A busy evening at the Strip Club Meat & Fish in St. Paul carries voices glinting off Gothic metalwork, tempting scents wafting through the air, and a constant clink of glassware. Behind the bar, with his trademark impish grin and his collection of original cocktail recipes, is Dan Oskey, recognized as one of the best drink slingers in town. "The other night we were packed, and I don't think anyone was ordering drinks off the menu. Everyone was asking for something unique and different--I lost count. I know we had one table full of people having a great time. They had 36 different cocktails." He's also quick to point out that the party in question wasn't driving. That's the kind of creativity and attention to detail Oskey shows behind the bar.
We caught up with him during the daylight hours and talked physics, piranha, and curried Pisco.
[jump] Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Shoreview. I went to Mounds View High School and then to Madison for college. That was where the love of bartending came from, when I worked at the university catering. I'd worked in restaurants my whole life.
In Madison I worked at this Middle Eastern restaurant/hooka bar. It's still there, but it's totally different. It was there that I had my first experience using spices in drinks. Like we had a drink that used orange water.
What did you go to school for?
I changed my major a lot. Physics to English to marketing, but I wish I'd stuck with English. Once I was done with school I moved to Boston.
How did you end up in Boston?
I'd spent a summer working at a restaurant in Cape Cod. That was when I started moving from back of the house to front of the house, doing some expiditing. It was the first time I was exposed to all of these foods. It was the first time I had oysters, French cuisine... It was the best summer of my life.
I was the manager at a French Brasserie in Boston and did a little bartending, but the management side burned me out.
A couple of years later I came back to Minnesota.
When did you make the leap back into the business?
It was with the Blue Plate Company. A friend of mine was managing at the Longfellow Grill and they needed a bar manager. It was quick. I think I thought about it for about an hour and said yes.
It was really the begining of a new era. I worked with Birk (Grudem) and ended up meeting all of the Town Talk crew. Nick (Kosevich) and Tim (Niver) expanded our horizons. This was 2005-2006. Not a lot of people were making their own stuff like tonic or bitters.
I went to South America for about four months. Drinking wine, eating piranha. ... It was really fun.
Before the Strip Club opened, you had another offer to work elsewhere, where was that?
At the Ivy, I talked to them about being the bar manager at Porter & Frye. They were great people. I already knew Tim, but it was when I talked to J.D. (Fratzke) and heard him talk about the food that I knew that the Strip Club was where I wanted to be. We make our own sour, ginger beer, we started making sodas, tonic...
The tonic you have at the Strip is amazing.
It's what tonic was 120 years ago. You know, with a lot of these things we have the raw ingredients, do the research, and try to come up with what it tasted like. And the thing is, it will never be exactly the same. History is very quickly lost.
It's like Matt's and the 5*8--you'd think it wouldn't be that hard to figure out who came up with the first Juicy Lucy. You'd think you could look that up, but no one can agree on which came first. Everything gets muddied.
The other thing is that chefs and bartenders we all ... I don't want to say "steal," but we borrow a bit of someone's idea and then put our own spin on it.
The other difficulty is that all flavors have likely been done before, to some extent. Have you ever created a truly original cocktail that wasn't based on another drink?
The Curried Pisco--that had never been done. I've never seen curry in a cocktail. There was no precident. I made curried bitters. Tim, Bill, and myself, we just ran the bar all day: "Maybe this will work." I think it was Bill who said, "Try using Pisco." I added Velvet Falernum. It was the only drink I've made that was completely from a clean slate, started from scratch, not starting from something else.
What kind of curry was it?
A mix of yellow and green curry, cumin, coriander, cardamom. We kept it on the menu for about a year.
It's been an awesome ride at the Strip Club. It's basically the same front-of-house staff we've had since opening. I love the food, drinks, what we do. It's really refreshing. With Tim and J.D. at the helm, no one ever gets lazy. We're always trying to come up with a new, better menu. We love what we do.
Join us tomorrow for Part 2, when we talk to Oskey about his new Joia Soda venture.