Our annual respite from reality had been just another spring break until we discovered Le Chique and Executive Chef Jonatan Gomez-Luna Torres. And worm salt. The “Gusano de Maguey” (agave worm) dates back to the pre-Hispanic era when it was known as “chinicuil,” a delicacy consumed by Aztec emperors. The worms are found on the agave plant from which they are extracted, dried, toasted or fried and ground, to be combined with sea salt and dried ground chilies, thus creating worm salt.
At the chef’s table in our Riviera Maya resort, Chef Torres greeted us with Mezcal infused with orange via sous vide, flash-chilled with a dry ice bath and served in a coconut shell rimmed with worm salt. There is a point to this: Twenty-plus courses/tastes later, we were talking about the worm salt – a drink garnish.
The entire meal was amazing, start to finish. And yet one of my takeaways was the power of the garnish to enhance the total experience by surprising, delighting, entertaining, enriching and differentiating the cocktail. I shouldn’t be surprised, really, since the word “cocktail” itself, as legend has it, is said to emanate from its first garnish, a rooster’s (cock’s) tail. Well, let’s just say it’s an undocumented legend.
When I first waited on tables, I thought “garnish” was probably French for “parsley.” I just dated myself, didn’t I? Years later, I understood it to be a word for removing funds from my paycheck – another period I wish to forget. In fact, the garnish evolved from the late 14th century when it meant “take heed of” or “warn,” which evolved to “arm one’s self,” and then the earliest English use, “embellish,” which brings us to today’s usage.
So with this newly-informed perspective on cocktails, I ventured into the world of hotel bars in search of additional creativity. In the better hotel bars, I found the finest spirits and several of the newest products nicely displayed. I perused impressive wine lists; I noted the ever-growing selection of locally brewed beers and the sophisticated glassware.
Then I would come across the standard garnish tray with pre-cut fruit and small, unadorned olives struggling to immerse themselves in the brine that keeps them moist and healthy. This seems to be both a disconnect and an opportunity. Bars usually wish to differentiate themselves from competitors, and cocktail garnish is one way to do it. I’m not calling for drinks topped with birds carved from pineapples or mini fireworks shows – though these have their place – but a simple, high-quality garnish program to augment the quality of the drinks they garnish might go a long way.
Here are some elements you might consider for such a program:
- A garnish program should have written standards that document the program’s requirements in order to maintain consistency in garnish execution. These standards should cover the condition and quality of the ingredients, and house policies about how garnishes are made (for example, “to order”). Standards might also use photographs to address requirements for recipes, showing garnish tools and types of garnish, and to highlight safety policies for potentially hazardous practices such as using fire, using dry ice and knife handling.
- A garnish program, like your menu, should have some differentiating points, and these should be consistent with your concept. For example, a farm-to-table approach is popular with food items; perhaps a garden-to-glass approach could work for cocktails. But because full concept integrity is first and foremost, garden-to-glass isn’t appropriate if you’re using packaged mixes, for example.
- There are plenty of alternatives to garden-to-glass that can support your drive toward differentiation, so long as you maintain concept integrity. Examples might include house-made garnishes (marinate your own cherries), purchased artisanal garnishes, garnishes made from herbs grown in the hotel’s own garden, and even meal-type garnishes such as mini sandwiches on a toothpick, chicken wings and strips of crisp bacon. Don’t overlook the opportunity of using garnishes with liquid desserts, like glasses rimmed with dark chocolate or drinks decorated with a stick of cotton candy.
- Develop a handful of themed garnishes for events, to let guests know that you’re actively engaged in what’s going on around you. For example, you might have a menu or promotion for Halloween, or a special menu for game days at the nearby stadium. So why not have a specified garnish for use during these times?
- Your garnish program should include a display element. The bar’s beverages are displayed attractively, so proudly reveal some of your better looking garnish ingredients, to send that “fresh and freshly prepared” message. Since the bar’s garnish and other drink tools need to be kept handy anyway, these should be on display too; for example, lay them out in order on an immaculate white or black napkin.
At Le Chique, we may have experienced the ultimate garnish, as the drink itself and the garnish became one. Two perfectly round, dark large “cherries” were nestled atop a bed of more traditional maraschino cherries. We each popped the chef’s “Cherry Campari” into our mouths and were greeted with an explosion of memorable cherry and Campari flavors, enhanced by the crunch of a cherry-candy skin.
Your cocktails and their garnishes don’t have to “become one,” but a well-executed garnish program can make them – and your bar – just a little more memorable.