In How I Got My Job, folks from across the food and restaurant industry answer Eater’s questions about, well, how they got their job. Today’s installment: John deBary.
John deBary started bartending at the legendary New York City speakeasy Please Don’t Tell before PDT was, well, PDT. In early 2008, the award-winning cocktail bar was just a cool restaurant-industry haunt that deBary’s friend helped open. Though deBary had no experience making drinks, he asked if he could have a job there — and they said yes. Luckily for all parties involved, deBary was a natural who went on to mix cocktails there for a defining five and a half years that were pivotal to the revival of craft cocktails. This newfound talent for beverages led deBary to a nine-year role as bar director for the Momofuku restaurant group. And for about four years, he was splitting his time between the two gigs.
Now, deBary has taken his expertise beyond the bar with Proteau, a nonalcoholic botanical aperitif designed to be drunk straight out of the bottle. He also co-founded a nonprofit, Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, that became a major crisis relief organization during the pandemic. On top of it all, deBary authored the cocktail book Drink What You Want: The Subjective Guide to Making Objectively Delicious Cocktails and continues to write about drinks for publications like Food52 and Punch. In the following interview, deBary explains how he fortuitously ended up working at the best bar in the country and details his unexpected current situation.
Eater: What did you originally want to do when you started your career?
John deBary: I wanted some academic job. I thought I would maybe be a lawyer or maybe move to Japan. It really was not fleshed out.
Did you go to culinary school or college? If so, would you recommend it?
I went to Columbia University for undergrad and I studied Japanese history, but I actually did take the bartending course for a semester. I forgot about it until I saw an article in Punch about all the Ivy League bartending schools. Needless to say, it didn’t really prepare me that much for being a professional bartender, but it was a good intro. One of the things about having a liberal arts education is that it teaches you to be generally conversant in a lot of different subjects. Columbia has a core curriculum it requires you to take, which includes philosophy, world history, and classic literature. All the teachers say, “You won’t need this for your job, but you’ll be really good at cocktail parties.” And then sure enough, my life became a cocktail party. In a very oblique way, it prepared me nicely for bartending.
What was your first job?
Funnily enough, my first job was in the restaurant industry, but I didn’t come back to it for about 10 years. I was a server at a French cafe in the town where I grew up in Connecticut. I lasted three or four weeks. I was 14 and I didn’t know anything about anything and I wasn’t really that into it. It didn’t light me up at all.
When I graduated college, I had a job investigating allegations of police misconduct for the city of New York from 2005 to 2007. It was extremely interesting and it was during the era of Mayor Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk policy, so there were a lot of complaints and questions about the Fourth Amendment, about ethical search and seizure, and about improper stopping of people in the street. That was in line with me wanting to go to law school.
How did you get into the hospitality industry (again)?
I did some traveling and when I came back, I had no job. I was desperately searching for a place to work and my friend Don Lee was on the opening team at PDT. He invited me to have drinks there a few times and I thought it was really cool. I asked if I could work at this awesome bar and they said, “Okay.” I started training and it felt very natural and I took it from there. I went right to bartending. This was before the place blew up and got really famous. It was still kind of a local industry haunt. I was able to just slide right in, which is something you can’t do anymore. It had only been open for nine months, so it was a very well-timed entry.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when you were starting out in the industry?
I didn’t know anything about whiskey or cocktails. I was completely clueless. I was kind of able to charm my way through my first couple of weeks of working, but I was also trying to seriously catch up by reading books about mixology and Punch and Imbibe. My biggest deficit was that I had absolutely no experience bartending and I got very fortunately plopped into one of the coolest bars in the world that was part of the craft cocktail renaissance.
When was the first time you felt successful?
I got my picture, name, and quote in the New York Times about three months after I started working at PDT. I just happened to be there on the right night. They were doing a story about a group of local cocktail nerds hopping around to different bars and I happened to be their bartender. That was really validating because the bartending job was initially just something to keep me busy while I was studying for the LSAT. After that and after getting positive feedback from customers, everything else kind of fell away. It fit me really well and I really enjoyed it.
Do you have, or did you ever have, a mentor in your field?
I learned how to make cocktails from a lot of different, amazing, awesome people like Jim Meehan and Don Lee. I worked at Momofuku for nine years, so Dave Chang and I have been very close. He’s been a huge influence on me. I never worked for Sasha Petraske or Julie Reiner, but I’ve always looked to them as icons.
What was the turning point that led to building your own company and drink, Proteau?
I didn’t really want to bartend forever. Six years was enough for me. I wanted to bring what I had learned to more people — more than the people who were sitting in front of me at the bar every night. I’ve always had the idea in my mind to create a drink and I’ve always been interested in nonalcoholic cocktails. It’s such a fascinating category for me because it’s so hard to get right. It was an evolution of making 100 drinks per night to making one drink that gets sold across many states, in many bars and restaurants.
It’s really hard to describe what it is, since it’s not really like anything that’s come before it. Proteau is a bottled cocktail. It’s a blend of different botanicals that includes fancy vinegar and a fruit component. Proteau is the best of both worlds because it can be opened and poured and that’s it, but you also have the ability to use it as an ingredient and play with it however you want.
Other nonalcoholic products on the market are thought of as replacements for specific things like spirits. Proteau is meant to be its own thing. It doesn’t have any reference to something it’s replacing, which is cool, but also hard. It’s difficult to articulate exactly where it stands because you can’t compare it to anything that already exists. It’s exciting and terrifying at the same time.
I’ve always had an eye toward beverages as a culinary companion. Proteau is definitely meant to accompany food. When you go to a restaurant, they’ll have Diet Coke, sparkling water, and maybe an iced tea — a very uninspiring and sad offering. Meanwhile, they’ll have a lot of options for people who drink alcohol, so creating something to fit that occasion was really important to me. But it’s also meant to be drunk anywhere at any time. If you give people the idea that you can drink something really cool and unique and delicious that just happens to not have alcohol.
How was launching during the pandemic?
The full vision of the brand didn’t launch until July 2020, right in the middle of the pandemic. It was definitely meant to be a product that showed up in bars and restaurants so the strategy had to be revised a little bit. Fortunately, I had always wanted to build in direct-to-consumer capabilities. If you’re a nonalcoholic company, you can ship anywhere — there’s no weird legal stuff. We were an online-only brand until March of this year. We really didn’t get any wholesale or retail traction until then. Now, we’re starting to see wholesale distribution and exporting to Canada. Basically, the original plan got pushed back by a year.
You released your book during the pandemic, too?
My book came out in June 2020, so I had a lot of events lined up that didn’t actually happen. It was the layer of the pandemic where I couldn’t do traditional marketing, but I think the book was very well-timed because it was really about teaching people that if you don’t know anything about drinks and if you’re a total newbie, it’s not that hard and you can do it at home. There’s a lot of simple stuff you can do to make sure your drinks are great and it doesn’t need to be this massive challenge. So I think it was very well-suited to the at-home DIY vibe that everyone was working with and continues to work with.
And your nonprofit also grew a lot during the pandemic?
I co-founded a nonprofit that was designed to address quality of life issues in the restaurant industry called Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation. I started it with a group of restaurant industry people, as well as some nonprofit people. My husband has worked in philanthropy for two decades, so it was a nice pairing of our two worlds. It was intended to tackle broad-spectrum issues like wage fairness, gender equity, sexual violence prevention, and mental health assistance. Every social justice issue is maximized in the restaurant industry, so we wanted to raise money to give grants to nonprofits that are doing work in the areas that we care about, as well as direct advocacy and impact investing.
The organization was just a small part of my life before the pandemic. On March 15, 2020, we started a COVID fund and it really just took off. We have raised over $7.5 million so far for the fund to do direct assistance for restaurant workers, grants to nonprofits, and the zero-interest loan program. We’ve also raised almost $2 million outside of the fund, so we’ve hired an executive director and we have a full-time staff person now, which is amazing because we were all volunteers until very recently.
It has gone from a side project that didn’t have a ton of visibility to being everywhere. We got shoutouts on Jimmy Fallon, and we were getting donations from all over the place, from small donors to big companies and celebrities — it was crazy. That completely reshaped what I spend my time on, for the better. I wish the organization didn’t need to exist, but it does, so how I define success is fundraising.
Now, I think that the next phase for us is to parlay the attention and the platform to focus on the underlying issues that have been affecting restaurant workers for centuries, which was our original mission. These are problems that are not going away unless we actually work to undo the structures that are causing them to happen. We’re transitioning away from crisis relief toward structural change.
So what does a day at work look like for you now?
My day-to-day currently is four or five different semi-full-time jobs. For the nonprofit, I’m planning events, maintaining existing legacy relationships and conversations, and even doing tedious admin work. With Proteau, I’ve already created the recipes and the concept, so the fun stuff is completed. Not to say that what I’m doing now isn’t fun, but I did the creative work and now I’m selling the product and continuing to learn how to deliver the experience to people in the way that I want it to be — even when I’m not physically there. It’s been very fascinating to learn how the drinks industry works; there are challenges you face, especially as a nonalcoholic brand. Every day is a completely different experience.
I’m also now the resident drinks expert for Food52 and I do tons of cocktail writing for publications like Punch, Eater, Thrillist, and Bon Appétit. It’s very kaleidoscopic. I don’t know how it would’ve happened differently if there was no pandemic, but I think that the destabilizing effect of the pandemic made space for me to become more of a multi-hyphenate: I’m a drinks writer, entrepreneur, nonprofit founder, et cetera, et cetera.
What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve been given?
When I was working at PDT just twice a week, I was feeling really antsy and not busy. I was feeling like I wasn’t maximizing my time. Jim Meehan told me to work out like it was my job while I had the time because taking care of yourself is one of the best ways to be successful in the long term. I liked exercising before then, but I really took it to heart. Taking care of yourself is so important and you can’t overlook that for the idea of a career. If you achieve success, but you’re not mentally or physically where you want to be, that doesn’t seem worth it to me.
Morgan Goldberg is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles, California.
Photo of John deBary by Naima Green.