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Charles Joly on Innovation at The Aviary and the Human Element of Bartending

Photo: Charles Joly

About six months ago, restaurateurs Nick Kokonas and Grant Achatz announced that Charles Joly would replace Craig Schoettler as the beverage director of The Aviary in Chicago. Joly's new task was a formidable one. Even though he had worked to grow the company behind the acclaimed cocktail bar the Drawing Room, he was heading to a bar with a unique kitchen configuration (instead of having a traditional counter, the Aviary has an actual separate kitchen area), an intricate ice program, and a roster of innovative drinks and serviceware that had been developed over months and even years. In the following interview, Joly talks about how it's been going at his new gig, his approach to mixology, the cocktails he's added to the new menu, and how he manages to emphasize the human element in an untraditional bar environment.

What were you doing before working at the Aviary, and how did you link up with Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas?
I was with the group behind The Drawing Room for twelve years, so it's definitely not limited to that one bar. We did several venues together, and I was the executive general manager in charge of expansion. We did a lot together.

I spent about six years in total at the Drawing Room and it was just time to be challenged again and move vertically. The timing just worked out very well, because they were looking for someone and I was looking for something else. Nick and Grant would come into the Drawing Room occasionally, so we had opportunities to talk.

What about this opportunity is especially difficult or challenging for you?
Personally, it was going outside of my comfort zone. The main thing was working with another group. It's a whole other culture, so it's like moving into a new city. There are years of experience and accumulated ideas between all the Next and Alinea chefs, and that's an incredible resource but also a challenge to grasp.

You've been around for about four months now. How much have you changed the offerings?
We've managed to, in just about three and a half months, have an effect on about sixty to seventy percent of the menu already. We're still using a lot of the techniques that were developed before I got there, because they're great and they work. There's no reason not to. We've just adapted them and tweaked them and evolved them in several ways.

What's an example?
For example, the In The Rocks cocktail, which is one of the most well-known at the bar, was the first I changed. It had been there since the bar opened. We figured out how to put bitters inside of it and do a traditional Vieux Carré. There are plenty of regulars there, so they have their favorite cocktails. You have to keep it fresh but also familiar.

How would you describe your approach to cocktails? Have you tended toward tradition or have you always liked to push the envelope?
I wouldn't go as far as to say that I'm a classicist, which some have said about me. I think one of the most important things is having the cocktails reflect the seasons and a time and a place. They have to make sense, and I strived for that at the Drawing Room. Part of that is understanding the foundation, so that you can evolve it. We love trying things, but I'll never sacrifice flavor for technique.

Talk about a few more cocktails you've contributed to the Aviary.
We just put a flight on the menu. It's called the Spiritual Advisor flight, and it comes in a Chartreuse VEP box. It's a mix of four different drinks: two cocktails, a trappist style, a quadrupel beer, and a taste of the Chartreuse VEP Green. One of the cocktails is an original that is based with benedictine, Grand Marnier, scotch, and citrus herbs. Alongside that is a Bijou cocktail. It's kind of fun — getting that variety and mix of spirits. We have an incredible beer list, which sometimes people overlook in favor of the cocktails. For me, it's about having a complete program that includes everything from cocktails to beer to tea.

We did another cocktail with locally distilled aquavit with benedictine, citrus, galangal syrup, chili bitters, and a basil foam. We flash-froze that basil foam so it would release in the cocktail. That was the Midnight Mary 2, the first drink to really meld my style with The Aviary's.

We also pay attention to what's going on at Next, so we'll have drinks that reflect the current menu there. For kaiseki, for example, we did a four-course kaiseki-inspired flight.

Do you find there's a tension between wanting to innovate and also just provide something delicious?
It took us almost two weeks to figure out how to get the bitters into the ice sphere. We didn't change up the drink until we got it right. We can't do technique for the sake of technique. The techniques need to enhance the cocktail, whether it's through flavor, aroma, or something sensory. You taste with more than just your palate.

You also inherited The Aviary kitchen, which is different from how basically every other bar functions.
Yeah, it's a line. It's designed to function essentially as a kitchen line would.

Has it been difficult adapting to that?
It is a completely innovative design. We're able to execute our menu really quickly, precisely. I've always been sensitive about the time between when a guest orders a drink and it hits the table. That goes back to the Drawing Room, where we treated our stations almost like a kitchen. You had your mise en place out. Even though it wasn't as forward-thinking as the Aviary, we did repurpose that bar at the Drawing Room so that I could just pivot on one foot to make a drink. Expediency of service is very important to me. There's zero reason to wait fifteen minutes for a cocktail, unless a bar is absolutely slammed.

That's a big part of what I do and what I enjoy. I spent the first month at the Aviary working every station. I didn't change much or say much. I wanted to learn everyone's job to see how the place operated. I couldn't change without knowing the systems well.

But I wanted to talk to you about the human element, which some critics of the Aviary said was lacking in that configuration. When I interviewed Nick Kokonas, he said that you manage to reach out and interact with the guests through other means, like the regular video updates. How do you see that whole issue?
I still make cocktails on the line every night, but we're set up so I can be on the floor and go hang out with tables. I like talking to people about what they're drinking and how their day has been. I spend a lot of time on the floor. The difference here is that I come to them now. People don't come to me. We also give lots of tours every night and take them to the ice room. I love showing the place off and letting the chefs enjoy the fruits of their labor. We're in a position where I can act as the host of the venue.

Bartenders could be replaced by vending machines if their only job was to follow recipes and make drinks. We're also here to greet people and make them feel welcome. The human element is important for me.

Looking ahead, what are your main goals at the Aviary?
My goals long-term with the space are on the same page as Nick and Grant. First and foremost, it's about providing a world-class experience for guests and to have ti be a working think box to question what we can do with — where we can take — cocktails, much in the same way chefs have reconsidered many aspects of the food experience. Why do we have to drink from glass? What parts of the experience can we change to stimulate and delight?

Those kinds of things are very important to me, but also to day-in, day-out provide an amazing drinking experience. That extends beyond the drinks. It has to do with the way you feel when you're walking in compared to how you feel when you walk out. With any bar or restaurant, people come for an experience. They will come back depending on how they feel at a venue. Drinks aren't enough to sustain any venue.

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The Aviary

953-955 W Fulton St Chicago, IL 60607

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