Toby Cecchini, the Most Educated Man to Work the Stick

Toby CecchiniThe gang at the Algonquin would have loved Toby Cecchini. They’d have set up his bar next to the famed roundtable and someone would have started taking notes. Few could have better seen to their cocktails needs or ushered them into sipping a finer class of spirits. No doubt Dorothy Parker would have applauded his wit and abhorrence of pretense. For as the legendary gaz regan has been overheard to say, “Toby Cecchini is the most educated man to ever have worked the stick.”

In present day New York, Cecchini moonlights behind such high-profile bars as Death & Co. and Fort Defiance, while during the day he writes about wine and spirits for The New York Times. He began bartending in 1987 at the trendsetting restaurant The Odeon in Tribeca. It was there that Cecchini created the now internationally famous Cosmopolitan. After four years, he moved on to manage the bar at Kin Khao, a Thai restaurant in Manhattan.

If there is a school of American Mixology, Cecchini is certainly one of the deans. However, while some drink gurus back away from calling themselves bartenders, he embraces the title. “You can be a mixologist and have never worked behind a bar. A mixologist to me is someone who, like a chef or a food scientist, creates cocktails using his or her palate and knowledge of ingredients to make new drinks or slightly alter classic ones. That’s a very specific and technical task and a very, very different thing from being a bartender.”

Case in point, Cecchini holds in higher regard those bartenders more concerned about rendering impeccable service than fixating on creating cocktail masterpieces. To his way of thinking, the higher art form is taking care of the guest.

“I admire barkeeps who are running hard but still have the presence of mind to acknowledge someone new to the bar. People will wait for a drink when the bar’s slammed, if you catch their eye immediately and then mime to him with one hand, as if to say, I've got one, two, three and you’re the fourth, okay? That kind of heads-up awareness is an invaluable trait.”

The general trickle-down from the cocktail renaissance over the last decade is a good thing in Cecchini’s book. “Even fairly low-jumping bars are beginning to use fresh juices, fruits in season and a wider range of spirits in their drinks. The return to proudly well-fashioned cocktails in America has nothing but upside to me.”

In 1998, Cecchini took his career to the next level and opened a bar in Chelsea called Passerby with friend and co-Odeon waiter, Gavin Brown. Its highly successful, nine-year reign as one of city’s most popular cocktail haunts ended abruptly when the landlord wouldn’t extend its lease. Cecchini says closing Passerby in 2008 “was assuredly one of the worst weeks of my adult life.”

Time heals all wounds, and Cecchini considers himself wiser for the experience. In retrospect, what surprised him the most about owning a bar is the unending maintenance it requires. “Staying on top of the ordering, the bookkeeping, the hiring, the training, the constant cleaning and trouble shooting takes an enormous amount of work. If you go in thinking it’s all going to be tinsel and cleavage, you’re basically halfway closed before you’ve begun.”

Cecchini has of late devoted considerable thought to what makes people want to frequent a joint. He’s noticed that in New York, oftentimes the more money, bells and whistles owners feed into their place, the shorter the lifespan. Most guests can make their own fun if they're comfortable and faux luxury is inherently uncomfortable.

“People tend to gravitate to places that have their own idiosyncratic center of gravity and don’t need to wave flags. At the end of the discussion, you go to a bar to let down your daily load for a few hours. Regardless of whether it’s neat and well run, or divey and rank, there has to be something visceral in simple places that people react to positively.”

What’s next on Cecchini’s horizon? “Actually, in keeping with the economy, I am looking to do something very small and personal, open maybe three nights a week. My ideal is to do a bar in some old man’s garage, just me and a bar back. I come in at four and throw open the door, drag the tables out onto the driveway and start the crock pot. We’d feature one drink special a night, but there would always be the same cocktail list: Coors Light: $2. Ardbeg Uigeadail: $20. Thank you for coming, thank you for leaving."

Wonder if he’ll take reservations?

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