The Man in The Den: Quinn Stephenson - November 21, 2011

"Quinn has been a driving force of great mixology for years..."

From the moment you walk into a one of Quinn Stephenson’s bars, you know you are in for a great drink experience. A Santa Fean through and through, Quinn has been a driving force of great mixology for years, bringing culinary technique and cocktail together. Here is a chat I had with Quinn recently:

How did you get your start in the bar and restaurant world?

Growing up around the city of Santa Fe where the community thrives off of art and hospitality, I started bussing tables as a summer job throughout high school. The energy was incredible, it draws you in. Everyone around you is celebrating with family, colleagues, friends and you get to be a part of that positive energy. Over time the nuances of food and wine as well as detailed service made me realize this was a career for me.

Tell me a little about the Coyote Cafe.

I am incredibly grateful to be a part of Coyote Café, The moment you walk down the street and hear the energy coming off from our rooftop cantina it builds anticipation. As you pass through the doors and up the stairsm the smells coming off the wood grill are filling the high ceiling, open dining room, with 20 foot glass windows along the walls overlooking downtown Santa Fe. As you round the corner your breath stops for a brief moment as you see 75 feet of flames being projected on the wall above the open kitchen. Latin music fills the air and you feel the history and energy which is Coyote Café. You choose to cocktail on the rail overlooking Water Street on our rooftop cantina. The watermelon mojito and green chile margaritas are exactly what you needed to wet your palate for the night to come. As the sun goes down, you witness an incredible sunset and make your way back to the restaurant where your table has been set with anticipation. The brigade of staff you see assures you are in for a night of impeccable service. As you finger through the 12-page wine list, you decide to order a half bottle of grower champagne and move on to a small production pinot noir. Chef Eric Distefano’s menu is global fusion so the choices are wrapped in eager frustration. As you get settled in and make some choices, my hope is that you will have an evening to remember.

You have a new lounge there as well. What is the concept?

We built The Den to showcase gourmet cocktails. The space is modern contemporary with a minimalism back bar to focus your attention on the creative cocktail program we have. It’s a great space in which to have an aperitif or digestif, and we keep it open later than both the Café as well as the Cantina so we can cater to the late night crowds downtown.

Do you consider yourself a bartender or mixologist, and how do you define the difference.

I think that’s an interesting question. Personally, I use the term mixologist as it implies there is a certain increased level of preparation and use of ingredients. I also think the term mixologist states that you are a renaissance barman who is knowledgeable in modern techniques and ingredients. Definitely debatable among colleagues.

Where do you get the ideas for your drinks?

I really have fun with using inspiration from my personal life. The cucumber-infused vodk,a shaken with a touch of lime and presented with a salt powder on the rim, is an homage to a childhood snack, cucumbers and salt. The Capri Martini, which is a fresh basil gimlet with a balsamic vinegar reduction and a mozzarella tomato flower for a garnish, was created with my favorite salad in mind, the Caprese Salad. I also tried to use techniques that nobody was doing at the time to define my style--foams, gels, flavored ice cubes, dusts, airs, fat washing, vacuum techniques, using chemicals to change the weight of liquids, agar agar, xantham gum, lecithin.

Who are your mixology influences?

Well it’s difficult to say I do have one because I have had to experiment time and time again, alone with nobody around. And I think that’s what made me creative is not having anything to go off of. Of course, there are legends like Dale Degroff and Tony Abou Ganim and many more but I have not ever had the honor to make drinks with these masters.

What would you consider your signature cocktail, or should I call it your QUINNtessential cocktail?

I would never just say one Chris!! Blueberry lemon drop that changes colors, kamikazes poured over cotton candy, pop rock lemon drops, margaritas with salted lime foam, drinks I sign with a Q, smoked manhattans, flaming cinnamon with mandarin vodka and blood orange. It's like choosing between your babies--I could not just list one!!

When you’re out and about what do you like to drink and where do you go?

I enjoy your bar, Chris, the Secreto Lounge where I know I can have a hand crafted, balanced cocktail with good conversation. At the end of a long day, I will say, an ice cold Dos XX tastes pretty good as well.

Have you ever gotten star struck by the celebs that come into your bar?

It’s really fun to make drinks for celebrities and interact with them. I can’t say I ever really acted regrettably around Mickey Rourke, Samuel Jackson, Emilio Estevez, Pierce Brosnan, Julia Roberts, Liam Neeson, Robert Redford, Tommy Lee Jones, Seth Rogen, Gene Hackman, Jack Black, Val Kilmer, Natalie Portman, Jackie Chan, Wes Studi, Tom Ford, Yo Yo Ma, Sam Shepherd , Woody Harrelson, Ed Harris……… name a few

What is your most memorable moment behind the bar?

(Pause)... I just thought about that for several minutes and too many come to mind, it would take me all night to even scrape the surface.  I think when I was 19, bar backing and everything was new to me and the excitement was astounding. Tasting all the liqueurs for the first time and spirits and becoming intrigued with wine. Now you know what to expect from Frangelico or Chambord or the difference between Lagavulin and Macallan.

What is the funniest thing that has ever happened on a shift?

A cocktail waitress ordering two scotch on the rocks, a beer and AN ASHTRAY because she thought it was a drink. In actuality, the guest was asking for a ashtray!!

What are culinary cocktails?

Culinary cocktails are a concept for a cocktail book I’m working on, showcasing gorgeous photography and avante garde techniques, using inspiration and ingredients from the kitchen.

Do you have a favorite spirits to work with?

Not necessarily. Vodka always gives you a nice clean canvas to paint your masterpiece on.

What's next for you?

I'd like to open more restaurants at some point, I think Albuquerque is an incredibly exciting market, but for now I really want to focus on making Coyote Café and Geronimo as best as I possibly can.