Rising from server to bar manager to general manager in a span of just a few short years, The Original El Taco's Kit Lewis is a fan of porches, mezcal, and music. Here, he chats about his foray into the cocktail business, his mentors, and why the Sazerac is the perfect cocktail.
What's your role with Fifth Group Restaurants?
I am the general manager of El Taco, but since I have so much cocktail experience, right now I'm kind of doing double duty, pretty much everything there, including the drink menu.
How did you get started in the cocktail business?
I was heavily involved in the music scene. I'm a music major from Georgia State. I was an actively working engineer and producer when I was in college, and I was serving just to get by, because it was easy money. My father made beer, and so I started making beer, too, kind of as a side project. I started to get really interested in that, and then I got a job at McCormick & Schmick's at CNN Center, and that opened my eyes up to casual fine dining. From then, I worked my way up and started bartending, and I could see that I could directly impact guests and what people drink. I was really a geek about it. I would go home and google things and watch YouTube to learn new things to make and suggest to people. I love that moment when you develop rapport with your clients, and people start realizing "wow, this guy does know what he's talking about," and then I start leading people down what I call "the path of righteousness," or "well, I know you asked for this, but here's what I would do if I were you."
I was in corporate training at McCormick and Schmick's, lead bartender there, and by that time we had my son, who is now 9, and he was 2, and I had graduated from college. That was the time when the economy was in the toilet, and I was looking around, and here I was, an arts major and making double what my friends were making in entry-level corporate jobs. So I thought I should think restaurant management. There's stability there. At the time, [Fifth Group Restaurants' Mexican concept Alma Cocina] had just opened, and my wife Jennifer said to me, "Why don't you reach out and see if they're looking for a bar manager?" So I called up and sent my resume in, and they already had their staff in place, but asked me to bartend.
So I went to Alma, and it was kind of Fifth Group's first foray into fast, efficient, and high-end craft cocktails. They were doing some cool things. I had a really heavy background in cocktail, so I dove head first into it and established a really nice bar program there. So from there, I was looking at getting into management. And then the position at El Taco opened up, and they asked me if I wanted to be the bar manager there, and I said "sure thing," and I went over there and was the beverage manager for two years, and as of February, I'm the GM. I went from being a bartender to a general manager in two years.
What have you done with the bar program there that you're really proud of or excited about?
It's really about educating people and leading them down the right path. So nothing too crazy. First of all, people don't go there to see you stir a Sazerac 80 times. They want margaritas and fried chicken tacos. The thing I'm most proud of is expanding the mezcal selection. One of my favorite things I did was a cocktail called The Smoking Jacket. I used Del Maguey Mezcal, New Holland gin, and a rosemary syrup. I loved the combination of the smokiness from the mezcal, the sweetness from the agave, the New Holland — which is more pine than juniper — and when I sip that drink, I envision a guy sitting on a stump in the middle of the woods in the winter, burning pine trees and warming his hands and sipping this cocktail, and man, that's exactly where I want to take somebody. I think the best thing I've done is use simple, everyday ingredients in that way.
What do you like to drink when you're at home?
I am a very simple person at home. Usually I get home at 2 a.m. after a 14-hour day, and I want an ice cold Yuengling and whatever bourbon I have lying around. Also, I recently got back from Mexico, and they have blanco blanco [tequila], which you can't even get in the United States. It's like 94 proof, almost fresh from the still, a little bit of water in it, and it has this really funky, pure agave flavor to it, so I'll drink that by itself. Or, some Four Roses neat and go to bed. On my porch.
Who are your mentors?
Dave Blosky, the general manager of Red Brick right now. When I was at McCormick's, he really supported me. He was lead bartender, then bar manager. He and I spent a lot of time together, putting together some crazy cocktails. He's an interesting guy — former military, then became a sommelier. How do you go from jumping out of planes to being a sommelier? He liked cigars and stuff like that. He gave me a lot of random knowledge of things. He was a good person to lead.
Vajra Stratigos, our beverage director at Fifth Group. He's super passionate about his work. We have super-animated conversations. I love the way he describes and sees things in a similar way that I do. It's not like "oh, this a hoppy IPA." He says things like "I taste a bit of burnt rubber in there, and a little bit of mezcal."
You mentioned that you lived near H. Harper and are a big fan of Jerry [Harper] and that place. What other places are your favorites in Atlanta?
The Sound Table is one of my favorite places in the world. Amazing music, amazing food. Karl [Injex] is amazing, the drinks are really, really good. Navarro [Carr] and Nate [Shuman] were both there when I first went, and I had great conversations with them, just soaking up all of this information, and it gave me a chance to nerd out. There was great sense of community. Over there, I could talk about why the Sazerac is the perfect cocktail; it's my favorite cocktail in the world.
Why is that?
It has everything. The spirit speaks loud. It's drinkable. It takes me to New Orleans, but I see myself on a rocking chair in New Orleans, sipping a Sazerac.