Justin Pike is an astonishing bartender who has mastered his craft of creating cocktails by having a passion for artistry as well as a fantastic platform at The Tasting Kitchen located in Venice, California. The Connecticut native has been transplanted on the Westside of Los Angeles for seven years at the restaurant and bar of The Tasting Kitchen. With nationwide experience behind the bar of outstanding places Justin’s art of making a masterful drink translates into his chalk, graphite, and oil pastel drawings. Some of these chalk art masterpieces are located within The Tasting Kitchen. He is quiet an impressive artist. It is worth a trip to Venice Beach down on Abbot Kinney Boulevard to indulge in Justin’s one of a kind cocktails. As we begin to discuss Justin’s knowledge in the restaurant industry I was amazed by his charismatic candor on philosophies he is inspired by globally in the world of bartending. With a very Americanized service Justin’s bar has become the go to spot for many locals in the area. When regular customers walk through The Tasting Room’s doors you’re greeted with your favorite drink. As a first time patron you can take the time to converse with Justin about your preferred ingredients and he with the help of his staff will create your ideal cocktail. Even if you are looking for a sparkling water, you got it. This actually occurred when Larry David, dropped by to hang out at the bar and made friends with a couple of foreigners. Justin is a fan of his from his Seinfeld. Justin explains how bartending it about the relationships made in such an exciting setting. Needless to say, Justin Pike is making a huge difference in the restaurant and hospitality industry. Highly recommend taking the time to visit his bar, enjoy a cocktail, and most importantly the company of such a talented artist.
Q: The process of becoming a renowned bartender is no ease feat. What eclectic drinks as well as its ingredients are you now making exclusively at The Tasting Kitchen?
A: Tiki style drink. The fun thing about Tiki drinks is that you’ll have multiple alcohols in a drink when most drinks use only one alcohol with citrus & we have bitter, sweetener, cognac, rum, bourbon in it the reason I started messing about with that one because I started making a sultana raisin syrup
Q: Name five places in Los Angeles you visit most often on your days off and does that inspire your incredibly original creativity?
A: Don’t normally go to other cocktail bars for inspiration. With my wife I will go out for a couple drinks or make some at home. I do go to Scopa. As a Westside resident I don’t leave the area often. I’m a fan of dive bars. The other kinds of places that are fun are tiki bars. Sports Harbor is great for late night. We also will go to Lincoln and Melrose Umbrella Co. Hillstone, which surprises people who don’t want me to be corporate but the service there is so good it's a little scary. I tell my guys, “If you can be like that!”
Q: Can you distinguish the difference between a mixologist and bartender?
A: Important distinction between a mixologist and a bartender. I’m a bartender. Not a mixologist even though it's a term of endearment. I’m a bartender. Even at a dive bar you get a real bartender who knows how to talk to people and make people talk to each other also, crowd control. Maybe they don’t know make fancy cocktails but… One day I was messing around with toasted mortared macadamia nuts as a syrup with lime, orange, clove, cinnamon and we have that cocktail on our menu today.
Q: First word that comes to mind when I say cocktail?
Q: What are your major goals when inventing an upscale drink?
A: The thing that makes a good drink is when you have a sip and want another sip. I work with five guys here and try to get them excited about making drinks. Ask yourself, “Do you want to drink this drink?” When you make up a drink you think, “Is it good? Do I like it?” Then you have another sip and another sip and order another drink. People have been coming here for the passed seven years. We’ll see them at the door and make them their drink. That goes back to the bartending rather then mixologist.
Q: Does your cocktail selections change daily on The Tasting Room menu?
A: No daily menu. We change the menu when it feels appropriate. When we’re feeling a creative block I create something new. The regulars want their favorite drinks though. If someone likes something specific we’ll make it for them.
Q: Hypothetically what if it is your last weekend on earth, which cocktail would you have to consume?
A: Manhattan, it is my favorite drink. That’s what I would have.
Q: Imagine the most exotic mix that you have yet to create, what might that be and what’s you creative process like?
A: Sometimes it starts with an ingredient that I want to put in a cocktail. Something I make up and build around that. The other way to do it is to know you want a certain thing on the menu and build it that way. Like to think of things as analogies and real art forms. When I take a canvas I know what I want to make once it’s started or sometimes I scribble on a page and kind of figure out from those scribbles what I want to make. My brother and I, when we were growing up on the east coast, had a game where we would scribble on paper then hand the drawing back and forth.
Q: What is your strategy to food pairing with cocktails?
A: Yeah, it’s not as popular as wine pairing. It’s fun to think about those things when working with new ingredients.
Q: The Tasting Kitchen has become the heart and soul of New American dining. Name a person you would most like to bartend for at The Tasting Kitchen?
A: When I moved here my favorite show was Seinfeld. If you here stories about Larry David they’re accurate. He came in a few years ago and he ordered sparkling water. It was so awkward and he was so weird. I get what he was doing but he wasn't doing it on purpose. I thought I’d give him a funny glass. Stencils on it. He came up to the bar and pretended to be drunk while chatting with two foreign girls here he made giggle. It was cool to wait on him.
Q: Knowing the core of spirits is such a crucial aspect to the experience of drinking a cocktail. Where did you master this craft?
A: One of the cool things about this job is I’m always learning new stuff. It’s not easy and I’m dealing with people all day and don’t necessarily want to listen to people or answer questions but, I have to because I’m in the spotlight. I have to put everything away and that skill is interesting as I’m always working on it. It's a thing where people with grate me no matter where I am. Something that stuck me in this job was the ability for it to show me stuff. Even cocktail wise with the bartenders here I’m always learning something. Trust between bartender and customer is the key. The Tasting Kitchen has the same customers for seven years. I’ve seen guys who were bachelors scoping girls and now their married with kids. It all started in a bar. You’re sitting at the bar and I find a way to get people to talk to one another just start a conversation for them without it being obvious. Then that whole dynamic is a really cool thing when I stand back and it’s happening.
Q: What is something about your bartending philosophy most people would not expect?
A: New drinks I have to think about the old ones I don’t even remember making them. I always think of the place that I worked in Portland, really great bartender up there. Someone said something once, “The thing that makes a good bartender is you just want to hang out with them.” When I hire people here I always say I can train someone to do this stuff and how to make then memorize these drinks but for you to be a cool person that people want to hang out that is ideal. There’s techniques to this stuff but when you’re a cool person that’s hard to define. My philosophy is bartenders are cordial, funny, nice people able to think quickly on their feet. It’s about creating friendships.
Q: Do tell what the future holds for you single handedly changing the face of the restaurant/hospitality industry?
A: This is my favorite question so far because it’s so dramatic. We have a drink on the menu Sweep The Leg. A Karate Kid reference. The instrument for this drink is an actual stick of a tree from the Caribbean where the branches grows perpendicular. Now I’m swizzling the cocktail, it’s like a hand blender.
Theme through this there’s a Andy Warhol quote about soda he loves coke a cola because that you can buy in the store is the same one the president drinks and the same one that the bum begging for change drinks. Something so American about that. Something about a bartender that has that same Americanness a bar is where you have rich people next to people that don’t have money you have hipsters next to old men where you get that mix of people that are mingling socially. Bartenders are responsible for that. That’s why mixology has a bad reputation because it hint that it’s all about the drink and it’s not the space and this place is doing well because we have personable bartenders back here. Nice environment to be able to give this calibrates of cocktail and if people want cocktails without the pretentiousness that’s so important. People with no sugar and just vodka if someone want to learn about cocktails we’ll tell them or else we’ll sell them just the vodka. Not all about the drinks. Most of our bartenders back here are nicer than me. I’m the meanest one!
Q: Do you have a nickname at The Tasting Kitchen or in your past elsewhere due to your amazing array of exclusive drinks?
A: Mostly about being a redhead. My website is Red Fro Man because my fro used to be bigger.
Q: If you had to choose an idol or perhaps a mentor in this industry who would is that person?
A: I honestly go to so many good bartenders in LA. I go where the bartenders make me laugh. In Tokyo I went to Ben Fiddich. It was really hard to find and the guy was a magician and the Japanese service is insane. One piece of ice is carved by hand for five minutes, that’s ridiculous. Our service is so fast due to the amount of people in one space. The way they do everything in Japan is like an art or a dance the way it’s done. I pour casually by measuring with casual movement. In Tokyo it’s so precise and they swivel their whole body. That inspires me because people always like to compare this stuff to art and I do chalk drawings. This cocktail is a product that is finished like art. The art is the performance itself, the act of making art. There are plenty of people that believe that but people don't think of the act of making something is art. The awareness when I’m making art changes your awareness while you’re doing it. Then the final product of the thing. There’s a Buddhist thing that I read once where these monks put rice into two jars and one jar they put near their prayer thing and shine love on it. The other one they yelled at when they were angry put that energy in it. When they opened up the one with negative energy in it there was mold at the bottom and the other one with positive energy did not. When you put love into something it changes it.
Q: What drink would you recommend for first time patrons entering your bar at The Tasting Kitchen?
A: The most fascinating phenomenon of this place is the drink another bartender and I created six years ago called The Braveheart. That is a take on The Penicillin. It has not been on the menu for six years. People come in and they’ve heard about it from somewhere else and want to try it. There’s some infectious condition about that it's the most popular one that we have. Last night a guy came in and broke the record for the most Bravehearts, he had eleven. The record used to be nine. I was nervous at ten, he wasn’t crazy but I’ve never had that many cocktails. Honestly, that’s a lot of booze and a lot ginger in The Braveheart. He kept drinking water and wasn’t being weird. Braveheart is the classic. Have to come in and order it. Start with The Braveheart. Scotch ginger, honey bitters it’s sort of medicinal when you get that ginger.
Written by Zan Estin
Photography by Natasha Lee