Christiaan Röllich leads the bar program for the Los Angeles-based Lucques restaurant group, which includes a.o.c., Tavern, and Lucques. Originally from the Netherlands, Röllich gains inspiration from the produce available in Southern California and the farm-to-table ethos.
Röllich is also the author of Bar Chef: Handcrafted Cocktails a new cookbook with easy-to-follow recipes for syrups, tinctures, liqueurs, and bitters featuring herbs, spices, and seasonal fruit. A talented and creative bartender, he even makes his own versions of bar staples such as Campari, Chambord, and sweet vermouth. We asked Röllich to share his top tips for a bar program that puts ingredients first – read on to learn his secrets.
1. Become a farmers’ market regular.
To find great quality ingredients, do as the chefs do and shop the farmers’ market. Says Röllich, “We go to the market twice a week. All produce is perishable but ideally nothing goes bad because you use it.” He generally sticks to a three-day limit with freshly squeezed juices.
2. Pick ingredients based on taste.
Think beyond just what’s available. “For produce, it’s all about taste,” saqys Röllich. “I don’t want last-of-the-season produce. I want it to taste good.” Using fresh products means changing the menu to reflect what’s in peak season about every three months, or depending on how long an ingredient’s season lasts. “It’s a fine line working with fresh produce. In California you can get strawberries all year long, but they definitely taste better now.”
3. Play with your drinks.
When working with fresh ingredients, Röllich’s approach is to experiment. “I take it in the kitchen and play with it, and to see how to make it work. It doesn’t always work but experimenting keeps it interesting,” he says, adding, “It’s better than making the same drink over and over again!”
4. Consider savory ingredients.
“I don’t shy away from anything! I play with all kinds of spices and greens,” says Röllich. When someone requested a green drink he experimented to create a non-alcoholic beverage with basil. He added a little arugula for color and eventually removed the basil completely after discovering the pleasant peppery quality of the arugula. Another experiment came from using harissa: the parsley, cilantro, cumin and caraway in green harissa shines in cocktails.
5. Pair cocktails with food.
While some bartenders may shy away from pairing drinks with food, Röllich welcomes the opportunity and creates a custom cocktail each week for Sunday Supper. “I love the challenge of finding stuff that matches food. I ask the CDC, what are you going for? What’s the theme? I try to play with that,” he says. “I like to think my cocktail is complete but it’s fun to match it to things. It’s more interesting.”
6. Strive for mutual respect.
Making syrups, bitters, and infused fortified wines requires preparation and access to the kitchen, which can lead to friction with the back of the house. Says Röllich, “I respect the kitchen and they respect me. If I need something I always ask.” He also recommends using kitchen space outside of service times.
7. Limit your menu.
More is not necessarily better. In terms of the number of cocktails on offer, Röllich says eight is ideal. “In the end, you’re there to sell a drink. If you have 15 cocktails on the menu people don’t even read it. With pop ups we only do six cocktails.” He also notes that the first and last cocktails are the ones the eye settles on. Use popular spirits like vodka or tequila for those, and make sure your team can turn them around quickly.
8. Don’t over-complicate it.
While experimentation is good, over-complicating is not. Röllich feels the best cocktails contain just three to four ingredients (keep in mind that each ingredient can take some time to make). Cocktails with long ingredient lists don’t read well, and it’s hard for people to know what to expect.
9. Make lo-fi and mocktails.
Röllich cautions that you should only add mocktails to the menu if it serves a purpose. He particularly loves working with tea for mocktails, including smoky lapsang souchong and sweet rooibos. Plus, these drinks are great for lunch menus.
10. Don’t be afraid to fail.
“The most important thing is that you’re not afraid to fail,” says Röllich. “If you’re not afraid to fail you won’t ever find something fun or new.” Still, he cautions, do learn from experience. For example, after some experimentation he discovered that tobacco syrup is just not meant to be.