Considering the kind of poor life choices most of us make in bars at 1am, Pastry Chef Plinio Sandalio did pretty well for himself. He didn’t get a tattoo or call his ex. He just became a bartender.
Four years into a culinary career that already included a lot of exploratory station-swapping, a recently laid off Sandalio got an unexpected offer to tend bar at 2012 ICC Presenter Bobby Heugel’s Anvil Bar & Refuge. “Bobby and I have a lot of mutual friends,” Sandalio says. “One night, sitting at the bar, he offered me a job. ‘You wanna work here?’ I thought he was kidding.” But when Sandalio actually showed up the following Monday, Heugel was ready to strap him into his metaphorical suspenders.
Sandalio spent a total of nine months behind the bar. And despite the surface differences—darker work areas, opposite hours, lots more tattoos—he found pastry and bartending had enough in common for him to feel comfortable working with cocktails. “If you think about it, alcohol is nothing more than sugar, water, and a little yeast,” he says. “I assumed I could do what [bartenders] were doing because I have an understanding of sugar.” It’s not just an understanding; Sandalio has a serious sweet tooth, and he cops to it fast, like a guilty man admitting something you’ll find out anyway. “The reason I do pastry is that I really like sweet things.”
And that’s how he approached cocktails, at least at first. His flavors were admittedly “all over the map,” but Bartender Sandalio typically veered toward the “heavier, sweet” side of the spectrum (“because that’s what I knew”), burning through the drinks-for-dessert menu with egg cocktails, cream-based drinks, and milk punches. “It was easier to start that way,” Sandalio explains, but that wasn’t where the insatiably curious chef wanted to stay. So Heugel and co. immersed Sandalio in the classic cocktail cannon and subtleties of the cocktail ingredients cabinet, albeit with some resistance. “The first time I tried Campari, I was completely turned off,” Sandalio remembers. “It was super bitter. I didn’t like it at all.” After a while, and with some old-school peer pressure from the bartender community, he saw the light. “I was like ‘Actually this is really sweet; there are so many flavors, you can do so much with this.’”
Over time the Anvil crew introduced Sandalio to the subtleties of many seemingly “bitter” ingredients, the herbaceous, fruity, woodsy, and even brightly sweet flavors lingering not far under the surface. “They helped me figure out how to bring all of those flavors out,” Sandalio says. Now returned to daylight and the craft of pastry at Carillon—where he earned a 2012 StarChefs.com Rising Star Award—he has an entirely new bank of flavors to play with.
And his timing couldn’t be better. If 2011 saw pastry chefs straddling savory roles (case in point, 2012 ICC Presenter Alex Stupak), 2012 just plain assumes a broader flavor spectrum for pastry, i.e. the pressure’s kind of on to diversify. And fortunately for Sandalio, the liquor cabinet hadn’t really been tapped to its full pastry potential. “The only things I’ve seen used many times are Chambord, things like Triple Sec, rums, tequilas, whiskies,” says Sandalio, who began his experimenting with dishes like Escoffier’s Chartreuse Panna Cotta (it proved difficult to set because of the alcohol content). “But I hadn’t seen anything else from that in the pastry world, so I found my little niche—what I can do that no one’s done yet.”
Sandalio wasn’t looking for novelty for its own sake (though also that). Amaris and bitters displayed “so many flavors,” he says, “you can build so many desserts off of just one.” Or, as in his Grapefruit Sorbet, Campari Pop Rocks, and Angostura Bitters Mousse, you can play cocktail ingredients off each other in a dessert exactly the way you would in a drink. Campari’s “very citric base” already hints at grapefruit, so Sandalio opted for a fresh, bright grapefruit sorbet to accompany Campari “pop rocks”—his decidedly adult take on everyone’s favorite explosive consumable.
Angostura Bitters Mousse rounds out the pastry-bartender circularity and pays homage to Sandalio’s nine-month mixology tenure. “At the bar we would challenge each other to take shots of random items after a shift was over,” Sandalio remembers. “We started shooting Angostura. It’s actually really good,” says the guy who once didn’t like Campari. “I tell people it tastes like Christmas: super briny, super clovey; when you take it, it just warms you up.” But it wasn’t until he had an Angostura-heavy cocktail at Brooklyn's Clover Club (part of that gentle, pervasive campaign to inure drinkers to the bartender’s palate) that Sandalio got the idea for his mousse. “It was whiskey, Angostura bitters, and orgeat,” Sandalio remembers. “I tasted that cocktail and I think ‘orgeat equals milk, syrup equals sugar, [just] add your Angostura, there’s a dessert.”
Experimental pastry chefs take heed: it ain’t always that easy. “Sweet Tooth” Sandalio has his savory cooking experience and three trimesters behind the bar, not to mention an apparently ceaseless capacity to explore new ingredients. But the good news is he’s bringing his neophyte's cocktail swagger to a hands-on workshop at this year’s 7th Annual International Chefs Congress: Origins and Frontiers. And, as he’ll prove, you don’t have to be laid off, up late, or even willing to get behind a bar to incorporate cocktail ingredients into pastry. You just have to be curious, and probably willing to swallow something bitter.