Chasing the Muse

Meet the Mixologist: Federico Montemayor, El Big Bad

From spilling drinks at Pappasito's to cucumber gimlets, get to know your bartender.

By Lauro Rojas September 11, 2017

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Federico Montemayor at work.

Image: Lauro Rojas

Federico Montemayor has charisma in spades. The local boy fell into the service industry, but now, he says he's here to stay.

Where are you currently working and how long have you been in the industry?

I’ve been in the industry for 11 years now and I’m currently working as the service manager at El Big Bad and picking up at Barringer Bar on the weekends.

What got you into the bartending industry?

My very first job ever was working at Pappasito’s, which was recommended to me by a classmate.  It was my very first job ever at 16 years old working as a host, then I fell into the industry [as a] career.

When did you know you could make a career of it?

Working at Pappasito’s, I made my way up from host and busser and started server training. A lot of people didn’t think I was going to make it as a server, including myself, but I stuck with it. My very first day of training as a server, I was asked to carry a cocktail tray full of drinks, and after picking up the first glass the entire tray collapsed onto one guest at the table.

Yikes! Had it been anyone else I’m sure they would have been terrified, run away from the industry and never looked back.

I said to myself, “I’m not going to give up on this. I’m just going to keep doing this until I’ve mastered every single position.” Through Pappas there’s a lot of room for growth in the company—they always focused in on that—I saw it and kept on doing it. Everyone was working up to become a bartender, manager, and I thought, why not me? So I stuck with it, moved up in the ranks and I started looking elsewhere, so I got a job at 300 Houston, because I was recommended to go work there by a bartender friend of mine. 

How did you transition to working behind the bar and taking part in competitions?

Bartending wasn’t even on my horizon until maybe my fifth year being in the industry and working at 300, slugging it out as a server. I got the opportunity to go work at Yardhouse, not because I wanted to but because a co-worker of ours, Cindy, wanted people to go apply with her. Working in CityCenter, I wound up at Flora & Muse and that’s where I really got my first exposure into craft cocktail bartending. I quickly rose up to the role of supervisor and bartender.  

It was the first place that really used craft cocktail ingredients. Now, we’re talking about it being 2010-2011—this is a good two or three years before Anvil and all these other craft cocktail bars exploded onto the scene.  Because I was able to break down the components in a cocktail just by looking at it and looking at the different liqueurs and spirits, I figured out how to manipulate the flavor profile on anything I was making, by adjusting the ingredients, the levels. Through that and helping out my liquor reps find a place for their products to be in my back bar at Flora & Muse, I got an invitation to go compete at a bartending competition for Bombay Sapphire.

I didn’t know much about Bombay Sapphire gin, this was back in 2011, and I didn’t even know bartending [competitions were] a thing.  I didn’t know bartenders competed against one another for most imaginative cocktail and it was during that event that I got to compete against some great minds, some of the movers and shakers for the cocktail scene, to this day, here in Houston.  I did rather well but I lost that competition to a gentleman named Robby Cook, who is now the president of the United States Bartending Guild, Houston Chapter and the owner of Barringer Bar. I was thrown in that world way before I even knew what it was. I got the invite and I said, "Yeah, I’ll go play," and it was during that competition that the secret judge was the then president of the USBG, who saw what I was about and what I had to offer and he extended an offer to me to join the bartending guild and he sponsored my first year’s membership. 

Is there a specialty cocktail on which you've put your own twist?  

My favorite cocktail to always play with has been the gimlet. Gin is one of my favorite spirits. I love the flavor profile, and to me, going back to the gimlet, you always know what it’s going to be. It’s gin, lime juice and sweetener; sometimes it’s simple syrup, turbinado syrup, and flavor-infused syrup or agave if you want. But if you ever want to figure out how a particular flavor is going to change a cocktail’s outcome, always have your control and have that cocktail be your control, for me it’s the gimlet. From there, go off and make something like a basil gimlet, cucumber gimlet, a basil-cucumber gimlet, because I always like playing with that cocktail first and foremost when finding a use for a new spirit or liqueur.  

Where do you see the industry 10 years from now?

In a time when anyone and everyone can open a craft cocktail bar or craft beer garden, what’s going to win everyone, especially with so much competition, will be customer service.  I feel we’ll become more guest/service friendly and a lot less craft-focused, I’d go so far as to say that we could go back to we were, like, in the '90s, closing the full cycle.

When you’re not working where do you like to go drinking?

Number one, Barringer, just because it’s a quiet, hidden gem in downtown.  It’s very industry-friendly.  Secondly, because it’s closer to home, I’ll drink at Radio Milano, which is the hotel bar in City Center. Third, El Big Bad, because I always stayed in the same little neighborhood. Even when I didn’t work here I used to come here all the time, it was one of my favorite haunts.

In your opinion what separates a bartender from a mixologist?

I don’t use the term “mixologist,” nor do I like it too much.  That being said, I think what separates those that are in it for the long haul and the ones who do it for the easy money is definitely an eagerness to take care of people, eagerness to learn and eagerness to be open and patient with not only your peers but your leaders and your clientele.  If you humble yourself first, that’s a sign that you’re in this for the long run. 

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