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.
Sean Beck has been at this for a while. He started as a server at Backstreet Cafe nearly two decades ago, then worked his way up to becoming a sommelier and the beverage director of all three of Tracy Vaught's and Hugo Ortega's restaurants: Backstreet Cafe, Hugo's and Caracol.
Today, he divides his time between the three, stopping by all of them on any given day and working behind the bar or training employees. When we meet to talk about the drinks at Caracol, he's already been to the other two restaurants, and he has plans to return to Hugo's again before his day is over.
Unlike many bartenders who are all about the creativity of crafting new drinks, Beck takes an intellectual approach to his endeavors, particularly where wine is concerned.
"Wine has always appealed to me because it's the study of history, time, environment, personality, and to a certain extent, English, because you really learn the vocabulary of wine as you're studying it," explains Beck, a former English and History scholar.
He loves taking his knowledge of all aspects of drinking and spreading it around--whether that's through training new employees or having a chat with a curious customer at the restaurant.
"The goal is always to raise the bar for what we do and raise the bar for what Houston does," Beck says. "Any time we can be an inspiration, that's great."
How long have you been with the group? Sixteen years.
Is there a name for the group of restaurants owned by Tracy Vaught and Hugo Ortega (Backstreet Cafe, Hugo's and Caracol)? No. We don't know. We've never gone in for any sort of kitschy name for the restaurant empire.
How did you start in the restaurant industry? When I started at Backstreet, I was waiting tables. Tracy noticed I knew more about wine than any of her other staff members. I'd ask more questions and sell more wine. So she asked me if I'd help buy wines for the list. Prior to that, when I was a freshman and sophomore in college, I'd worked at a microbrewery and helped make beer.
What made you interested in working at a bar or restaurant? I don't know that I was interested, per se. But when you're in college, and you're trying to maximize your time and the return on your time, then there's probably no better job than bartending and waiting tables. The effort you put in is what you get out. So if you're really good, you make a lot of money in a short period of time. That's always appealed to me. Any job I do, I can see a direct return on my investment of time and energy.
If you weren't doing this, what would you be doing? I was probably on the path to becoming either a lawyer or...at one point in time I dreamed of becoming a professor of African American literature. I love the works of Zora Neale Hurston, and Langston Hughes is one of my favorite poets of all time. It was a very unique perspective for literature, and I don't think you can say that for a lot of modern literature. African Americans had to develop education under really extreme circumstances, and they had a unique voice to add. Even if they got to study our classic literature, they were looking at it through a radically different mindset. I don't think there was any group that had that unique a voice.
When you're not at work, where do you go out to drink? I don't really go out and drink. When I'm not at the restaurants, I spend time with my daughter. She and I go out for places that do brunch, and I don't usually drink. But I like to go to places where I have a better-than-average shot of not running into a customer. It's supposed to be family time.
If you are out drinking, what do you order? If I am out drinking, it's usually because I'm meeting somebody, and then I have to be up early in the morning with my daughter, so I'll be very traditional and drink a Campari and soda. I never lose my bearings while drinking it, and it never hurts the next day.
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Do you have a favorite drink to make? After 16 years, people have some favorites in my arsenal. The Violet Hour is one that's pretty iconic for us. I love the Road to Waco, which is one I do at Backstreet with jasmine blossoms. But I still love making daiquiris.
Do you have a favorite ingredient to use? Any time I can incorporate wine into beverages, I do. We're actually getting ready to do a modernized version of Sangria at Hugo's where I cook down the wine with guajillo peppers and cinnamon.
What's one of the craziest things you've seen while working here or at Hugo's or Backstreet? I'm generally very cool with people asking me for what they want, but I had a customer one time ask me to serve him a margarita, but essentially as a mise en place. He wanted the tequila, triple sec, lime and simple syrup all separated and laid out for him. So we did it, and then he was like, "This is not a good margarita." He literally ordered the parts instead of the sum of the parts and then complained when he didn't like how it tasted.
What's something you wish people understood about bartending that they might not? I love thoughtfully educating consumers on the wonderful way of living where you drink and eat and live within the scope of the season. I know a lot of chefs talk about eating seasonally, but our whole body changes with the season. What we drink should be really changing based on the season. That's something I have a hard time getting consumers do understand.
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If you could drink with anyone living, dead or fictional, who would it be, and why? I probably couldn't narrow it down. I guess if it was someone from the historical realm, it would be Winston Churchill. He was a quote machine, the most powerful man in the free world for a while and an interesting character. And he loved champagne, so we'd drink well. And if it had to be a writer, I'd go with Samuel Clemens--Mark Twain. He was a genius at being that country dumb, and he was also alive long enough to see the scope of America over very formative years.
Here's Beck's recipe for what he calls the Forgotten Dream.
"Remember those little push pops or dreamsicles we had when we were kids? This is kind of the adult version of that," Beck explains. "It uses a Spanish vanilla-orange liqueur called Licor 43, a little bit of wood-aged tequila, tangerine juice, lime juice and chili powder on the rim of the glass. It's finished off with a little Topo Chico to keep it bright and fresh. It's also quite good with champagne instead of Topo Chico."