How I Taught Myself to Bartend


I saved the empty liquor bottles and filled them with water.

When the restaurant was quiet (we opened winter of ’08), the start of the Recession — it was quiet often) I took the rail liquors out. Placed them on the ground. Replaced them with the dummy bottles.

Then I practiced making cocktails. Over and over again. For hours, six days a week. That first week, I only made 4 cocktails, our most popular ones (Raspberry Saketini (it was a Japanese restaurant), Dirty Martini (for Tom, that’s all he drank), Cosmo, Mai Tai).

I learned with the jigger pour first, then free pour, measuring my portions against the jigger pours, testing my accuracy.

We kept a bartender’s book behind the bar. I don’t know who brought it, Jason maybe, our first bartender. Tall, lanky, a junkie. He made it through training but no-showed on the second day and no one saw him again. I started with the simple stuff, two-ingredient mixes college students and alcoholics drank to mask the taste of cheap liquor: Screwdriver, Cape Codder, Greyhound.

Then I learned the drinks I’ve heard from movies or weddings: Sex on the Beach, Tequila Sunrise, Sea breeze, Madras, White Russian.

Everyday. When there weren’t napkins to fold or salads to prep, I stood at the bar and poured water. Every step of the dance, from pulling printer tape and slapping it on the rail, icing glasses, different combinations of drinks. I wanted muscle memory, not knowledge.

That’s how I taught myself to bartend.

How I Learned About Hollywood

In 2010, I moved to Los Angeles to work in Hollywood. At my first internship interview, the assistant, Jeanie Wong, asked me how my coverage was. Great, I lied. I went home and my roommate showed me what coverage was.

That’s when I realized if you analyzed stories quickly — and had good taste — you could carve out your own miniscule perch in the Hollywood machine. So at the internship, I started covering a book a day. The office address was 9200 Sunset Blvd, next to BOA steakhouse. I ate peanut butter sandwiches in the office and kept reading, to clear my self-imposed quota.

At the end of the day, after the manager’s left, I printed out scripts from that year’s pilot season, and snuck them home in my backpack, my Ari Emanuel ICM moment. Over dinner (spaghetti, Prego, Kirkland chicken breast) I read pilots. On weekends, I mixed it up. I read scripts of movies I loved: Brick. 500 Days Of Summer. The Matrix. Brothers Bloom. Gattaca. Juno. Dozens more, now forgotten.

A year of that, I could tell you when and where something felt off about a script. Two years, and I could tell you why, on the spot. I didn’t need to write coverage anymore.

But that took literally two years of my life. Rarely going out. I stopped exercising. Forgot to eat, and lost 15 pounds. I never questioned the work, or the commitment. That’s what it took.

How I Started Working with Dennis Lehane

When I decided I wanted to work for Dennis Lehane, I learned his deals inside out. I could tell you the option price on Live By Night and when the option extension came up. I knew how much he’d make for delivering his season 4 Boardwalk Empire script — gross and net. I listened to every interview he gave, read every draft of every unproduced script.

Before I sent him my email pitch, I listened to ONE podcast about cold pitching best practices for months straight. It became the soundtrack on my bike ride commute as I pedaled up Overland Avenue, towards Century City. I never thought, “Is this worth it?” I never thought, “Is this a waste of time?” It’s what it took.

What It Takes

There are two major areas I’m working on now. Both make me feel like a dummy.

The first is growth marketing — I’m building a course about it, specifically on retention. I remember getting off a discovery call with our growth experts, feeling upset about how it went. My boss, Brian, asked me what was wrong.

“I feel like I’m not keeping up with you guys. I feel so slow, I can’t even think of the right questions fast enough to move these interviews in the right direction.”

The second is Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Moves aren’t sticking. The muscle memory isn’t there. People who trained for less time are passing me.

When I get frustrated (often), I pause and ask, “Am I doing what it takes?” Usually, the answer is no. In BJJ, am I doing what it takes? Training most days, keeping a journal, methodically building my game?

No, I’m not. Why not? Because if I’m honest, it’s not a priority. It falls far down the list, way past my work, writing, family, Deefer. Which is fine. If everything is a priority, then nothing is. It’s okay to learn at a slower pace. Not everything needs to be “hacked.”

What about growth marketing? Am I doing what it takes? No. I could do more. Is it a priority? Yes it is.

Then what comes next is simple: close the gap between what I’m doing now and doing what it takes. There are all sorts of literature on “hacking the learning process” (so hot right now). But this decision is simpler than that. It’s binary. Yes or no.

Before you beat yourself up, before you get frustrated, make the decision. Then forget the hacks. Close the gap. And do what it takes.

Photo Credit: Didriks

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