Interview: New York bartender and entrepreneur Greg Seider (The Summit Bar, Prima + Manhattan Cricket Club)
Rhode Island native Greg Seider grew up surrounded by garden-grown fruits and vegetables and line-caught fish, which is how he developed a hunger for fresh, seasonal flavors. He started as a strength and conditioning coach and first jumped behind a bar at Asia de Cuba. After a one-year sojourn to L.A., he returned to New York to help craft cocktail programs at restaurants like Jean-Georges’ The Mercer Kitchen and Minetta Tavern. In 2009, he founded The Summit Bar with fellow bartender Hamid Rashidzada, followed that up with seafood-centric Prima last fall and recently partnered with Tim Harris and Heath St. Clair on Manhattan Cricket Club, an intimate venue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. On January 14, we met at Prima and Seider shared insights both spirited and spiritual.
Which came first, your interest in food or your interest in cocktails?
Food. I grew up in Rhode Island, in Newport. My father had this giant garden. I literally had peach trees, apple trees, grape vines, every kind of berry. And then we had the ocean, so we’d go fishing. I didn’t even have to go shopping for four months a year, so my palate knows the freshest ingredients. That’s the only way I know how to create flavor. It gave me a base for a very high end of what’s acceptable to me.
What was the most recent cocktail that you came up with, and what was your inspiration?
The most recent one that’s on the menu at The Summit is called the John Lee Hooker. I was walking to work, literally, the song was on: “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer.” How can I put all that in one cocktail and have it come out really, really well? Then I started messing around and came up with this heavy peated, misted, chilled Pilsner glass, to get the Scotch. I did Bourbon, I used Vietnamese cinnamon agave, some sarsaparilla bitters, fresh lemon, bourbon, kind of a sweet citrus, and topped it off with a double IPA, so you get this really hoppy, which really cleans the whole palate, and then mist it one more time with the Scotch, so you get the Scotch.
Which double IPA?
Hop Stoopid from Lagunitas…One that I just made up the other night for fun was based on a Michelada, so I did Mezcal chipotle chile agave, fresh lime, IPA-ish, a little hoppy, but then crusted the rim in chicharron salt. So pork rind salt, and added some Clamato juice.
At what point did you know you’d be working with cocktails and spirits for a living?
I kind of got inspired from “Cocktail.” When I was little, I was a busboy in Newport, Rhode Island, and memorized all the Mr. Boston’s. The bartenders, when they were in a jam, they’d ask, “Greg, how do you make this?” I’d go back behind the bar after my shift and I used to bartend and do all the tricks. That, and I made my first drink when I was 11, got addicted to wine coolers. My grandma used to cook and had a five-gallon jug of wine, used to drink and cook. I’d sneak outside and mix that with ginger ale and an orange slice. That was my first cocktail. I came back in ’97 at Asia de Cuba, which was this super hot restaurant and they really had cocktails as artwork. White marble, white leather.
What brought you to New York?
I used to be a strength and conditioning coach, personal training. I graduated with Exercise and Physiology, and to be a trainer, it was either going to be New York or L.A. New York was the closest. Then I kind of burnt out on training. I always worked in restaurants since I was small, so this was an opportunity. I walked into this space and there was just amazing energy. It was one of these places where you walk in at 5 and it’s just crankin’. I talked my way into the job, but it was so busy that you learn all the drinks in four or five days.
That was your first bar job?
Yeah. One of the chefs was from my hometown and I got to be good friends with all the chefs. I used to trade them drinks for food. I really started getting an idea for the flavors in the kitchen. One night I was making up these special sangria margarita shots and Michael Jordan was there with his friends and they were playing Truth or Dare. He liked the shot so much that he had the waiter come and gave me some tickets to the game.
The Mercer was really where I was working with the pastry chefs and shopping daily for ingredients and visiting Chinatown for spices and teas. That was 11 years ago, when no one was doing anything even close to that. I used to be able to go up to any celebrity I want, “Here, try this drink.” They were like, “Wow, what the hell is that? I’ve never had anything like that.” Next thing you know, I’m sitting around drinking with Harrison Ford and Gina Gershon. I almost reversed the role on them. “What are you going to make me today?” That really kind of got me into the culinary crossover. Ever since then, I’ve worked with McNally, Le Bernardin, and these top, top, top chefs and had access to the best ingredients. I was getting more creative with the savory stuff and trying to balance it out with smoke. I was the first one to sell a barrel-aged cocktail in New York. I started working on smokiness, different smokes and smoky spirits. Smoking the glass. Without getting molecular, but using technique that doesn’t jeopardize the credibility of the drink.
What’s your favorite part about working in the cocktail/bartending/spirit world?
To be able to stand in one place and have access to personalities from all over the world in any given night.
What’s your top selling cocktail at each bar, and why do you think they take the crown?
I’d probably say The Last Cocktail here. It sort of plays off citrus and savory, and it’s Prosecco, so there are really a lot of a lot of nice flavors. It’s really clean. There’s nostalgia with rosemary, clove and pear. It sets the palate for a food experience.
At Summit, it’s tough. There are five or six that are super popular. The Vodka cocktail, Charmane’s Star, with rhubarb, shiso leaf, and Vietnamese cinnamon is super exotic and refreshing, with a little tartness from the rhubarb. Ground to Glass is like a savory margarita. It’s like a Bloody Mary mixed with a Margarita with a little red pepper puree and three smoked salts. The Guv’nor – when we first started using Japanese whiskey, we named it for my good friend, who works for Yamazaki, which is the whiskey company – so Japanese whiskey, cardamom infused agave, yuzu, fresh O.J. It’s really a cool one. And then the John Lee Hooker, with the beer and Scotch.
In general, what’s your approach when naming cocktails?
It’s got to be some good story behind it. It’s harder to name the cocktail than to come up with a drink…The Last Cocktail, I wrote a cocktail book for the Luxury Collection Hotels. That was their signature, The Last Cocktail in the Luxury Collection. I always name one cocktail after my favorite adult actress. I always sneak one of those in there.
Does that person change?
Yeah, each place has a new actress. Yeah, it’s either from a travel experience or a song – John Lee Hooker ties in, Charmane Star. Ground to Glass was inspired because I was growing stuff in my garden, on my roof when I came up with that cocktail.
What do you look for when you’re hiring a bartender?