Vikram Hegde never planned to get into bartending. It was supposed to be just an easy side job to fill his time as he applied for jobs in publishing.Right off the bat, he learned it wasn't easy. Then, he learned he liked it.
Vikram Hegde never planned to get into bartending. It was supposed to be just an easy side job to fill his time as he applied for jobs in publishing.
Right off the bat, he learned it wasn't easy. Then, he learned he liked it.
"It was definitely a lot more fun and engaging than I thought," Hegde said, sitting in a stool at Island Creek Oyster Bar, where he now works as general manager some 12 or 13 years after taking his first job in the restaurant industry at the Prudential Center's Cheesecake Factory.
He didn't immediately realize that this was where he belonged, but when a staff shortage placed him behind the bar, Hegde stepped into the job.
"It was really, really hard for about two months, and then I finally got the first person who said, ‘This is the best cosmo I've ever had,' and I was hooked from that point on," he said.
After six years, he moved from the Cheesecake Factory to Back Bay's Post 390 as an opening bartender, where he developed original cocktails for a menu for the first time. Island Creek came calling in 2010, eager to put his experience with openings to work. There, he said, he experienced a new level of expertise behind the bar.
"I was very blown away by the educational program that they had going on here," he said. "It was incredible the level of knowledge that I saw that I didn't have but could. Because before I started working here, I would look at any bar job and be like, ‘It's all the same, everybody's doing the same thing, it's just their recipes are different.' And then I got here and saw that everything was just a little bit more thought out. The reasoning behind what we do and why we do it was a lot more of a focus. Why do we shake, why do we stir — those were things that I never even put any thought towards until I started working with these guys," he said.
In his three years tending bar at Island Creek, Hegde expanded his knowledge, developed his expertise, and embraced the study of the bartending craft to develop his own theories of cocktail-making.
"I am a firm believer that it doesn't necessarily matter how your technique is if the drink tastes good or if you're just a personable bartender. That's more important. But having all that knowledge behind you, it helps," he said.
At the heart of Hegde's knowledge lies a principle of simplicity. When he started at Island Creek, he learned from Jackson Cannon, who oversees the restaurant's beverage program. Cannon had developed a written guide for new bartenders, based on proportion theory — that is, on harnessing the power of the ingredients to build cocktails on the strength of their flavor.
"The way it was broken down was so simple, and it blew away anything that I had been making in the past by just simplifying how we put everything together, so it was easier to remember, and the theory just made more sense," Hegde said.
This became a mark of quality bartending for Hegde.
"As boring as it sounds, that was really what kind of intrigued me, was being able to maintain a level of consistency at a high level," he said.
Learning that kind of consistency is still part of the program at Island Creek, where five experienced bartenders oversee protégés and teach them the craft.
"We want people to learn our style and our technique and give them a little bit more time to do that, sort of be taken under the wing of the people who've been doing it for a little bit longer," Hegde said.
As for the cocktail menu at Island Creek, simplicity is again the word. The restaurant has pared down its list to about seven or eight cocktails, plus additional standard drinks.
"But we want to really focus on having great cocktails," Hegde said. Island Creek also offers an extensive wine list, which pairs well with the light seafood served. He said he has been taking charge of menu planning, but wanted to start farming that job out to the bar staff, "because they're getting the better perspective of what people are interested in across the bar," he said.
Mastering consistency behind the bar and simplicity in all areas of the restaurant business helped transition Hegde into a career bartender — a badge he reveres. He said he hoped preconceived notions that bartenders just work to get through school were falling by the wayside.
"It's been a long time since I've had someone ask, ‘What else do you do?'" he said. "But I think that nowadays, a lot of bartenders have chosen this as their career. It's what they want to be doing."
And they do it with flare.
"When I first started here and I learned how to shake with one hand and stir with the other, the first time someone saw that and was like, ‘What are you doing?' — that was one of the best feelings I ever had back there," Hegde said.
As a big proponent of the show behind the bar, Hegde said he considered every bartending tool valuable, but none more so than the personality of the bartender. "And I think that you can showcase that with your mastery of the actual tools and the craft," he said.
Hegde used to be a product guy, showcasing how much he knew about what he was pouring. Now, he's all about creating an experience.
"Ideally the couple sitting here will end up becoming friends with the couple sitting there because I'll start a conversation with them and bring the other people into it, and then I can walk away and let them create the situation," he said, but he still manages to pull in that product knowledge. "If I can geek out about a wine or a beer or something like that in the hopes of getting everybody engaged and start talking to each other, that's more of the end goal, rather than talking to hear myself talk," he said.
After three years at Island Creek, Hegde eventually become head bartender. Then, in 2013, he shipped his talents across the river to Sarma in Somerville, where he oversaw the restaurant's beverage program. Two months ago, he made his return to Island Creek as general manager after former GM Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli moved on from the job. Though Hegde's role now stretches beyond the bar to the entire restaurant, he said he still likes to jump behind the bar now and then.
"I probably shouldn't be back there too much because I'm kind of just getting in the way now, but it is fun to get back there and mix drinks every once in a while," he said.
Otherwise, he oversees everything.
"It's not as fine a touch on any one section of the restaurant," he said. "I have to have my finger on the pulse of everything, which has been the big challenge, because there are aspects of the restaurant that I never really had to deal with."
It's an adjustment, he said, but he relies on the same principles he acquired as a bartender: knowledge, artistry, simplicity, and now empathy, something he feels he's developed more and more over the years that plays a large part in his role as general manager at Island Creek.
"I think that I became more open-minded towards guests," he said. "The idea of hospitality has become more ingrained in me, and it's a little bit of a broader scope now, where I try to be a bit more understanding and more empathetic."
And it goes both ways: Hegde said he's seen a perspective shift over the years, where patrons are showing more respect towards service people.
"That respect is manifesting more in a level of trust and a level of understanding that there is a certain amount of expertise that we carry. Rather than just being order-takers, we're people who can guide and create an experience for you," he said. "And I think that the best dining experiences are the ones where they turn over that level of control to their servers because they know the menu top to bottom, how to create an experience for you."
That exchange, mutual respect, and hospitality is what Hegde said drew him to the bar in the first place.