Mixologist Julian Cox shows bartender Deysi Alvarez the nuances of selecting… (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)
It's 5:45 p.m. on a Thursday and Julian Cox hasn't eaten a thing, which is odd since he works in some of the best restaurants in town. He is one of Los Angeles' top mixologists, and he runs the cocktail programs of chef John Sedlar's Rivera and Playa as well as Sotto and chef Ricardo Zarate's just-opened Peruvian restaurant, Picca. It's at Picca that he finds himself both starving and unable to eat because he is zesting oranges to mix with sugar to rim the glasses for a drink he created called the Rhubarb Sidecar.
"15 minutes 'til service!" shouts Picca's managing partner, Stephane Bombet, rushing through the chaotic dining room, past servers urgently folding napkins, prep cooks placing fish and fresh vegetables at the open ceviche bar, and Cox's bar team, whom he has been training for weeks. Though Picca wasn't officially open for business at the time, that night more than 200 diners were expected to pour through its wide doors for a reunion dinner for the Test Kitchen — a much-lauded pop-up restaurant that hosted a rotating cast of some of the most respected chefs and mixologists in town. Cox was Test Kitchen's beverage director.
Tonight will be all about his drinks and Zarate's food. If Cox, 29, has done his job right the two should go together like gin and tonic. It's a job he takes seriously, often nabbing ingredients and tools from the kitchen to use in his drinks. And he's not alone. Mixology fever has gripped the city in the last several years, with bartenders and bar consultants such as Eric Alperin at Varnish, Marcos Tello at 1886, Aidan Demarest at the Spare Room, Zahra Bates at Providence, Vincenzo Marianella at Copa d'Oro and Tricia Alley at Black Market Liquor Bar in Studio City, elevating the cocktail to the level of culinary art. They aretransforming the L.A. restaurant landscape, to the point that what's in your glass is now as important as what's on your plate.
"I've never seen mixology at this level, and I've never seen mixologists busting boundaries as they are in today's restaurant environment," says Sedlar, whose groundbreaking Latin cooking has captivated Los Angeles for decades. "It's a real win-win for the restaurateur and the guest and adds a new direction to dining that wasn't there before."
It takes months to prepare a mixology-level beverage program for a restaurant, and Cox has done three in the last six months — creating 37 cocktails. In addition to skipping meals, he's missing time with his fiancée and 7-month-old son and losing sleep — often working seven days a week for 10 hours or more. This streak began in December, when he hired 22 new bartenders to go through an intensive six-week training course, beginning with the basic Prohibition-era cocktails like Manhattans and Old Fashioneds, and moving into increasingly complex techniques, including molecular gastronomy such as making "strawberry air" to top off a drink called the Martin Ricky.
Strawberry air is made by putting fresh farmers-market strawberries through a juice extractor and then mixing in a powder called Versawhip with an immersion blender. A bit of ascorbic acid is also added to preserve the rosy pink color.
For his Picca trainees, Cox, an avid reader of cookbooks, is scenting eggs with cinnamon essence so that when they are cracked for an egg white-based drink like the Pisco Sour, they smell and taste like cinnamon.
The process, which riffs on an old French trick of storing eggs with truffles, is laborious, as is much of the prep work for his bars. He takes brown, free-range, organic eggs and uses a dropper to put food-grade essence onto cotton balls, which he then packs with the eggs in an air-tight container. He tops the whole thing with a single cinnamon stick and refrigerates it for two days. The final effect in the glass is a subtle cinnamon nose and a whisper of flavor.
"These are the things that the customers don't realize, but it makes all the difference in a cocktail," says the tall and baby-faced Cox, dressed in a plaid shirt, jeans and a white apron. He and his team of three women and two men have been prepping for four hours — making fresh anise, cinnamon and cardamom syrups, juicing lemons and limes, cleaning and stocking the bar, polishing copper mugs.
"One of our mantras is that you can mess up a cocktail by the width of a nickel," says trainee Jamie Schreiber, who has a master's in anthropology but decided to take time off before her doctorate to bartend. "It's all about consistency. Julian wants a drink that I make to taste exactly like a drink that he makes."
And that can be hard to do, because Cox is constantly tinkering. He'll talk with his chefs, taste their food, scour farmers markets and the kitchen for ingredients and then disappear, into what he calls his "Drink Tank," with a few collaborators.