The tender: Steve Holquist
The bar: Fuego Bistro (713 E. Palo Verde Drive, 602-277-1151)
The pedigree: For most of his life, Holquist was a wholesaler of tropical fish, importing the swimmers from where they were caught or raised and selling them to local pet stores. He sold the business in 2008 after discovering an old 50s-style diner that had been used in the movie U Turn. The problem: Holquist had zero in the way of restaurant experience. He called up Jeff Ward, owner of Fuego Bistro, and offered to work for free in exchange for much-needed restaurant education. He had been learning how to cut onions, wash dishes and fry up empenadas for about a year when Ward called, saying his bartender had quit and asking Holquist to take over. Holquist, who proclaimed he "couldn't even open a bottle of beer" when he started, received training from his son as well as Ward and was soon on his way to crafting a bevy of tropical drinks, including his Best Of Phoenix-winning Mojito.
Do you still have fish at home?
Nope. I did that all my life; it was the only thing I did. But I don't miss it at all. I had a really good run and I did it for a long time, but for the last three or four years I was really burnt out. I needed a change.
You've had one of the more convoluted journeys toward becoming a bartender. How do you feel about where you ended up?
I never had any intention of being a bartender, ever. I was ingrained here, and at my age I wasn't really looking for another career. I was just looking for something I enjoy. I really enjoyed the work, I enjoyed the interaction with people, so I just stayed.
What was the first day like?
The first day was scary! Not having much experience, I was afraid that every person who walked in the door would want a drink I had no idea how to make. I thought someone would come in and order Sex on a Pool table or something like that. Of course, that didn't happen. The first day was definitely intimidating, but I remembered something my son told me: whatever happens, just have fun. As long as you have fun with it, you're doing alright.
If you weren't bartending, what would you be doing?
I'm not really sure. It would have to be something with people, something where I'm interacting with people. At my previous job, most of my dealings were with the same people over and over, week after week, and most of it was over the phone. Here, I get to talk to new people all the time.
What's your favorite kind of person to strike up a conversation with at the bar?
New Times reporters! Also, anybody's who's real. We're not a drinker's bar; we're a place where people come to eat, hang out, have a few drinks. The crowd here's really cool.
What's your approach to making a cocktail?
Because I didn't have a bartending background, having come from the kitchen, I always tend to look at bartending like cooking. What flavors will go together to make the best combination?
What's your drink?
In the summertime, shot of Beam and an ice cube. Wintertime, hold the ice.
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What's been your most memorable night behind the bar?
I don't know if there's one particular night that stands out, but we've had several nights where everything just worked. You've got a great bunch of people in here, everyone's having a great time, there's chemistry with the kitchen, people are eating and drinking and engaged. When it works well, it's really special.
If you could choose anyone in the world to drink with, who would it be?
The Dalai Lama. I'm not sure how I'd approach a conversation with him, but just hanging out would be enough for me.
Now that you have experience, would you think about opening your own restaurant again?
If the right opportunity presented itself, maybe. But then again, maybe not. It's a lot of work! It's kind of fun just doing what I do: slinging drinks, talking to people, and then just going home. It would have to be a special situation. But I'm grateful for where I am now.