Tell Us What You Eat: Porchlight’s Nick Bennett
As the old saying goes, you are what you eat. To better get to know our favorite bartenders, we’re asking them to chronicle their eating habits for two days during their shifts. First up, Porchlight’s Nick Bennett.
The best way to describe Nick Bennett’s eating habits is “accidentally healthy.” As the head bartender at Porchlight—restaurateur Danny Meyer’s first foray into the cocktail world—Bennett tries to find balance between his busy schedule and eating like a normal human.
Bennett brings an approachable quirkiness to his cocktails, and an almost scientific precision to his mixology skills. His eating, on the other hand, is a bit more sporadic. While he’s not making any concerted effort to eat properly, he does manage to find time for salads, the occasional home cooked meal and daily exercise (often to his own amazement). Here, Bennett recounts two days of eating lots of jerky, drinking lots of cocktails and going to town on some excellent cookies.
Tuesday, August 27th
I get home at 3:30 a.m. after a guest shift at Union Square Cafe and have a glass of Del Maguey Single Village Chichicapa that has been aged in Pappy Van Winkle Barrels. It was a gift from one of the members of my wedding party, given to me at my bachelor party. It is perfect after a particularly good night behind the bar. To be honest, there were a few beers (Tecate) and a few shots as well (Whistle Pig, Wild Turkey, and Cynar, not specifically in that order) but I feel more comfortable starting this diary with a sip of mezcal—especially this mezcal. After sleeping for a few hours, I wake up at 10:30 a.m. for work. I am in need of a strong cup of coffee.
My normal go-to method for making coffee is with a pour over, but when I need strong coffee and don’t have the time, I resort to the French press. I get my beans from a Puerto Rican import company right down the street from my apartment. This time around I bought the Colombian Supreme. I’ve been trying to work my way through every varietal of bean. You walk into that place and there’s just bags and bags of beans. The beans are super fresh and I grind them at home. I like to add a pinch of salt to my grounds. I feel like it softens the bitterness. Did I mention that I like my coffee really, really strong? I base my measurement on how many beans I can put into my grinder.
As I drink my coffee I do the mindless things we all do: check Facebook, check emails and watch stupid YouTube videos so that I can be brainless before the day starts. Then, breakfast.
My wife works the 9 to 5 life and if I have time or I’m up early enough—or she’s even home—I make breakfast for us both. Today it’s just me. I want to be able to make a really good, basic French omelet. It’s one of those things that everyone tests a chef’s abilities on. It’s still kinda runny, but cooked, light and fluffy—essentially the best way to enjoy eggs in the morning. And it’s supposed to be easy, but I can never get it right. I can never get it to form the right way. It’s either cooked too much or too little. It’s literally the most frustrating thing to me. I’m getting close, but as far as what’s pictured in my head, it’s not perfect yet.
So, I eat my imperfect eggs with just a touch of black pepper and some truffle salt that I got for Christmas. Along with my eggs I crush a purple berry smoothie. There’s literally nothing special about this smoothie, it’s just a bunch of berries blended together and it’s supposed to be healthy. I don’t make my own smoothies, I buy them from the store. This one was Bolthouse Farms’ Blue Goodness. It makes me feel like I’m getting my fruit. I try to hit everything on that out-of-date triangle that everyone followed in elementary school. You know, the one that turned out to be completely wrong.
After breakfast, I go for a run around the neighborhood. I don’t work out every day but I try and get at least three or four workouts into my week. This run in particular isn’t very successful. My attempts to shake the remaining vestiges of the night before (i.e. my hangover) with exercise leave me hurting shortly into my two mile run. I can barely make the full two miles. Back at my place, I do situps and pushups and drink an entire 750-ml bottle of Pellegrino. I house a banana and a few strips of dried mango, followed by a daily men’s vitamin (I am getting up there in years and I haven’t exactly been the kindest to my body). Before I walk out of the door to head to work, I sneak a Tate’s cookie (one of my favorite cookie brands)—a gift from a wedding I went to over the weekend. Somehow they’ve managed to survive until this point. I plan to fix that by the end of today.
I’m out of the house by 1 p.m. and in the bar a little before 2 p.m. Normally, I would be there a little closer to noon, but I allowed a little reprieve because of the late guest shift the night before.
The first thing I do when I get to Porchlight is have a small bowl of our spiced popcorn and a handful of jerky. Both are made in house. The popcorn is sweet and salty, the jerky is smoked. Then I pour myself another cup of coffee. Our work coffee is pretty generic. It’s not Folgers, but it is out of one of those deli-style pump action containers. I would be lying if I said that eating those snacks was just for quality control, but that is what I have been encouraged to do—who am I to shirk on my duties?
At 2 p.m. I have a meeting with my friend Max, the producer behind Cocktails and Sons. We’re going to taste through his line up of syrups. Over the course of a half hour, I taste a total of an ounce of various cocktail syrups. Yes, I spend time just drinking a bunch of straight sugar. Then I make a few cocktails with them. We try the demerara syrup in an Old Fashioned and then we try his Fassionola syrup in Porchlight's signature cocktail, the Storm’s Brewing, which is essentially our take on the Hurricane with a blend of rums, lemon, grenadine, passion fruit and allspice.
From 2:30 to 4 p.m., I taste through our upcoming cocktail menu for the fall to prepare for the final tasting with Mike, the general manager of Porchlight. There are only five of them going on the menu, but we worked through a few versions of each drink to make sure the ratios are right.
After that, it’s time for another cup of fabulous pump coffee and then on to family meal. Family meal is when we do line-up at the restaurant, and anyone that’s going to be working that evening gets briefed on everything they need to know about service for the night. It’s also when everyone gets to eat before their shift. Today’s family meal is a green salad with some grilled chicken and a Hamburger Helper-esque pasta dish with some really tasty meat. I smother said pasta with Sriracha to make it taste even better than it already does.
Around 7:30 I leave Porchlight and head to Diamond Reef to meet a friend in town from California. I was hoping for a relaxing evening filled with sophisticated conversation, but I knew that wasn’t going to be the case. Bobby is a fellow bartender from Los Angeles. He was in New York for one last night. We met at Camp Runamuck, an industry-only camp for bartenders in Kentucky. It’s like Camp David but for bartenders, and there’s a lot of whiskey involved. We have two cocktails—the Frozen Penicillin and a Sherry Cobbler with muddled raspberries. The Cobbler is tart and super refreshing. There are snacks on the menu, but I don’t eat anything. There are shots involved—Jameson Black Barrel—with the bartenders, but they’re more of a celebratory type, so they don't really count right?
From Diamond Reef, Bobby and I walk over to Butter & Scotch for another cocktail. Since we are nearby, it would have been rude for us not to stop by. I have a blue drink. Then we have Snaiquiris (essentially a mini, shootable version of a Daiquiri) and make plans to go to a third bar.
Around 11 we make it back into Manhattan in a car for a final drink at Von. Von does a guest bartender series called Going Up. Tonight’s guest bartender is my friend Max from Cocktails and Sons who I had meetings with earlier in the day. I don’t really need another cocktail, so I have a dressed Tecate and shot of tequila.
After a few texts from my wife, which I gratefully use as my excuse to bail, I am home around 12:30 a.m. It was great to see my friend—and to meet some new people as well—but I am tired and there are the promise of leftovers.
Kate, my wife, makes this amazing dish with chicken, cumin, dried mango, apricots, raisins and olives. She’s been making it for me since we first started dating. I think it’s a dish she learned from her mom. It’s got this sweet, tart, salty, spice combo thing—it’s awesome. You could say it’s the dish that won me over. Served with the chicken is a small side salad made with spinach and carrots and rice. Also water, lots of water, for hydration and hangover prevention.
Wednesday, August 29th
I allow myself a few more mashes on the snooze button than I probably should so I wake up in a rush. I have a glass of my purple berry smoothie juice and a banana. There’s no time to brew a proper pot of coffee so that is going to have to wait.
On my way to work I snag a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich (with salt, pepper and ketchup) and an iced coffee from La Colombe—black. I just need food that I can crush. The coffee finally coursing through my veins feels so good.
At work I have a small handful of spiced popcorn and more beef jerky. It’s a ritual at this point.
Around 12:30 p.m. I have to start tasting cocktails for the fall menu again. I’m not finishing any of the drinks—just a sip here and a sip there for quality control.
Then it’s on to a PR meeting, a leadership meeting and a meeting with my general manager, Mike. This lasts for the next few hours. This is the unsexy part of being the head bartender: strategy, projections and inventory. I have glass of water (with a little lemon and cucumber in it) to stay hydrated and a cup of our fabulous pump coffee at the beginning of each meeting.
After my meetings, I manage to grab a few bites of family meal. Today it’s rice and chicken with a salad on the side, which is pretty normal.
I don’t have to be behind the bar tonight so I get home at a reasonable 6:30 p.m. Tonight’s dinner is two New York strip steaks that I bought from Whole Foods. I started dry brining them with salt on Monday in my refrigerator; it gives the steaks this light crust on the outside. When you throw it in a hot pan it just f*cking sears it. This recipe was something I saw online and a friend suggested I tried it. But I screw it up somehow. Or maybe not. It takes me a little longer than it should, and the steaks are cooked a little bit more than I wanted them to be. They are tough. Maybe I need a different cut of meat. Something with a little less connective tissue.
With the steaks, there’s a side of raw spinach and carrots, for a bit of roughage. For drinks, we just have soda with dinner. It would have been nice with wine, but we didn’t pop any bottles.
After dinner is finished, my wife and I clean the kitchen together and then head to the couch. I finish the night with a glass of the Chichicapa Mezcal, neat, while Kate has a glass of Amaro Montenegro, neat. I rub her feet and we watch reruns of Southpark and Good Eats. Oh, and I demolish those cookies.
—As told to Dillon Mafit