, between Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara. Somewhere I can see the ocean from where I'm living. So I'd probably be out there if I wasn't here; I like the ocean too much. That's what this is too: a step, to build mountains of experience so I can eventually get out there. So I would probably either be cooking or working in some boutique grocery out there; something that allows me to work toward that goal as well as give that guest experience.
If you could have a drink with anyone, who would it be?
This is by far the hardest question. Alex, anybody in the world, if you could have a drink with them, who would it be? Past or present. It's hard question, huh? Buddha? You'd have a drink with Buddha? Does he drink? What would you have, fermented milk? I'm torn between Ernest Hemingway and Beck. Hemingway would be great, just to sit down for a meal with him and see him go through six, seven bottles of wine after drinking who knows what else. It could be amazing or just tragic.