Steven Yamada, local craft cocktail impresario who has worked at Restaurant R'evolution, Tivoli & Lee, and Victory has upped his game considerably with his new position as the co-GM and head bartender at eagerly anticipated tiki bar and restaurant Latitude 29. This altar to the tiki gods was conceived and spearheaded by writer and island cocktail culture guru and mixologist Jeff "Beachbum" Berry, and Berry's wife, Annene Kaye will be working with Yamada overseeing the operations. Twelve Mile Limit's Chris Shortall is developing a "PolynAsia" menu, and three other staff positions were just announced in the front and back of house.
Below, Yamada takes some time to bring Eater readers up to speed on the project, as well as share one of his most embarrassing bartender stories from back in his youth. (Hint: it involves Hurricanes)
How are things progressing at Latitude 29?
Things are going great. We moved equipment in today, still working on making it all fit. Electrical is good, and the plumber is working with the carpenter right now to get that part done. It's my first experience of being part of such a large transformation - for a long time, looking around at everything that needed to get done, it was like, this'll never be done. But over time, it's gone from being totally overwhelming to, wow, this is actually happening!
Any hints about what to expect on the menu?
Well, the menu is still very much under development, but one photo that we posted on Tales of the Cocktail's Facebook page was of the ribs, which is a classic tiki restaurant offering, going back to Trader Vic's. But we wanted to make these petite cut ribs, because they'd be easier to eat. I mean, regular ribs aren't great date food, or good for a nicer dining experience, they're big and messy. But these ribs are perfect for what we are going for.
How did you get involved with Jeff Berry to become the co-manager/head bartender?
I actually met Annene [Kaye, Berry's wife) first, when I first got into craft cocktails. I've been bartending in New Orleans for a long time, but when I got into the craft cocktail scene, my first job doing that was at Daniel Victory's bar [Victory] on Baronne Street. Back then, there weren't a ton of jobs for craft cocktail bartenders, I think it was mostly Victory and French 75 at that time. So it took some time for me to find this job, and it was a great opportunity for me. Wayne Curtis actually introduced me to Annene, with me not knowing at all who she was. She came in several times, and we had a great rapport. Then she introduced me to Jeff, and again, I didn't know who he was, which led to one of my most embarrassing bartender stories.
When I asked Jeff what he'd like, he just said, "well, I like rum," and in my cocky new craft cocktail way, I said, "Oh, I bet you've never had a classic hurricane, the way it's supposed to be." [Laughs.] He doesn't say anything, just orders the drink, I make it, and he seems to like it. We talk for a while, I tell him about how I was in engineering school, but that I hated college and dropped out to become a bartender. When I ask what he does, he tells me he's a writer, and that he writes cocktail books, and names them. "OH MY GOD YOU'RE JEFF BERRY AND I HAVE ALL YOUR BOOKS AND JUST TOLD YOU THAT YOU'VE NEVER HAD A CLASSIC HURRICANE."
Pretty soon after that, we started talking about opening a bar. He had such an amazing vision and concept. Then I got really involved in USBG [United States Bartending Guild, of which Yamada is the New Orleans chapter president] and started bartending at R'evolution, while we're talking about how we're going to open this bar. They took a big chance on me.
Are you developing any special cocktails, or will it all be Jeff's recipes?
All bartenders will have the opportunity to contribute to the menu - we've got such a great bar team, so not to use their experience is a wasted opportunity - but the main menu is going to feature Jeff's cocktails. I mean, that's who people are coming to see. All these other tiki bars owe a lot to Jeff - he did all the research and brought these recipes back. The majority of the cocktails, though, will be Jeff's original creations, which is awesome.
What are you looking forward to the most once Latitude 29 opens?
Finally delivering on the expectations that people have of this place. It's going to be such a cool opportunity. And we have a fantastic local following, people who love the bar and restaurant scene, who are going to love it. Also, introducing people to tiki culture, that's going to be fantastic. Having Jeff's reputation, you have no idea who will be coming in - a bartender from New York or brand ambassadors or whoever else. We're looking to create a great experience for everyone - everyone will be treated like a VIP. People have been waiting a long time for this.
What is your projected timeline for opening?
End of October, I don't want to be any more specific than that. We don't want to do a soft opening, or go half speed. We want to open and hit the ground running, so we want to make sure we have enough time to do it right.