Justin Pike of Tasting Kitchen is L.A.'s best bartender
On Sunday afternoon, I served as a judge for Table 20's second-annual L.A.'s Best Bartender Competition. For the contestants, the process has been a long one, beginning with initial nominations from the public in early August and ending at Elevate Lounge, where five finalists went head-to-head in a battle of fast and furious mixology for a panel of six judges.
The winner was Justin Pike, who currently administers alcohol-enhanced joy to patrons of the Tasting Kitchen in Venice. Runner-up was Joe Brooke from the Next Door Lounge; third place was Devon Tarby of Varnish; fourth place went to Brian Summers of Harvard & Stone; and Daniel Zacharczuk from Bar & Kitchen at the O Hotel took fifth place.
Just getting into the top five was an accomplishment, so the rest was icing on the cake, although Pike was clearly thrilled to have won the grand prize, which was an all expenses-paid trip to the 2012 Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, the Manhattan Cocktail Classic or the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
The afternoon's events unfolded over nearly three hours, with each competitor having 20 minutes to present six drinks to the judges. In addition to myself, the judges were Matthew Biancaniello, a bartender at the Roosevelt Room and last year's winner; Dale DeGroff, known as King Cocktail and the only bartender to ever win a James Beard award; Johnny Iuzzini, a pastry chef and judge of "Top Chef Just Desserts"; Bricia Lopez, the stunning and vivacious restaurateur behind Guelaguetza; and Marcos Tello, a top L.A. bartender and the president of the L.A. chapter of the U.S. Bartenders' Guild.
The judges would order three classic cocktails such as a Manhattan, a martini or a mojito; as well as two bartender's choice creations, which could be anything the bartender wanted to dream up to really wow us; and one drink made from Karlsson's Gold vodka, which sponsored the event. Points were awarded based on the bartender's demeanor, speed, cleanliness, creativity and overall drink deliciousness.
Judging was tough, to be sure, with each participant bringing a special style and personality to the day's proceedings. There were plenty of nerves on display as well. Anybody who has ever bartended (or has loved someone who has), knows that working a bar under pressure is intense business. Which is why coming into an unfamiliar bar and trying to work magic can be particularly unnerving.
In the end, Pike came out on top due to a meticulous and engaging presentation of fully realized drinks in attractive glassware with appropriate garnish. He even had intricate recipe cards that he handed to the judges to explain what they were drinking. Look for a billboard of him to go up somewhere in the city in the coming days.
When the votes came in and the bar closed up, most everybody went back to Varnish to celebrate. DeGroff made a guest appearance behind the bar, where Eric Alperin was holding court. Cedd Moses mingled for a while as well. Things were still going strong when I left around midnight. Hey, a girl's gotta sleep!
-- Jessica Gelt
Photos: From top to bottom, Justin Pike works the bar during the competition; the contestants line up to hear the winners announced, from left, Brian Summers, Joe Brooke, Devon Tarby, Daniel Zacharczuk and Pike; Summers hard at work during the competition. Credit: Jessica Gelt / Los Angeles Times.