Bartender Chat: Kimberly Paul of Osteria Mazzantini gets Witchy

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Welcome to Eating...Our Words' Bartender Chat, in which we sit down with local bartenders and get to know their style. Whether they're slinging beers or mixing complex cocktails, bartenders are our buddies and confidants, but we're turning the tables and the camera on them to find out what they're passionate about and what makes them some of Houston's best.

Kimberly Paul has been bartending long enough that she no longer has any misconceptions about the job. She's chill and personable, with a bit of a rocker vibe. She's dressed in all black, and she has maroon-ish hair and a nose ring. She's seen it all in the crazy bars and clubs of her past.

Now she's content to serve quality cocktails and wine at Osteria Mazzantini, while still offering her unique brand of badass to customers who might not be expecting such creativity from an Italian restaurant.

In honor of Mazzantini's new spring menu, which features bright citrus and homemade vinegar-based shrubs of Paul's invention, she's teaching us how to make her new favorite cocktail, the Sun of a Witch. It's prepared with Liquore Strega, so named because the town in Italy where it's produced has long been thought of as a hub for witchcraft. To Paul, that just makes it even better.

How long have you been bartending? (Cringes) Twenty-three years.

How did you get started? In 1991, I decided I wanted to go to bartending school. At the time, I lived in Southern California. It was just kind of a whim. I was waitressing, and I realized that the bartenders were making way more money than me. So I went to bartending school and got a job at a place that was an Arabic club on the weekends. It was a lot of fun. I learned a lot.

What's bartending school like? Back then, it was a lot different than it is now. Now it's all about the shots and the vulgar drinks. Back then, it was more about how to properly open a bottle of champagne, how to build a drink. Nowadays, the people who come out of bartending school know completely different things.

What would you be doing if you weren't bartending? Oh, geez. I don't know. Working in a nursery?

For plants, or for children? Definitely plants. Something like that. I like the whole herbalist kind of thing. I would love to do that.

How long have you been with Osteria Mazzantini? Since we opened, so a little more than seven months.

If you aren't here, where do you do to drink? I would love time to go and drink and hang out. I like to go to music venues. Prior to working here, my husband and I would go to House of Blues a lot. That's more my type of hangout.

What do you drink when you're out? Either beer or whiskey. Or beer and whiskey. I'll make cocktails for myself at home, but when I'm out, I don't normally drink cocktails. Unless I'm going to a craft place. If I go to Anvil, of course I order a cocktail. I like to see what those craft cocktail places have going on.

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Do you have a favorite ingredient to use? I go through phases. But the preserved meyer lemon...I like the brininess of that. And I'm liking shrubs a whole lot. I've made a grapefruit shrub, and that's on our menu right now. And I just made a raspberry shrub a couple of days ago. It's awesome. The first time I had a shrub, I bought it. And I tasted it, and I was like, I could make this. So I went online and found some recipes. I'm just experimenting with the vinegars. There are a lot to choose from here. I'm really big on the champagne vinegar now. I'm still working on getting the spring menu out, so those shrubs will both be on there.

Is there a certain ingredient that you hate to use or a drink that you hate making? No, not really. When someone orders some type of oldschool drink...like a Smith & Wesson...it's always a challenge to make sure that you're making it how they're going to like it. Because ultimately, that's what counts. There's not anything that I really hate making, though. I'm a little over cucumber, I guess.

A person walks into a bar and orders ________. He or she has just earned your undying admiration. You'll get a wave of people who aren't savvy at all, and then you'll get four or five savvy people right in a row. They're like, "I'll have a Manhattan, neat. What kind of bourbons do you have? What kind of bitters are you using?" That means that either they're in the industry or they put a lot of time and effort into learning what they like. And you have to respect that.

What's one of the coolest things you've seen since working here? Or at one of the places you used to work? You know, after doing this so long--I've worked in clubs, I've worked in restaurants--I'm never surprised anymore. Nothing has happened here yet. I'm anticipating it, but not yet. At other places, there was a lot of gross stuff. Like people throwing up on the floor, then slipping in it and falling and hitting their head.

If you could have a drink with anyone, living, dead or fictional, who would it be, and why? Edgar Allan Poe. Definitely. At the time he was alive, he was considered such a loser. And now, he's a genius. I think to get inside his head would be cool...to have a drink with somebody like that and see where he was coming from at the time. Or maybe Jane Austen...

You could turn this into a cocktail party! Who else would you invite? Totally! Yeah! Jimi Hendrix, I would love to invite. Janis Joplin. We'd drink whiskey. Or maybe with Poe, absinthe.

Here's Paul's recipe for a Sun of a Witch, now available on the Spring menu at Osteria Mazzantini.

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