Businessman and bar veteran Len Fragomeni opens a Montreal branch of his successful King West, Toronto bar Spirit House, today.
The Old Montreal outpost at 244 Saint-Jacques Ouest is notable because it boasts veteran barman Chris Natale as general manager.
Natale's energy and youthful jib belies over three decades of experience as a bartender, bar manager and bartending school owner in Montreal. Ask younger bartenders all over the city who they look up to and his name constantly comes up.
Natale recently took some time to discuss Spirit House and reflect on his long career for a special Cocktail Week interview.
How did you get involved with Spirit House?
Basically when the owner came here he was looking for a general manager. He wasn’t doing the hiring - his operations manager was - but he knew me. There was a small list of candidates and I went through three or four interviews. They were very selective. I think my background with my bartending school, with catering and being relatively well-known in the industry helped.
Len Fragomeni and I had done some projects together. In 2007 we did something with Mott’s Clamato. That’s how we met. He liked the way I operated.
It’s all about quality and innovation.
How would you describe Spirit House for those who may not be familiar with the bar in Toronto?
It’s all about quality and innovation. The products and the presentation are high-quality. And it’s not just about cocktails but food too. Our [whisky, bourbon] flights are presented on a nice board with full portions. We plan to do bottled cocktails, which is an interesting trend right now.
The décor is sexy, subtle, with Edison lights, cement, wood and metal. It’s simple and sophisticated.
Spirit House serves food but it is technically a bar, correct?
Right. I would characterize the food as secondary but definitely not overlooked. It is a bar. The food menu will be very similar to Toronto [think charcuterie plates, cheese plates] and will change every 6 months. The cocktails too. Spirit House Toronto will unveil a brand new cocktail menu in two to three weeks which we will use here in Montreal. The next cocktail menu in March will probably feature some of our ideas. In December we’re hosting the staff from Toronto to test new cocktails and food menu items. The best ones will go on the menu. It’ll be a kind of friendly competition between the two bars in both cities.
How did you get your start behind the bar?
(Laughing) It wasn’t passion, I’ll tell you that much. I was 18 and figured making good money, partying and drinking for free was a smart move. I took a course to get a base. But I jumped in and developed quickly and then the passion came. I became a lead bartender very quickly.
In the 80s sales was the only thing that mattered - not quality ingredients or other considerations we have now. I developed my knowledge incrementally and found ways to increase my service speed with ergonomics: how to design a bar efficiently, where to place certain items, how to create a system.
We did over $6,000 a night in drinks.
Where did you first serve as a lead bartender?
The second bar I worked at. The Keg in Old Montreal. It was high-volume. We had 12 waiters, six cocktail waitresses and a long bar that served many customers. We did over $6,000 a night in drinks. This was in the 80s. That includes wine and coffee but it was busy. We came up with signature cocktails every day.
Back then my mindset was 'How can I make this more efficient?' So I came up with different techniques. Then I got curious about new cocktails and experimented.
There is nothing synthetic today.
What do you make of the cocktail scene now versus then?
There is nothing synthetic today. Back then it was all powders and commercial syrups. There’s a lot of pride now to do it correctly. Sometimes younger bartenders overdo it but overall their intentions are good.
Restaurants in Montreal have changed their approach to bar service as well.
Absolutely. Bartenders are being hired to create programs in a way we never saw before. Cocktails are not just a secondary resource but an important component of the overall mix. I developed a cocktail program for La Coupole [in Hôtel Le Crystal, Downtown], for example, and bar sales rose from 4 to 15 percent.
Where do you like to go to drink cocktails in Montreal?
I like younger bartenders who own their own bars. I hop around and visit two to three every week or so.
What do you like to drink at home?
I like bourbon and aged rum. I don’t necessarily make cocktails for myself. When I throw parties at home - I throw a few big ones every year - I create a couple of special cocktails for the occasion. People seem to look forward to that.