The Tender: Nathan Thompson
The Bar: Nobuo at Teeter House (622 East Adams St., 602-254-0600)
The Pedigree: Though he went to film school and holds a bachelor's degree in history, Thompson's cocktail education came at a neighborhood restaurant in Mesa, where the owner either "just didn't care or lost interest" in the bar program, allowing Thompson to run wild with the drink menu. He carried his passion over to Phoenix, where he had heard Nobuo Fukuda was looking to open a new restaurant. For weeks he hovered around the restaurant as it was being constructed, resume in hand, until the day Nobuo showed up and Thompson was able to hand it to him in person. The rest, as they say, is history.
What's it like to work with Nobuo?
Amazing. I'm learning a lot. There's so much thought that goes into everything, down to the smallest detail. It's good to be pushed. The place I was at prior to this was good because I was able to kind of explore and learn, but now Nobuo is good at pushing me and challenging me. We're in a small space back in the kitchen, so we're always fighting over territory. I'm learning a lot from Nobuo and his team, just watching them work.
Is there an actual bar area here?
There's a little workstation. I'm in the kitchen area, but it's a little work space I have. My own little laboratory. It's good that I'm back there with the cooks, though, because I'm in the same mindset they are.
So you make your drinks back in the kitchen. I imagine it's pretty cramped backed there. Is there a lot of running into each other?
We've figured out a dance. We manage.
How do you collaborate with Nobuo and pair your cocktails to his dishes?
I just try to stay out of his way. He has such a unique style and awesome food, so I just try to make drinks that are a little more subdued -- not like a punch in the face.
How would you describe your cocktail style?
I can be kind of particular at times, as far as pushing my drinking habits onto other people. I'm not a big fan of mixing with vodka -- I usually start with gin. Gin plays nicely with a lot of other stuff and there's more nuance. Vodka is going to taste like vodka at the end of the day. It's fun to mix with if you want the other ingredients in the drinks to shine, and I have to admit it's a guilty pleasure of mine to have a little vodka on the rocks when no one's watching, but to mix with, it's not a fun ingredient.
Where do you draw inspiration from in designing the cocktail menu here?
Just from playing around a lot. I'm not making drinks perfectly right out of the gate. There's a lot of tweaking and tasting that goes into it -- that's the fun part, passing the drink around, asking if it's too sweet or too dry. The guys in the back, I obviously trust their palates, so they're my go-to guys.
There's a tradition in Japan called "omakase" -- trust the chef. Is there something similar in bartending?
Actually, at the last place I worked the signature drink on the menu was called "trust your barkeep." To make it, people would just give me a spirit they enjoy, and I would make whatever based on that. It's for the people who are a little more adventurous and not particular.
What do you drink when you're out at the bars?
Beer. If I'm getting a cocktail, I'll get a Negroni -- I love a really well-made Negroni. I think I'm an 81-year-old man trapped in a 29-year-old body. I'm just very particular, and if the drink's not made a certain way, I get upset. But beer's safe, and IPAs are good.
If you could choose one person to share a drink with, who would it be?
It would be really fun to have a drink with Hidetsugu Ueno, from bar High Five in Tokyo. That would be amazing, just because he's a master at what he does. He travels all over the world consulting in addition to heading the cocktails at Bar High Five, and he's just crazy. He's very into ice and temperatures -- he likes to get a little thermometer out and check the temperature of a cocktail. It would be fun to rap with him about his style, because there's definitely a Japanese style of making drinks.
Is your style influenced at all by those Japanese traditions?
I think as far as standards go, yes. That goes back to Nobuo's cooking and the concept here: it's a small place where people can laugh and be casual, but at the end of the day it's very serious. The standards are really high.
What's the best part of this job?
It's just how much I've been learning and how open everyone is here. All those guys back there are so good at what they do they could be huge assholes, but they're super open and giving. I was taken aback by how interactive and collaborative it is.
What's the worst thing about being a bartender?
When someone orders a Cosmo. I can't go into all the reasons I have a problem deep in my heart with Cosmopolitans. I think it's just what they stand for: that overly syrupy, homogenized...I can't. It's not the drink; it's what it stands for.
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