It’s no secret that a restaurant is the sum of its parts and that often, those in the ranks don’t receive enough recognition. For this series, we’re on a mission to find the industry’s true unsung heroes—help us by nominating one of yours at diningout.com.
Emma Alexander’s first foray into bartending was unexpected. “I was at a bus stop and some girls were passing out flyers,” she recalls. “They said ‘You should work with us. You’re cute.’” Never mind that Alexander was in high school. By 19, the Cincinnati native was bartending in a fine-dining restaurant and, before she traded Ohio for Atlanta, she was a managing partner in a bar. In Georgia, she got into craft spirits and beer and importing. “I wanted to rep the little guy,” she says. That’s when understanding the value of quality ingredients and processes took root. “That [spirit] is their work of art,” she says. “You have to speak to it, listen to it, understand it. If you don’t understand the source, you can’t build from it.” Today, in her role as beverage director for Bonanno Concepts, Alexander relies on those fundamentals more than ever.
DiningOut: What was the first cocktail you learned to make?
Emma Alexander: I started off batching first. It was math and a reduction. But I think the first iconic cocktail I connected with was probably a Negroni. You snuck gin when you were a kid and it was terrible, but when you figure out the botanicals you see each of those flavors as an opportunity. Different variations of a Negroni helped me understand my cocktail palate.
DO: Tell me about a special food memory.
EA: The first time I had sushi. That was the first time I experienced raw ingredients in general. You don’t need to cook out all the nutrients or add a lot of salt and pepper. Appreciating the things that occur naturally—salinity, minerality, umami, sweetness, iron—there’s a lot of value in that.
DO: What do you love about the restaurant industry?
EA: It always loves you. It allows me to use my occupational side, my creative side, and it allows me to be who I am. I suck at being other people.
DO: Do you have a motto, mantra, or a favorite quote?
EA: If there’s no one who looks like you doing something, be the first. As a minority woman in leadership, it’s rare. I notice that there aren’t a lot of people [like me], but I’m going to go for it.
DO: Please complete the sentence: “Working in a restaurant is like…”
EA: Breathing. Second nature. It really is.
Tune into Best Served, a podcast from Jensen Cummings. The Denver chef spent his entire career cooking and owning restaurants, until he realized he could better serve those around him by being a conduit of community. Cummings has since made it his mission to find and champion the industry’s unsung heroes.
Talk to us! Email your experiences (and thoughts, opinions, and questions—anything, really) to firstname.lastname@example.org.