Life Behind Bars: Interview with a Master Mixologist
A master Mixologist and expert in his field, Anthony Fontanilla is no stranger to getting his hands dirty when it comes to his work. He’s the kind of guy who grabs the bull by the horns and building his career with his one true love- the bar, has been a road paved with ups, downs and every drink in between. Known for creating some of the world’s most respected and far-out exotic cocktails, Anthony talks to us about dating, nightlife, Popov and how he became LA’s very own Metro Mixologist.
Anthony, what is your cultural/ethnic background?
My parents are from the Northern part of Manila called San Fernando La Union; they immigrated to Los Angeles back in the 60’s, making me a Filipino-American.
Did you always know you wanted to be a mixologist?
What’s really funny is that my dad bartended all his life. He actually worked at Hollywood Star Lanes which is a really old bowling alley that’s no longer there and as a kid I grew up visiting him at work. He’d make me Shirley Temples and Rob Roys poured on the cherries and I just watched everybody bowl. When I was strong enough and old enough I started bowling, I actually could’ve been a professional bowler, oddly. But I always watched him make drinks and from there I started in the industry as the epitome of a starving student, I went to school and I figured being in the food and beverage industry at least I’ll be able to eat, it paid my way through college and my extracurricular activities.
That’s pretty genius though, a lot of people don’t make the correlation that you get so much more out of hospitality than just money.
And that was the evolution of it. I started as a server at Johnny Rockets while working on my Associates Degree at LA City College; working and going to school, after that I went and finished my Bachelors Degree. I wanted to make more money and I found Louise’s Trattoria on Los Feliz which is now actually the new Mess Hall; there I began training as a bartender and that is when my curiosity for Mixology really picked up.
You know I’ve always wanted to eat there and I never have.
It’s amazing. My first mentor was the assistant manager there; I got hired as a server and he took me under his wing and showed me everything. It was kind of ironic because we had the same name. We’d be working and everyone would be like, “Hey Anthony!” and we’d both just turn around. I learned a lot at the bar there and it was really challenging but after a year or two of being there I was ready for the next level. What’s next for me? What’s the next level? I didn’t want to be a server anymore so I went looking elsewhere and that’s where I found D’ Cache in Toluca Lake. Owned by a wonderful family, it was a Tapas Bar; serving Spanish Fusion Tapas and a great Specialty Cocktail called the “Cuban Mojito”.
I was going to say topless bars are cool.
No, (laughs) only Tapas. So there I learned a lot about muddled drinks. They had a specialty cocktail which is a Cuban Mojito that really brought out that fun aspect of cocktails. Now you’re pressing out the juices from fruits, the oil from herbs and you’re making a cocktail that’s just zingy and amazing. They make the Cuban Mojito especially for this location and they even imported the sugar. Time progressed and I learned everything I could at D’ Cache, and I moved on to Amicci at the Americana. There I met my second mentor who is a Master Sommelier, which I believe there are only 140 in the world and he is one of them.
And for those of us that aren’t familiar with what a Master Sommelier is…
They are a wine expert, but a master is beyond that, It’s a rigorous training that they train sommeliers to become sommeliers so you have a wine expert, and then a master which is a pretty big deal. From there he taught me everything and anything about wine, which was very cool. But then I hit a midlife crisis after about 6 months of being there. I finished my Bachelors and my dad passed away, I broke up with the girl I was with so I was like, I need to get out of here. So I packed up everything, sold everything, I bought a one way ticket to New York on my third day there I got a job at the largest restaurant organization there called B.R. Guest. B.R. Guest owns about 16 locations in Manhattan; Dos Caminos, Isabella’s, Blue Fin, and Atlantic Grill. There I worked under B.R. Guest’s best mixologist, he creates all the specialty cocktails for B.R. Guest’s locations in Manhattan and he hired me on to launch Atlantic Grill Lincoln Center. It was the first of it’s kind, it was the old O’Neil’s and B.R. Guest’s turned it into Atlantic Grill Lincoln center on 54th, 55th and Broadway. It ran the entire span of the block with a two bar concept on each side and the dining hall in the middle. It was definitely the first of its kind. His training and creativity really inspired me. So after a few months of working under him I wanted to make my own cocktails. I was like, “it’s my turn!”
You were motivated.
Yes, absolutely. So from there I went looking elsewhere and I found the first Johnny Rocket’s sports bar and lounge. So I went from the first Johnny Rockets on Melrose to The first Johnny Rockets Sports Bar and Lounge in New York.
Yes, which was full circle. It’s weird how the universe works. Johnny Rockets Sports Bar and Lounge was owned by the Alvarez’s, a great Filipino family. They bought out the franchise for their family and a lot of things were going wrong at that time. I came in and did what a mixologist does, reviewed their inventory, created their specialty cocktails, helped drive the business, and just kind of motivate them to go forward.
Can you explain to readers the difference between a bartender and a mixologist? Because I think there’s kind of a disconnect there, many people think every bartender is a mixologist.
Absolutely. Well there isn’t a true definition of a mixologist. Everybody uses it so freely and they just think, “Oh bartending, fine” but it’s an evolution to bartending. There’s a lot more responsibility; you go in and you try to rescue a bar. Kind of like the TV show, but on a molecular level; you’re creating cocktails that help drive the business. What I usually do is I’ll go in and I’ll take a look at their inventory and see what products are moving and what aren’t. You evaluate the products that aren’t moving and you then create cocktails that will help drive that product and get rid of it. So how do you get rid of that? It’s all about driving that business and creating cocktails from that inventory and using fresh ingredients that haven’t been pushed- it really challenges the bartender. So any basic bartender will be like, oh okay maybe I’ll Google it, or just creatively create something. Inspire yourself to grab a different ingredient and not be afraid of it to create something that’s just “Wows!” your audience.
So what’s the longest it’s ever taken you to create a cocktail? Because I envision you alone with your bar and you’re mixing, and you’re picking ingredients and you’re trying things, and things work and things don’t work just like a scientist.
Oh wow, when Skylight Gardens opened up, Sebastian who was their head chef put in an order for liquid nitrogen so we stayed until 5 or 6 in the morning playing with liquid nitrogen. To answer your question, sometimes it takes 10 minutes to make one drink and sometimes it takes a couple days or a week. For example one cocktail for Parasol 9 took me three weeks to finish because it was missing something. It’s a spinoff of a margarita it’s called the Thai Boxer and it has a muddled Thai Chili and all the basic ingredients to a margarita. There was just something missing about it and all it was as simple as cranberry juice, so 3 weeks later I added cranberry and it is on of the most amazing cocktail I’ve ever had. It’s, wow!
It’s almost like having writer’s block, you have to leave it and come back to it.
Exactly and if you take the fundamentals of a cocktail you’ll see the evolution of it, for example your margarita, what’s the difference between a margarita and a blue margarita? The blue curacao. That’s it! Take one cocktail; add or change a few ingredients, name it something different, and sell it for more. Now that is easier said than done.
How long did it take you to develop the skill to taste something and know what’s missing and what’s needed?
I would say it’s been about 10 years now of building my palate to my specific taste buds and it caters to mostly women.
And why is that?
Women are the more spontaneous of shoppers; when you go to the mall, you see something you love and you want to buy it right away. Whereas guys will look at a pair of shoes for example; check the price, put it down and come back in two weeks later and buy it. That’s my concept to my palate because women could come into a bar try the most amazing cocktail and buy another one and another one until they feel satisfied.
And speaking of women since we’re on the subject, in your field you travel quite a bit to different venues and different restaurants all around the world. You probably have a lot of options when it comes to dating and women. Is it hard for a handsome young man to remove himself from temptations behind the bar?
As a bartender, its options. It is promiscuous. As I’ve gained experience in this profession from a bartender to mixologist running programs, the focus changes. You lose those type of thoughts, “Oh cool, she’s a pretty girl- I’m gonna get drunk and hook up with her” it turns into more professionalism.
I think a lot of men might be under the impression that becoming a bartender is glamorous because it looks like so much fun. You’re in this nightlife environment, you get to see beautiful people all the time, is it really like that?
It is what you make of it. It is kind of like that. I’ve worked really hard to get to where I am now and I can hold it down knowing that the owners are happy- that allows me the leeway to enjoy the time with my customers. Everything revolves around customer service. If the women are happy they’re buying drinks, the boss is happy, and the money’s coming in so everybody’s happy. That’s when I can really have a great time.
Personally what do you think is the craziest drink you’ve ever had, that totally blew your mind?
Eben Klem’s passionfruit cosmo.
Why was that so shocking?
It was the basic ingredients to a cosmo but he added passionfruit and it to me was the Sex and the City drink of New York.
At this point in your career you’re doing the behind the scenes work on what it takes to get the bar setup and established with drinks, do you ever get behind the bar anymore?
Absolutely. I try not to because its more training now. I train other people. That’s the thing though about being a leader. I’ve met many managers throughout my life but the difference between a manager and a leader is that I’m not scared to lose my job. I’m not scared to give somebody the tools they need to get to the highest level of their profession. Mixology is a niche market. Its very specific and there are not hundreds and hundreds of us out there. That’s probably why everybody stereotypes a mixologist as a bartender.
You have clearly worked all over the place, out of all of those places, what is your favorite place in the world to drink and work?
New York. They have a 4 a.m. close and that is the mecca of mixology. That is a place where you can go out and have a drink. You can jump on the subway or you can take a cab and you don’t have to worry about driving or drinking too much. All the bartenders are certified in responsible vending of alcohol and they have no problem politely cutting you off.
Tell us where you are now, what’s your current residency like?
Currently, I am solely contracted by Ocha Classic Thai Restaurants and am in charge of running their Beer, Wine, and Spirits Program. They own 7 locations here in LA and just recently got an approval for a Full Liquor License at the Hollywood location on 5310 Hollywood Blvd. That restaurant is to be called Parasol 9.
When you were creating the cocktails for Parasol 9 what was the inspiration for that?
Everything is a factor when theming, it’s the cuisine itself and the geographical location. Because it’s Hollywood it’s a huge tourist attraction and Parasol 9 is a Thai cuisine so I went tropical. One of the drinks there is called the Thai Kickboxer, it’s a spinoff of a Margarita that will knock you off your feet. Then of course there are others based off the geographical location like the Sunset, the Highlands and the 101 Freeway. When you think of Thailand you think what? Bangkok baby! Phuket! So those are some of those cocktails with those names as well.
Once the cocktails are finished being created, does your job ever end?
If there are three cocktails that don’t sell well; it’s my job is to create three more that will sell well. That is the evolution of the menu and constant creative aspect of my job, so no it never truly ends.
Tell me about your personal style. You are known as the Metro Mixologist, how did you get dubbed that title?
As a self-proclaimed mixologist that’s another thing. Being in LA, its just my own personal style I developed. The Metro-Sexual; I’m not too much of a hipster but staying on top of fashion trends and going back to old ones is something that makes me a little unique. Growing up here I always went vintage shopping. I would spend my Sundays; instead of bar hopping, I would be vintage store shopping. I would buy clothes from back in the 60’s, to the 80’s and brands that make you look good. When you look good, you feel good, and that reflects on anything you do in life. It gets you the attention and gives you the confidence.
How much of your style is influenced by the bar?
A lot of it because it’s not just the creative aspect of making drinks but also making drinks look good with garnishes; vary similar to that of Accessories. Garnishes make the drink look great and take it to another level.
The drink is the great outfit and the garnishes are the accessories.
Exactly. I like how you put it better than how I did (laughing).
That’s because I’m a woman. Fashion is my thing. Is there anybody’s style or edge that you wanted to reflect in your own personal style?
There’s quite a few but Brad Pitt definitely has it. But then you also have Robert Redford. These two guys did Spy Game and they brought back all these different vintage looks. Anything Brad does his stylists make him look very trendy.
Do women make more money bartending than men?
Women definitely get the interview but the money is essentially the same. If you put a beautiful woman behind the bar- she’ll drive the business. However women will actually spend more at the bar so when I’m staffing I like to bring a balance of good looking guys and women because women need eye candy too.
Do you find that women have been mostly understanding of your career or is the aspect of nightlife, alcohol and beautiful women hard for them to digest?
There’s always been a chip on the shoulder of most of the women I’ve dated. I drink for a living, not many people can say that. It’s been a little challenging when I tell women I drink for a living, it’s a great conversational piece but when I’m in my profession and they’re in their career it’s always been kind of a shrug.
I’m sure there’s a few ladies that wouldn’t mind at all!
You should definitely introduce me to them.
Is there any particular liquor you’re passionate about?
I’m a firm believer in the underdog. Throughout my collegiate career, Professional Career, and growing up… It’s been Popov.
Yes, it’s $15.99. You get the gigantic bottle and you buy a Brita filter, filter it through the charcoal filter, just like the vodkas in many of the bars you frequent used in their well or house vodka and it’ll taste the same. You get a LOT of vodka for very little price. Popov is the bottom of the well and I love people that are always striving to put their name out there and brand themselves. I’ve gotten many jobs by saying that. During an interview I would be asked “What is your favorite spirit?” I’d say “Popov” and they’d be shocked followed by a bit of a laugh. I’d always get a response “Why choose something you can buy a 1 ½ liter bottle of for $15.99?” I would tell them, it’s because they’re the underdogs. It’s a great product for a very inexpensive price. It’s phenomenal. And I would later get hired.
I’m surprised you didn’t pick something more expensive.
I mean there are the French who make Grey Goose and Poland who makes Belvedere but those are always going to be great brands because of the quality of the ingredients they use. Not too many people can say Popov.
Tell us a little bit about the pictorial you did here? Did you enjoy yourself, what was it like and who was your model in the shoot?
I really enjoyed myself. I can understand why people model and do photoshoots, it’s a ton of fun. And my stylist, Ali Levine was amazing. My model who is Taylr Renee, was an amazing model to work with and person to know. She’s a very famous EDM singer which I am a huge fan of. I believe she has another song that just went #1 which is incredible. I would love to shoot with her again, anytime.
Where do you see your career in the next 10 years? You went from starving student to master mixologist and expert in your field. What is next for you at this point?
I would love to have anybody who does drink try my drinks. Everybody and anybody who drinks try my drinks, that’s really all I want at this point.
People who want to know more about you, where can they find you?
They can find me on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. I’m pretty much an open book. You can find me on Google, I’m there.
Any advice for people trying to get into your industry?
The best advice would be to drink. Go out there and see what you like, taste everything and build your palate. Go to school and get your education. Go to bars, beer gardens, pubs, breweries and wineries. You pursue all of that; if that’s your dream, chase it! But, drink responsibly. Call Uber or Lyft; use a cab! Your life is precious.
How to Make Anthony’s Signature Cocktail- “The Highlands Martini”
2 oz Grey Goose Vodka,
1.5 oz St.Germain
.5 oz Lychee Purée and Pineapple Juice
Garnish with a Lychee stuffed pineapple
Produced by: MUSE Publishing