This week we're taking a little detour off the normal wining and dining road to ponder the age-old question: "What happens when you're in wine country and you can't possibly bring yourself to drink another glass of wine?" What you do is seek out Gabe Pimentel. Gabe mans the bars at both Whitehouse-Crawford in Walla Walla and Jimgermanbar in Waitsburg so if you're a fan of good food and booze, he's kind of hard to miss. Also hard to miss is the bright smile and obvious love of his craft that make Gabe one of Eastern Washington's favorite mixologists.
A face you can trust.
What was the first drink you ever made?
I made pretty terrible drinks at first, I don't remember what the first one was. I had never bartended and had worked at Whitehouse-Crawford for a month and a half as a server and then they needed somebody to bartend. So when I started I had a list of five drinks that the previous bartender told me were all that people ordered there. So he gave me this list that was: a Manhattan, a Lemon Drop, and Old Fashioned...and I can't remember the others - but I still have that list. So I just read books and researched - right away I threw myself into it. I was super serious because I was wearing a shirt and tie, and I was excited about it. I once had a margarita turned back, I had made it so badly that she didn't want another one. She asked for a glass of Chardonnay. But see, a margarita wasn't on my list.
So on your first day did people order everything BUT those five drinks you were supposed to know?
No, because they gave me the slow days - you know, because I didn't know anything.
What did you do when someone would order 'off' The List?
Well, now everyone has phones so I would look it up. Or, I would just ask them how it's made. Since I now work at two places that are very different, I don't get a lot of requests that I don't know or that I can't just be creative with. The event weekends are the crazy weekends though, people want drinks with weird names or named after body parts - the Long Island Ice Teas and that kind of thing. But only every once in awhile.
Are there drinks people want that give you a headache to make because they are so complex?
No, not anymore. For a while I resisted some things though - like I didn't like to do anything with pineapple juice because it is canned. I liked to just use fresh juices. Then after a while I was like, "You know, I'm not going to get all worked up over it." If someone wants something and knows what they like - or if people request maraschino cherries - I just do it now. That's more important than me having standards and being like, "I'm not going to make that drink." But like with Long Islands, you do kind of have to watch it - maybe someone only gets two.
Really, only two?
Well yeah, especially if they're driving. If it's a really strong drink that goes down easy. I just have heard that other bartenders refuse to make something and that to me is contrary to what the bartender's job is, you know? So if we have it, we'll do it. We have a joke at Whitehouse-Crawford about Appletini's - but we do have a bottle of apple liqueur.
Do you like the challenge of people who come in and just say "I like gin. Can you make something with it?"
At Jimgermanbar that's the thing to do because they know at that bar you can just tell us a couple things and we like to do riffs. One time, someone gave us "diamond, sparkle, glamour" so we did drinks based on that. Or we'll get - well, all kinds of stuff, like colors. Someone will want a riff on a drink that's a certain color. A couple weekends ago I had a boyfriend and girlfriend in and she wanted a drink based on Prince and he wanted one based on Tom Waits so, people have fun with it. We have fun with it!
What would you make me right now?
You are wearing um...stripes and butterflies? So Jim German does a Farfalle drink (which is butterfly in Italian) but I am thinking the stripes are kinda sailor-y so maybe a Navy grog or something like that?
The "on" time and "off" time for you are pretty distinct. Do you have a favorite time of year?
Every time of year. Because when it's busy is really fun, but when it's slow it's fun too because the crowds are different. The event weekends are different because people come in with an idea already of what they want already. Off nights are when people don't have such expectations and are ready to have an experience and say, "We put it in your hands". Last year I worked at three places at once so at certain points, I would see people three times in one weekend - at my grandma's restaurant (Rositas), Whitehouse-Crawford, and Jimgermanbar. So by the end of the weekend they're like, "We know you - just do whatever."
So that's why so many people know you, even though you're not on Facebook?
I've joked that people might think Walla Walla is a little Truman Show-ish because I'll see them at dinner, then at breakfast the next day, then at service that night and it's like they keep running into the same person. A lot of the winemakers and people in town will recommend certain places to visitors and I just happen to be at some that come highly recommended. Walla Walla is small and intimate and I like to go to the places that a visitor would come to too - I want to have breakfast at Bacon and Eggs too!
I'm not on Facebook because I'm a luddite. I don't have anything to say, even right now, I'm searching for stuff to say to you. I guess because I talk all day at my job, I have nothing left afterwards to tell to people. I want to be connected - just once I'm done at work I have nothing else to say and it's quiet time for me.
What's your favorite thing to do on your one day off?
I cram as much as I can into that day - so I will eat and drink as much as I can on Tuesdays. It's the same when tourist season is over here. We get our break in January, so I try and cram as much in then as I can. I like to travel so I'll go somewhere that I can be surrounded by wine, beautiful food, great service, amazing experiences and just hang out with friends.
In addition to Whitehouse-Crawford and the Jimgermanbar, do you also still work at your grandma's restaurant, Rosita's?
Since I haven't figured out how to clone myself - though I do love being there - I don't get scheduled nights anymore. I did do the seven nights a week thing for a few months but my grandma's awesome and she was the one that offered to give me the night off. But I like to work there because it's like family time. And with her customers too - it's also like family time because it's families that have grown up going there; people I have seen grow up and people who have seen me grow up. And that's why I like the other places that I work at too. Jimgermanbar feels very much like my grandmas in that we are like three or four of us working there at a time - we're busser, cook, server, dishwasher all in like 15 minutes, so that's how I kinda developed that work ethic - that if something needs to be done you do it. They're your family and you all play a part.
How do you feel when you're manning the bar, and it's packed, but you look out and the dining room is empty? It seems like it would be pretty flattering...
Well, it's different because Whitehouse is a beautiful space but it's so big, even if you had 20 people in the dining room it might look empty. Everything that's happening right now is not just me, but the whole valley getting recognition and getting attention. I think it's flattering - but it's a lot of people pursuing their passion and I'm just in the middle of it. If they get rewarded by people wanting to come here or recognizing them, that's just where I happen to be in the middle of it. I'm trying to get past the, "Oh, shucks, it's not me, it's the restaurant I'm working at and its reputation." So I am happy and kind of still a little uncomfortable with any attention.
I've been working hard at this and it's something I like. But, for me, it's been such a short term thing...I mean, my family's had their restaurant for 45 years so I dunno, I feel lucky that I've had this inclination towards this service I offer, I guess? Still, it doesn't feel like it's a big deal. I just want to be a facilitator for people having a good experience whether they're regulars or here for the first time.
Well obviously people are impressed with the quality of your work - weren't you invited to participate in a cocktail competition - Bartenders on Fire! - in Seattle recently?
Yeah, so Dragos Axinte from Novo Fogo put on a cocktail competition last October. I had met him when he came to Jimgermmanbar and he liked the bar and that it was this kind of this oasis in the middle of nowhere in Waitsburg. So I guess he got this idea for a competition between bartenders, with all the proceeds going to charity, but that included bartenders from way outside of Seattle. So it was me, Jay Keuhner from Sambar, Keith Waldbauer from Liberty, Jim Romdall from Vessel, David Shenaut from Rum Club in Portland, and Chris Keil from 1022 South in Tacoma.
So you were really the outsider in that competition! How'd it go? Would you do it again?
I would do it again, but I would do it differently. I would eat something and also have a drink, for sure. I was the very last person to go and I broke a glass in the ice well. I can laugh about it now but everyone was laughing - except for Justin, the bar manager at Vito's. He was like, "Really, did you just do that?" It was bad. But then afterwards - it was my birthday, and no one knew it - we all went out and it was awesome to hang out with that little family of its own. I don't know if I would do it again - though I did really want to win a trip to Willows - but just going and seeing other bars and being behind other people's bars and seeing how their reality is, is super cool.
If you could be behind any bar in the world, where would you go?
Holy moly. Um...maybe Angel's Share in NYC? It is super cool. It's like a Japanese cocktail bar and sometimes the guys wear lab coats - they are super precise and their drinks are immaculate. But, I don't really know. I work at such small, great bars that I can't picture another bar that I would want to be at. It has to just happen I guess. Even if it was just a beer and shots place - as long as it's cool.
What's your favorite kind of drink to make for other people?
For me it doesn't matter. I like to make all drinks. I'm trying to imagine one that I "look cool" making though...maybe trying to wake egg whites up or something. I can't imagine people look all that cool shaking stuff.
If you could be doing anything else in the world what would you do/be?
Playing drums for The Clash!
What's your favorite drink to have when you get home after a long night?
Something super fancy! First, I open a bottle of hoppy beer. And that's it. If I want to get really super fancy, maybe with a little short of rum. Or tequila. Or whiskey. I can't imagine too many bartenders that go home after work and make themselves a Mai Tai.