Robb Jones ambles into Saffron in the early afternoon and immediately takes command of his bar, simmering simple syrups and prepping herbs and brews. His cocktails are carefully built from extensive knowledge; he reads everything he can get his hands on about the craft.
Our 2013 Best Bartender, Jones is now getting noticed on a national stage. He was in the Top 10 at the prestigious Bombay Sapphire Gin and GQ sponsored Most Inspired Bartender competition in Las Vegas this year (just barely missing the chance to compete on a world-wide level). His expertly mixed drinks have the local liquorati at attention.
Jones took a moment to tell us about his journey from the back of the kitchen to behind the bar.
Hot Dish: So, first for the question on everyone's mind: Where did the extra "b" in your first name come from?
RJ: It wasn't me, it was a dental hygienist. I was trying to grow out of Robby and into Robert. She wrote it down as "Robb" and I thought, "You can have two bs? I didn't even know that was an option! That's awesome."
HD: Where did you grow up?
Robb Jones: White Bear Lake. The old 55110.
HD: Did you grow up in a food-focused family?
RJ: No. Not at all. I hated food. I wouldn't eat for shit. You can ask my mom. I ate like five things. Peanut butter sandwiches. Simek's meatballs and those cocktail weenies.... Pop Tarts and cereal. I was an only child. I had no idea about food.
I remember once eating at McDonald's and, like, eating a McNugget (I think they were actually made with chicken back then) was a big deal. I remember, I was eating a McNugget and I looked inside of it and it looked like a fish tail. I lost my shit, thinking there was a fish tail in my food. There was nothing they could do. My dad tried to tell me, but I remember it perfectly. I thought there was a fish tail in there. So I hated McDonald's. School field trips, it would be a big deal that we'd all stop at McDonald's, and I wouldn't eat anything.
HD: What was your first job in the industry?
RJ: I worked at McDonald's.
HD: Of course you did!
RJ: I did. I was 15.
HD: You hated the food. What made you want to work there? Was it to find the source of the fish tails?
RJ: Yes. No, it was my first real job and all my friends worked there. Me and my friends all running this McDonald's. It was all great until I think I had to empty and clean out all the grease traps. Gross. From there I went to my second industry job, Pizza Man. I was making way too much money, like just cash everywhere. Considering gas was 98 cents back then it was just ridiculous... and awesome.
HD: How did you become a chef?
RJ: Well, I knew I wanted to go to culinary school. I'd already had a little bit of cooking experience. I decided to go to school in Arizona because I was sick of winter. Before that, I went to Europe and ate and traveled around. I decided that this is what I really wanted to do as a career. I remember eating incredible food there that was just like nothing I'd ever had before.
After I graduated I was working in a very traditional, white linen, highly rated restaurant. We'd all be out back, in the desert midday heat tournee-ing potatoes. You know what that is? You peel a potato and then it has to have these exact sides and it's really hard! I'm like out there in the coat and the hat and sweating, thinking, "Why are we doing this? It's so... hard."
The chef came out. He was Scottish and had this really thick Scottish accent and was yelling at all of us, "What are you doing?! This is wrong. Why can't you do this? It's so simple, see?" And he would take the potato and the knife and do the whole thing behind his back in, like a minute. And it was perfect! That was the worst part of the job. If you were in trouble, you'd be out there in the sun for like hours and hours. To this day, if I see a tourneed potato I'm really impressed. For most people, it's just a potato. They have no idea how much time that one piece took.
Hot Dish: How did you find your way back to Minnesota?
RJ: My parents were here. I began to feel really bad that I'm the only kid and I was so far away. Plus, my dad... I'm really close with my dad.
HD: When did you make the transition from behind the line to behind the bar?
RJ: I was cooking at Bradstreet Craftshouse. I loved hanging out with Toby [Maloney]. I asked him if I could try it out. It began with me being behind the bar just a couple of days a week, and eventually they needed a manager and they asked me if I would be interested. I had no idea what I was doing. I ran it like I would run a kitchen and the way I ran a kitchen was a lot of yelling at people. I was kind of a dick. And I couldn't figure out why I kept losing people. I got the hang of it.
HD: Who do you think is the best bartender in town right now?
HD: What was it like to learn that you were City Pages' Best Bartender?
RJ: I thought I'd kind of peaked. I was shocked, really surprised. It was cool.
HD: But you clearly hadn't peaked. You went on to make that watermelon, dill, infused gin concoction that got you a free trip to Las Vegas courtesy of Sapphire.
RJ: I think I'm way better than I was last year. I mean, it's all about learning more and studying. This year I would be much more prepared for that [Best Bartender] than I was last year.
HD: Well, maybe you'll get it again. I think Dan Oskey of the Strip Club got Best Bartender twice.
RJ: Wait, you can get it twice? Oh, I'm the best then. Yes. Totally me.
HD: So, maybe you haven't peaked after all?
RJ: Definitely not yet.