"We all sit down with our calculators and computers and figure out how to do it right," says Cox. Take a drink on Picca's menu called the Avocado Project, which Cox is still experimenting with on the night of the Test Kitchen reunion. It's made of avocado, ginger, agave nectar, lime and rum and sprinkled with salt. Cox shows the group how to make it, but a day before opening, he will make it differently.
"That's why it's called a 'project,'" he jokes.
It was Sedlar who essentially discovered Cox. It was 2008, and Cox, who is from Missouri and won his first cocktail competition in 2006, was mixing at David Myers' lauded French restaurant Comme Ça. He had recently fled the Red Bull-and-vodka littered vistas of Hollywood for the program, which was put together by a team from famed New York mixologist Sasha Petraske's Milk & Honey. Sedlar was scouring the city — and the country — for the right mixologist to help him open Rivera, his nuevo Latin restaurant.
"I was a fly on the wall," says Sedlar, who visited Comme Ça a number of times before introducing himself. "And I watched how he articulated the vocabulary of the cocktail behind the bar." When the men had their first meeting at the Coffee Bean at the Grove, Cox said he was relieved because Sedlar didn't want to do typical Latin cuisine like paella and tacos.
"I said great, I don't want to do margaritas," remembers Cox.
Soon Sedlar flew Cox to Mexico where he has an agave farm. "We got him in the soil, splitting the corazones and getting a feel of the earth — the volcanic, blackish-red color — it's high in copper and iron and you understand what the sun does to the starches in the plant."
Having been immersed in the culture of tequila, Cox returned to create a cocktail list that Sedlar says grabbed attention for Rivera right out of the gate. One such drink, called the Donaji, is rimmed with chopped chapulines (grasshoppers) mixed with salt.
Zarate too says that Cox's cocktail list is essential to the future of Picca, so much so that the drink menu is the first thing that is left on the table for a new guest. With all the prep work done in advance, the drink should come out fast, and it will set the tone for the food to come.
When the doors finally open for the Test Kitchen reunion, there is motion and chaos. It's not quite the "symphony of cocktailing" that Cox aims for, but he feels certain that in a few days his team will catch their stride.
"Make me believe that we're ready to open," Cox says to his staff. "Whatever you have to do."