The Enduring Relationship Between Immigrants and American Bars

immigrants and american bars

Bonnie Nag (left) and Rosa Ortiz at Trina’s Starlite Lounge. | Photo by Michael Piazza

JP Caceres was 17 years old and not entirely happy with his lot in life. He was living in his native Bolivia, and he aspired to be a great cook. “That was my dream,” he says. “And there were no culinary schools in Bolivia at that time.” So he scraped together some cash and headed north to the United States on a tourist visa. He went to Washington, D.C., where he found a job as a parking attendant, making good use of the long stretches of downtime. “I opened the newspaper and started studying English, because I couldn’t afford to go to school,” he says.

Soon he was hired to bus tables at Jaleo, the first U.S. restaurant opened by noted Spanish chef José Andrés. “The kitchen was loud and beautiful, the bar was packed,” he says. “I thought that this is where I want to be; this is where I belong.”

Before long, Caceres got word that Andrés was about to open another restaurant and needed a barback. “I ironed my shirt and I went to apply for the job,” he says. He got it.

He found a mentor in Jorge Paulino, a Portuguese bartender who’d worked in restaurants and on cruise ships for three decades. Caceres watched Paulino pour from “that bottle, that bottle, that bottle,” while counting the seconds he’d pour from each. “I had no idea what triple sec was. I had no idea what vodka was,” Caceres says.

But when Paulino had to step away from the bar, Caceres was able to fill in, making basic drinks like the Cosmopolitan. Paulino was impressed, and soon Caceres found himself working behind the bar, mostly when nobody else wanted to. “I was very proud to be the day bartender on the Sunday shift,” he says.

Others noticed his drive and skills as well. He rose through the ranks—bartender, then bar manager. He sought out others who could further his education, like the Bon Vivants in San Francisco, where he attended a training that helped him step up his bar program. In 2010, The Washington Post named him one of the five best bartenders in D.C., and he went on to create the bar program at a new pan-Latino restaurant, Del Campo, where he explored Latin American ingredients. He was invited to make cocktails at an event with President Obama, and twice bartended at the James Beard House. (“Those were the best moments in my career,” he says.) He was involved in founding the D.C. chapter of the U.S. Bartender’s Guild. “I was very grateful,” he says. “I was surrounded by good people all my life.”

And then, in December 2013, his world changed. He got into an altercation with a cab driver one night. The police were called. Caceres was arrested and then detained by immigration authorities for having overstayed his visa. Friends and supporters launched a Kickstarter campaign that ultimately raised more than $20,000 to help pay legal fees to fight deportation, to no avail. In May 2014, immigration officials put him on a jet bound for Bolivia.

Caceres vowed to return. “Life sometimes throws you a curveball,” he says, “and you don’t know why.”

Climbing the Ladder

The phrase “immigrant experience” has been so overused that it’s been bludgeoned into meaninglessness. (More than 400 books on Amazon use that phrase in the title or subtitle; a Google search returns nearly a half-million hits). No single immigrant experience exists, of course—it’s essentially a Chuck Close portrait, composed of a million individual snapshots, each with its own story: Why this person came to America, where that person came from, how they did it, whether they arrived legally or illegally, and what they did once they got here.

Stand back far enough, though, and some common outlines are discernible. Jobs in landscaping, construction, and restaurant work tend to be most open for those searching for new opportunities but with few connections or specialized skills, especially among the estimated 12 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally. “Undocumented immigrants are overrepresented in several sectors of the economy, including agriculture, construction, leisure/hospitality and services,” a Pew Research Center study concluded in 2009.

The Restaurant Opportunities Centers United notes that the restaurant industry employs about 12 million people overall nationwide, and about half of those are immigrants—and that percentage runs as high as 70 percent in major cities. Of those, an estimated 1.3 million restaurant workers are undocumented.

While separate statistics aren’t available for bars and cocktail lounges, the DNA is similar to restaurants—there’s a steady demand for barbacks and runners, jobs that many young Americans dismiss as low-wage and dead-end. “In New York City, most bars and restaurants I’ve worked in were built around a backbone of Mexican or Central American staff, says Jim Meehan, founder of PDT and now a prominent cocktail consultant.

When you go out for a drink, you’re joining an international community, whether you’re aware of it or not.

And many, like Caceres, find that there is room to move up in the bar industry; those with a strong work ethic and determination will advance, and do so quicker than in agriculture, landscaping, housekeeping or maintenance jobs. “There’s ample opportunity to move up the ranks in most bars and restaurants, including my own,” Meehan says. “It’s a meritocracy.”

Bars offering a portal to a new life have a long history—they’ve attracted immigrants and their ideas from abroad for more than a century. That the first golden age of the cocktail in the mid-19th century followed a major wave of immigration from Europe is probably not a coincidence. Some of the most prominent 19th-century bartenders were from abroad, especially Germans, who were both plentiful and influential, including Harry Johnson, William Schmidt, and Henry Carl Ramos, the namesake of the famous Gin Fizz variant. “In German hands, Juleps weren’t just spirits, sugar, ice and mint,” wrote David Wondrich in The Daily Beast. “They were cunningly blended from imported brandy, ports, sherries, dashes of this and splashes of that.”

Harry Craddock, another bar star, emigrated from England to tend bar in Cleveland, Chicago and New York for two decades at the turn of the last century before returning home to head up the trend-setting American Bar at the Savoy.

Pre-Prohibition classified ads frequently specified “German bartender” or “Italian bartender” (an ad from 1917: “Italian bartender for roadhouse; $12 week, and food”). That was in part because of the need for someone who could speak the clientele’s language, but bar owners also recognized their vaunted reputations. Irish bartenders redefined hospitality at neighborhood taverns; and in the mid-20th century, Filipino barbacks and bartenders were a presence at early tiki bars.

In today’s ongoing cocktail renaissance, outsiders have continued to play an influential role in defining bar culture, especially in magnet cities like New York—Dushan Zaric and Igor Hadzismajlovic from the former Yugoslavia at Employees Only; Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry from Northern Ireland at Dead Rabbit and BlackTail; Joaquín Simó from Ecuador at Pouring Ribbons; Kenta Goto from Japan at Pegu Club and later Bar Goto; and Leo Robitschek from Venezuela at The NoMad Bar, each influential in ways both significant and subtle.

When you go out for a drink, you’re joining an international community, whether you’re aware of it or not.

Rosa Ortiz (left) and Bonnie Nag at Trina’s Starlite Lounge. | Photo by Michael Piazza

Rosa Ortiz (left) and Bonnie Nag at Trina’s Starlite Lounge. | Photo by Michael Piazza

Filling the Gap

Nabanita “Bonnie” Nag was born in Kolkata, India, and she moved with her family to Southern California when she was a year old. (“I sound like a valley girl,” she admits. “It’s pretty clear where I grew up.”) Her parents had lived in Burma and India, and the aromas and flavors from those countries filled her kitchen growing up. She moved to Boston to attend college and later ended up working with Jackson Cannon at Island Creek Oyster Bar, learning about classic cocktails, before moving to Trina’s Starlite Lounge in Somerville about 18 months ago. She’s now a manager, and she works a couple of shifts each week behind the bar.

Those flavors of her childhood have made their ways into some of her drinks—a way, she says, to stay connected to her heritage. She’s used lassi in some cocktails (not very successfully, she confesses), has added garam masala and turmeric to others. For what she calls her “fall Daiquiri,” she used an apple cider reduction mixed with a rum from India. “I wanted it to be a nod to my heritage, so Old Monk [rum] has been important to me,” she says.

The influence immigrants have on the culinary world is well established. Newcomers bring new tastes and new ways of eating—pupuserias and complex molés and using Ethiopian flatbread in lieu of utensils. A rustic street cuisine that might make its American debut in a food truck or hole-in-the-wall strip mall restaurant is discovered, then quickly embraced and celebrated in temples of fine dining.

Yet the influence of America’s newcomers in bar culture isn’t so much in what we drink—cities aren’t littered with Thai bars or Senegalese lounges capturing the imagination of adventurous American drinkers. Rather, it’s in our experience of how we drink it.

In the bar world, hospitality and drinks are deeply intertwined. It’s not a bifurcated, back-of-the-house and front-of-the-house arrangement, as it is in so many restaurants, with a loud, factory-like kitchen producing food, and a soft-spoken waitstaff creating the customer experience. In bartending, the maker tends to also be the host. Moving up means moving into the spotlight, and those who can convey a strong sense of hospitality shine.

“I hear service is back,” laughs Reza Esmaili. “But I’ve been doing this for 27 years, and I don’t think it’s ever been missing.”

Esmaili’s family left Iran for the United States during the revolution in 1979 when he was four years old. His family embraced the necessity of hard work, and he credits that to helping him forge a successful career as a bartender (his resumé includes stints at Smuggler’s Cove and at influential but now-shuttered spots including Pesce and Conduit) and, more recently, as a bar and spirits consultant in San Francisco.

Among the advantages immigrants have in the bar world, says Esmaili, is that they “bring a sense of humility and a sense of wanting to work their way up.” And that, he adds, “quite frankly is missing from the American workforce today.”

In many ways, immigrants are the original conservatives, embracing an American way of service that was prevalent a century ago, but vanishingly rare today. “That old approach of asking, ‘Who’s going to teach me to do this, and I’m going to do this the best that I can’ isn’t as common today,” Esmaili says.

Rosa Ortiz, who works alongside Bonnie Nag at Trina’s Starlite, agrees that her life experience as a young immigrant helped her move ahead. When Ortiz was two, her mother, fleeing from war-wrought El Salvador, put her in a big truck tire and floated her across a river from Mexico to the United States. They eventually ended up in Los Angeles. “She’s a pretty badass little lady,” Ortiz says of her mother. (Rosa’s nickname among colleagues: “Tire Baby.”) “I remember going with my mother when I was little to clean houses, to take care of kids, to do anything she could to make money, while taking care of me,” she says. “That work ethic went with me. I don’t think I would be here without that.”

While the sense of serving others can be complicated in the United States (where the underlying assumption is often that it’s better to be served than to be the one doing the serving), that sensibility seems not to have eroded as rapidly in other cultures, and it arrives here intact.

And that leaves an opening. “It’s a very selfless act to help create a great experience for others,” says Esmaili.

San Francisco bartender and consultant Reza Esmaili at the Treasury Bar, which he helped launch and where he formerly worked. | Photo by Carolyn Fong.

San Francisco bartender and consultant Reza Esmaili at the Treasury Bar. | Photo by Carolyn Fong.

Bringing it Home

JP Caceres says that back when he left Bolivia to chase his dream of becoming a chef, his country was in dire economic shape, with few opportunities for anyone with ambition. “But when I came back [after being deported], it wasn’t anything like I expected,” he says. “The world of cocktails and gastronomy was about to boom. And a lot of things have changed in the past two and a half years, since I’ve been home.”

After his involuntary repatriation, Caceres set out to find a legal route to return to be with friends and colleagues in the United States. But he was looking at a 10-year moratorium until he could apply again, because of his past transgressions. So he reluctantly started to pick up jobs. And, then … less reluctantly.

He signed on as a brand ambassador for Casa Real, a local singani (a Bolivian grape-based spirit akin to pisco), although the company wasn’t entirely sure what a brand ambassador did. He secured consulting work with a hotel, restaurants and bars to upgrade their beverage programs, helping to open 11 establishments over the last two and a half years.

And, like Harry Craddock a century earlier, who brought his American experience back to England, Caceres is now influencing his native country with the skills and experience he picked up during his stint in the north. “I brought the classic cocktail style here when flair bartending was still a big thing,” he says. “People wanted me to do a show, and I said, ‘No, the show is the cocktail.’ ”

He’s had to adapt, of course. “Because guess what?” he says. “There’s no St-Germain; there’s no crème de violette here. I’ve learned to be a different bartender here.”

He lives in Bolivia’s second-largest city, Santa Cruz, where he recently bought a house not far from a vast public market. Trips there provide him with a nearly endless array of ingredients to work with. Among his favorite drinks is one he makes with mocochinchi, a dried-peach beverage that Bolivians have enjoyed for 500 years. “I’m ready to open my own bar,” he adds, and is aiming to open a “New York–style bar” in the near future. He plans to get the best ice machine and the best tools, “and really show what I can do.”

“The United States was my university,” he says, “and Bolivia was my masters.”


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