Food wise, I can hold my own in a conversation amongst laymen. My knowledge of anything libation related, however, be it wine, beer or cocktail? Kind of pathetic, really. For that reason, I depend on those who know a hell of a lot more. Enter Josh Cole, beverage director and assistant general manager at Puritan & Company in Cambridge. I had a chance to interview Josh a while back, just prior to Puritan launching their new cocktail program. We discussed the responsibilities of a beverage director, how he got his start in the industry, and his favorite food memories.
Behind the Pass: What does a beverage director do in a restaurant?
Josh Cole: For Puritan when we opened, as a beverage director, it was definitely more wine focused. We didn’t have a cocktail program. Now, as we open up a cocktail program and are hiring a bar manager or director, we’ll be overseeing that stuff to a large degree as well.
Larger places, like at Eastern Standard, you don’t have an overall beverage director that oversees wine and cocktails. It’s broken up. For a smaller restaurant, one role can usually handle all those things. As a small restaurant here, you can end up even doing more, so it’s beverage director and assistant general manager for me!
BtP: (Laughs) Yeah. I can imagine that keeps you a lot busier.
JC: For sure. You’re on the floor and not behind the bar. You’re not just talking wines with guests, you’re doing a lot of the other things too. But, in terms of being a beverage director here, it has to do with beer, wine, liquor ordering, drink pricing, inventory, menus, education, selling to tables, social media stuff based around that. It’s fun, though.
BtP: How did you get your start in the industry? Was it in a wine and cocktail program, or something else?
JC: I started off 16 years ago as a line cook in a little family run restaurant. It was relatives of mine in a little Italian place that had been in the family since 1930, so I started out in the kitchen.
As I got a little bit older, I was maybe 19 or 20, and my cousin called me. He was a bartender/bar manager at a restaurant down on the south shore. He said, “Hey, have you ever dreamt of being a bartender?” I was like “No, not at all. But I’ll give it a try anyway!” They had a little patio bar for me in the summer that I took care of during my first year back from college.
BtP: That’s cool.
JC: Yeah, it was. So, by the end of the summer, they decided to stop having any servers out on the patio, so it was just me taking care of the bar and the four tables. It was my space. It became a combination of being able to make things, which I enjoyed during my time in the kitchen, but then also taking on more of the hospitality side, which felt natural for me.
BtP: So that’s when you started to learn more about cocktails?
JC: I definitely learned in that whole process, but it was following some advice I got from Chris Schlesinger that really helped me out. He told me “Go over to Eastern Standard and get your ass kicked.”
BtP: I’ve heard of more than a few people that really cut their teeth at Eastern Standard.
JC: Yeah, that was really my first experience. I think that a lot of us can say that Eastern Standard is their first experience with cocktails.
BtP: It does seem like a lot of people have cut their team there. That’s where they cut their team is there.
JC: Yeah. There’s not many high quality cocktail bars that have a cocktail list that extensive, with service staff that needs to know so much, with Jackson Cannon sitting in the lineup quizzing you on drink recipes. That was really a new shift of direction for me. Learned a lot.
BtP: Where’d you go from there?
JC: I stayed at Eastern Standard for a while, but from there I went to Craigie on Main. I think that’s one of the first places I got my hands on more bottles of wine as I was server, reservations manager, floor manager, and I helped out a lot in the wine room. I think it was there that I got out of my comfort zone in terms of wine, so I learned a lot. That was that first restaurant where I had people get up after their meal and they’re shaking your hand saying, “Thank you, that was an incredible experience!” Knowing It was the wines that I’d picked to pair with Tony’s food. It was a pretty cool experience…
BtP: It had to be, I’m sure! Now, once you’ve come in here, obviously you started off focusing mostly on wine and beer since you didn’t have the cocktail license. From a pairing standpoint, what is it that you personally look for to match food to beverage?
JC: For this place, I guess walking in you might look at the list and be like I don’t recognize what any of that is.
JC: That’s totally by design. This list, to a degree, is supposed to be a conversation piece. It lets us actually try to help folks have the best experience and help open their eyes to something different than what they’re used to.
BtP: Definitely sounds like the first time I ate here! I remember thinking, “I have no idea what to order.”
JC: Yeah. So many people just blindly order the things that they know and understand. That’s obviously fine. It means you know what you like in that sense, but it doesn’t mean it’s the only thing you like. So when we started planning, I was like, “Let’s have some fun and get people out of their comfort zone, because it’s out of our comfort zone too. We’ll get to learn with them and share that.” More than anything, this is about Will’s food and picking out stuff that works well with that. He thinks in a very local way. So thinking the way people used to do things, like in Europe for example, you’re eating locally raised lamb or whatever. Well, most likely the grapes for the wine you’re drinking were growing on or near the same fields those lamb were raised on. Things just fit. So trying to find a way to do that with Will’s food is always the goal.
BtP: Is it hard to do that in New England?
JC: You can’t really do it with wine as much, so we consider what region a dish might have come from and then pick a wine that way. With beer on the other hand, we can really do it. Boston, Massachusetts and New England have an incredible beer scene. We’ve had a chance to be able to go and work really closely with the folks at Night Shift, Idle Hands, Mystic, and Jack’s Abby. These guys are doing some awesome stuff around here. It’s a lot of fun to work it out.
BtP: It’s awesome to see people enjoying what they do. It’s part of why I like coming to Puritan. So, my last question for you: Do you have a particular food-related memory that kind of stands out in your mind as being a favorite?
JC: I have two, actually. There’s the childhood one, for sure. My mom was one of nine kids. My grandmother moved from Texas when she was around 17 or 18 years old, so it was this combination of like big New England family with a southern hospitality thing mixed in.
Holidays were like a beast in themselves. I mean 45 people for Thanksgiving or Christmas, and watching my grandmother absolutely crushed it. That was every brunch too. Every Sunday morning you could show up at that house from 7 am to 2 in the afternoon and there’d always be a hot pot of coffee. It was this revolving door. The door was constantly open with people coming and going. That hospitality, especially as a kid, was so easy to absorb. Seeing how this is done, it’s a pretty special experience looking back at it now.
Then in a restaurant context for me, it was the first time I went to San Francisco, and went to pizzeria Delfina on 18th Street in the Mission. Ultimately I went and I worked for the company because I had such a great experience there.
I remember sitting there. There are six tiny tables in the dining room, in the restaurant, eight bar seats, counter seats over the kitchen and a couple seats outside. My girlfriend and I sat at the first two seats, so you’re right there next to a terminal and a bus bin and the counter and everything is happening around you.
I remember just kind of being like, “wow, this is so awesome!” I’ve never seen a staff so in tune with each other where everything that they did was completely in sync. Everyone was communicating so well. “I grabbed your check on this.” “I dropped your spice plate on that.” Everything was about communicating. And, there was almost a swagger. They were crazy busy, but they had a swagger that carried them through and basically got the point across that, “Yeah, we’re busy. But, we’re going to make this a great experience for you. It’s going to be awesome and you’re going to love it!” There was something about the hum and buzz of this restaurant that just put a smile on your face.
Those are those two moments; understanding how a little kidness goes a long way, and then there’s that professional side where you’re like, this is a pizza shop, but this is one of my favorite dining experiences I’ve ever had just because the people there were so great.
BtP: That’s awesome.
JC: I’ve never dined at a restaurant I’ve worked at more on my days off than that place Even years later when I went back. It was for all the same reasons that I’d love to get a bottle of rosé and some pizza, sit out on the patio and just watch it happen.
Josh is the Beverage Director and Assistant General Manager at Puritan & Company, located at 1166 Cambridge Street in Cambridge’s Inman Square.