Elvis has left the building.
Last weekend, the Los Angeles bar community said bon voyage to two incomparable bartenders: Julian Cox and Kristina Howald. Their Saturday night shift at The Fiscal Agent and a packed gathering at Petty Cash the following night marked their final weekend as Angelenos.
The year was barely two weeks old when Cox announced in a heartfelt Facebook post that he was moving to Chicago, where he’s joining the Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises (LEYE) empire, which spans more than 100 establishments across the country, including Chicago’s famed Tiki bar, Three Dots and a Dash. Cox’s first project will be overseeing the beverage program at the upcoming Il Porcellino, an all-day trattoria in the River North neighborhood of Chicago.
Josh Goldman, Cox’s partner in Soigné Group, puts the announcement in perspective. “I know this move to Chicago is difficult for him, leaving Los Angeles and what Los Angeles has meant to him. At the same time, we still have things in Los Angeles. We have projects [here] that we’re going to be opening through 2017. L.A.’s not losing Julian, just sharing him. We always had the intention of growing our company outside the boundaries of Los Angeles.”
And for fans of Brilliantshine, the late, great bar that Cox and Goldman opened in Santa Monica, there’s something to look forward to: “Julian and I are working on opening our own bar again. We’ve been actively looking ever since Brilliantshine closed down.”
Still, Julian’s move to Chicago closes the book on a phenomenal run that helped bring Los Angeles to the forefront of the national cocktail scene and set the standard for restaurant bar programs. Rivera was the first of Cox’s many collaborations with Bill Chait, the founder and former managing partner of Sprout Restaurant Group. An exceptional series of Sprout projects followed, including Playa, Petty Cash, Short Order, Picca, Bestia, Barrel & Ashes, Redbird, BS Taqueria, The Fiscal Agent, Otium and The Rose Café. And with Soigné Group, Cox and Goldman consulted on cocktail menus for Circa, Acabar and Belcampo Meat Co.
Along the way, Cox has trained and fostered the careers of hundreds of young bartenders. Vincenzo Marianella is rightfully acknowledged as “The Godfather” of the Los Angeles cocktail scene, but if anyone ever decided to map the L.A. bartender family tree, an entire forest would be branching out from Julian. Though he has yet to be nominated for Best Bar Mentor at the Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards, Julian’s legacy as the progenitor of an entire generation of L.A. bartenders is secure.
After the jump, we look back at some of Julian’s greatest hits, unearth a few deep cuts, and get insights from some of the bartenders that have worked with him over the years.
Goldman first met Cox in 2007, when Goldman was the General Manager at Bastide. Goldman and Bastide sommelier Pieter Verheyde would stop in for lunch at Comme Ça, where Julian was bartending after being trained by Sam Ross. At the end of 2008, John Sedlar soft-opened his modern Latin restaurant, Rivera in Downtown L.A. with a bar program helmed by Cox. By then Goldman was also working in Downtown L.A., as the GM and Beverage Director at Church & State, when Walter Manzke was the chef. “I was [at Rivera] for friends and family,” recalls Goldman. “Julian made me a Champs-Élysées.” At the time, he and Julian “were more acquaintances, really. There was a mutual admiration society going on between the two of us. We always wanted to work with each other.”
For the burgeoning L.A. cocktail scene, 2009 would prove to be a pivotal year. Rivera celebrated its grand opening in mid-January, Marianella opened Copa d’Oro a week after Rivera, and The Varnish opened in February. Cox quickly garnered praise for his cocktails, which featured the seasonal, fresh ingredients and inventive flavor profiles that would become his signature. Drinks like the Barbacoa and Donaji became instant classics. Among the many accolades given to Rivera were three James Beard Award nominations for Outstanding Bar Program.
At Rivera, Cox started the bartender training program that’s produced a legion of bartenders and profoundly influenced the L.A. cocktail scene. Many of the program’s alumni have gone on to manage and open their own successful bars. Goldman says, “The class grew out of the basic premise of what Sammy did at Comme Ça, when they were training. When Julian opened Rivera, he did that same style class. Then over the years it grew into what it is today, and it’ll continue to grow.”
“For the past two years, it’s been three classes a year,” Goldman continues. “The largest one we ever did was the MessHall training. I remember a point when we used to have to advertise the class, we used to put it on Craigslist or whatever. Now people are beating down our doors trying to get in.”
“I love the education, but the classes for us were selfish. We were opening projects and needed trained bartenders, that were all on the same page. Part of the training is also team-building, you go through six weeks of something pretty intense with somebody else, you develop a family mentality.”
Christopher Day, the Bar Manager at General Lee’s, signed up at the suggestion of Matthew Biancaniello. “It was [Julian’s] second class ever after opening Rivera, and I was super green – halfway through grad school with barely any time behind a bar under my belt,” says Day. “Yet I was learning side by side with the likes of Dave Fernie, Krishna Vutla, Karen Grill, Brian Summers, Brynn Smith and Kate Grutman. A little surreal now that I think back on it.”
Day continues, “At first, to give me some experience, I worked the opening shift at Rivera. However the class I had enrolled in was meant to prepare us all for opening Playa (now Petty Cash), Picca and Sotto. But mainly Playa. I was on the opening team at Playa and later requested to be on the opening team at Sotto not long after. Pizza and amaro? Right up my alley.”
“I met Julian nearly two weeks after I moved to L.A.,” says Karen Grill, a member of The Bon Vivants crew and currently behind the stick at Melrose Umbrella Co. “The music industry job that got me out here fell through and I found myself 3,000 miles from home with no job prospects. Chris Bostick, who I had met a week earlier, suggested I reach out to Julian and see if he was hiring. I sent him an e-mail on Christmas Day; he responded within a few hours asking me to come to Rivera the following day with a pen and paper and no other explanation.”
“I had no idea what I was in for.”
Grill adds, “Fast forward through an intense six-week training, four bar openings and a bar program of my own in the last five years.”
“I took the class at Rivera in 2010,” says Amanda Gunderson, West Coast Brand Ambassador for Altos Tequila. “That was back when the classes were really tiny. It was just me and five guys – Jeremy Lake, Jose Rodriguez, Erik Lund, Thomas Murphy and Dogan Aktay, who has since moved to Istanbul. That was such a special time because Julian taught the class himself, so we were with him every day, five days a week for six inspired weeks.”
“Right before I branched off to run my own bar programs, I would help Julian teach those classes,” says Lake. “I probably attended his six-week course five times and always learned something new. If I had the time, I’d gladly take it again.” Lake, who currently manages the bar at Lost Property, adds, “With Julian, I had the opportunity to work at Rivera, Playa, Sotto and Test Kitchen 1 & 2. I’m proud to say that I led all three bar programs at one point or another – of which, I’m forever grateful.”
Launched in August 2010 at the space on Pico Boulevard that’s now occupied by Sotto, Test Kitchen was a groundbreaking pop-up concept that invited chefs and restaurateurs to test new menus and preview future projects, with Cox as Beverage Director. If you saw Julian at all during Test Kitchen’s four-month run, he had a thousand-yard stare that was forged in the crucible of creating new drinks to pair with a different dinner menu every night. Cox wisely invited guest bartenders like Zahra Bates, Alex Day and The Bon Vivants, who were the bartenders for Test Kitchen’s epic closing night. Bates, who had a demanding workload as Bar Manager of the two-Michelin Star restaurant Providence, credits Cox with encouraging her to participate in Test Kitchen.
At Test Kitchen, Cox worked with several chefs who later opened restaurants featuring his cocktails, including Neal Fraser (Redbird), Ori Menashe (Bestia), Sotto chefs Steve Samson and Zach Pollack, Christian Page (Short Order) and Ricardo Zarate from Picca, located upstairs from Sotto. The convivial vibe and energy at Test Kitchen was like an opening night every night, with foodies snapping up dinner reservations and cocktail enthusiasts jamming the bar area.
One of the most highly anticipated guest chefs was Michael Voltaggio, who featured “A Meal in 10 Tracks” paired with Goldman’s cocktails. “The first drinks that Julian and I made together were my drinks for Test Kitchen,” says Goldman.
ART AS AN APPETIZER
Cox’s creativity was on full display at Art as an Appetizer, which took place at Playa in February 2012. A collaboration between Cox, Sedlar and Ron Cooper (founder of Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal and an internationally acclaimed artist), Art as an Appetizer was inspired by Pacific Standard Time, a massive celebration of the L.A. art scene that spanned more than 60 cultural institutions across Southern California. Julian featured a trio of Del Maguey cocktails, including the outstanding Ball Drop, an homage to Cooper’s 1969 video piece of the same name, made with Del Maguey Vida, London Dry Gin, fresh lime, yuzu tincture, topped with a dusting of cayenne. It was one of those “when worlds collide” afternoons – PST was an important initiative for my day job at Discover Los Angeles, and Julian’s PST-inspired cocktails with Del Maguey made it a perfect storm of awesome.
Ron Cooper was in attendance, and it was kismet. The night before, Zahra and I were brainstorming about Art Beyond the Glass, which was in its early planning stages. Ron, Del Maguey and Julian were at the top of our wish lists. After pitching the concept to Ron, he said without hesitation, “Whatever you need, man.” And Julian confirmed his participation, which helped put the wheels in motion for the inaugural event that June. Speaking of which…
ART BEYOND THE GLASS
Julian has said that Art Beyond the Glass is his favorite event of the year, which is a huge compliment considering his involvement in great events like L.A. Times The Taste. We’re so grateful to all the talented bartenders that have taken time from their busy schedules to help make ABTG a success over the years. Along with Ron Cooper and Del Maguey, having Julian attached early on really helped get the word out – he was a top bartender who was also known outside of the cocktail community. And Julian brought his A-game to ABTG every time. (Putting it out there right now, Julian – you and Kristina better be here for the five-year anniversary in June!)
From the moment Bestia opened in November 2012, an endless stream of diners have made the pilgrimage to the Arts District for Ori Menashe’s stellar pastas, pizzas and house-made charcuterie. Kristina Howald was the opening Bar Manager and her team included Karen Grill and Kenny Arbuckle, who now heads the bar program at Cassia in Santa Monica.
“We’d all be kidding ourselves if we didn’t recognize that behind every great man is an incredible woman,” says Grill, who thanks Howald for “her patience, her time and her energy while we opened and saw the BEAST that was Bestia grow. She gave me my first taste of bar management and while she warned me that it wasn’t glamorous, she helped prepare me for the challenges ahead.”
Kristina brought a formidable resumé to Bestia, from opening Rivera with Julian, to opening La Descarga with Steve Livigni and Pablo Moix, working with Zahra and Laura Lindsay at Providence, and then with Beverage Director Taylor Parsons at Osteria Mozza. Bestia is still my favorite in the Julian Cox restaurant oeuvre; it might have something to with Kristina regularly placing a White Negroni (Fords Gin, Kina L’Avion D’or, Suze) in front of me before I even looked at the menu.
After opening Voltaggio’s .ink and working there as the GM and Beverage Director, Goldman was getting ready to leave L.A. and move to Chicago. Goldman was finishing up some private wine cellar projects and reached out to Julian to pick up a few extra bar shifts before he left. Cox convinced him to stay in L.A. – ironic in light of recent events – and brought him on board at Sprout. Their initial projects included menu changes at Playa, Sotto, Picca, Rivera and Short Order. When Sprout acquired Vibiana in Downtown L.A., Cox and Goldman worked on the beverage program for special events.
A few weeks before Bestia opened, Menashe hosted a month-long sequel to Test Kitchen with Cox and Goldman as Resident Mixologists. “After that second Test Kitchen at Bestia, a lot of people started coming to us and asking if we could help them with their places.” They formalized their partnership with the founding of Soigné Group. “It was always something Julian and I had wanted to do; we wanted to start our own business.”
“The reason we called it Soigné Group and not ‘Josh & Julian’ or ‘Goldman Cox’ is that it’s not about us. It’s really neat to see people that have gone through the class, people that work in different areas, they recognize themselves as Soigné. And that’s the thing, you don’t necessarily have to be on our payroll to be Soigné. It’s more of a family.”
Soigné Group’s first project was the now-closed Circa in Manhattan Beach. “He’s the perfect business partner, because I never have to worry about anything,” says Goldman. “We have a divide and conquer kind of mentality. Neither of us need the other to do these things, it’s just that we’re stronger when we do it together.”
As Director of Beverage Operations for Sprout, Nick Meyer has been integral to the Soigné/Sprout collaboration firing on all cylinders. Named to the 2015 Zagat 30 Under 30 list, Meyer worked with Cox on developing cocktails for several key projects and has also taught the bartender training class. Goldman says with admiration, “The thing about Nick Meyer, it’s so easy to understate how important he is and how much of a talent he is, he’s just so multi-faceted. He’s a hero.”
Housed in the space once occupied by the beloved Renée’s Courtyard Cafe, Brilliantshine was a standalone Soigné project that opened in August 2014 and was quickly embraced by locals and the cocktail cognoscenti alike. “A bar or restaurant is going to be successful if that neighborhood says it’s going to be successful,” says Goldman. “If that neighborhood likes it and latches onto it, then you have something. If they reject you, it’s like antibodies fighting off a disease!”
“The part that we’re most proud of besides the crew that we had working there – from Richie Lopez in the kitchen to the servers, the hostesses, everybody that was there – I hear from people all the time how much that bar actually meant to them, and how much it meant to the neighborhood. I think that’s the biggest compliment any bar can get.”
Brilliantshine also became one of L.A.’s bartender clubhouses, hosting industry events like Sporting Life. “It’s great to see each neighborhood have its bartender bar. Community is important, it leads to an exchange of knowledge and ideas. You know you’ve done something right if bartenders want to hang out at your bar. When you manage to win over a group of bartenders, that’s something not to be taken lightly or discounted. It’s like when somms show up at your wine bar or chefs show up at your restaurant.”
Oddly enough, there wasn’t a proper Tiki bar in Santa Monica until Brilliantshine quietly opened one in the front bar area. “That was so much fun to do. Don’t get me wrong, we had no budget. The lights were just a coaxial cable with a plug on the end and a light bulb screwed into the end of it. Julian was at Oceanic Arts and did a fantastic job of spending less than a thousand dollars on all this Tiki memorabilia. It was great.”
Lopez’s Peruvian-influenced cuisine went well beyond the usual bar fare. “Richie’s food was just awesome. It was fantastic. He needs to get behind a stove and start doing that food again, because it was only getting better and better.”
Brilliantshine was a family affair in every sense. “Nick’s dad, Dave Meyer, who’s an incredibly talented carpenter, he did so much amazing woodwork and masonry work. That back bar and everything were basically built by Nick and his dad.”
Forces conspired against Brilliantshine and it closed in April 2015. Goldman says, “One of the things I’ve learned in the restaurant business over the years, you learn a lot from different situations. Sometimes it’s not always what you wanted to learn or take away from it. But you gotta be open to it. Life is full of challenges and setbacks, it’s how you handle them and how you move forward.”
THE FISCAL AGENT
Discreetly located above Barrel & Ashes in Studio City, The Fiscal Agent opened in October 2015 with an all-star team that included Cox, Howald, Meyer and Dave Kupchinsky, the former Bar Manager at Eveleigh. The Fiscal Agent is the culmination of a decade-long L.A. cocktail journey and a beautiful coda to Julian and Kristina’s L.A. story.
The gorgeous, dimly-lit lounge was designed by Ricki Kline and it’s some of his most elegant work to date. From start to finish, the experience oozes with class – a welcome glass of bubbly, cocktails served in striking vintage glassware, and elevated bar bites by Michael Kahikina such as seared Peruvian scallops, steak tartare and duck breast tartine. The Fiscal Agent doesn’t take itself too seriously, though – the disco ball that was installed for the black tie New Year’s Eve soirée is still up and lighting the back bar.
The opening menu featured cocktails like the neo-Tiki Federal Preserves and the spirit forward Quarter Deck and Highland Shuffle. The focused drink list is just the tip of the iceberg – guests can expect rotating selections from a deep catalog of cocktails, which encourages frequent return visits. Indeed, on any given night you’ll find a mix of industry friends, sharply-dressed locals and travelers from “over the hill.”
Following Cox and Howald’s departure, and with Kupchinsky focused on opening Bar Vermut and other Sprout projects, The Fiscal Agent hasn’t lost a step and remains a prime cocktail destination, thanks to a crew that includes Laura Lindsay and two veterans of Brilliantshine, Eric Costantino and PJ Myers-Chase.
Asked what it’s like to work with Julian, and Lake says, “Eye-opening fun. Constantly challenging and progressive. I soaked up every moment I had to learn from and collaborate with him. For me, it’s truly special to reflect back on all of the great bartenders, chefs and hospitality industry pros that I’ve worked with because he invited me.”
Gunderson says, “Julian gets a lot of credit for amazing cocktails, which he totally deserves, but the thing I learned the most from him was that you can never truly be an incredible bartender if your guests don’t feel special. He is a blast to be behind the bar with, and he never makes you feel bad or incompetent. I once broke a punch bowl that was full of about two gallons of Gold Rushes right before an event at Rivera. He made us all laugh about it as we hurried to fix the situation.”
“He is all about the team feeling like a team,” continues Gunderson. “I will never forget my first Tales of the Cocktail. It was 2012 and Rivera was nominated for Best Restaurant Bar. [Julian] and Bill Chait rented a mansion in the Garden District for all of us to stay in. Julian made sure we all had entry to the Spirited Awards, and if he won, he was ready to take the entire team on stage with him to accept the award. That trip was an amazing gift for all of us, and I’m still proud to say that we made it into the Top 4.”
Cox’s influence continues long after a bartender has worked with him, as Lake notes: “Bartending style/technique, teaching style, leadership style, my approach to recipe development. Pride and humility… I’ll never forget, after I won my first cocktail competition, at one point while Julian and I were celebrating, he said, ‘When they tell you that you’re the worst, don’t believe them. And when they tell you you’re the best, don’t believe them.’ Here was the top dog in L.A., one of the best in the nation, telling me to never let any of it get to my head. If he can live by that code – so can I.”
“Julian taught me so many skills that I have used every day since we met,” says Gunderson. “He knows that I feel this way, because every time I get a couple of drinks in me I tell him, but he completely changed my life. I had been bartending for about 10 years before I met him and no one before or since has had as profound an impact on my life as he has.”
“I guess I got lucky,” says Grill. “There’s lots of these stories in Los Angeles, but this one didn’t land me a dream movie role. It gave me a meaningful, promising and fulfilling career. I’m incredibly thankful to have met Julian and to have been given a solid foundation in hospitality, strong technique, the tools to explore my palate and the freedom to be as crazy and creative as I wanted to be.”
“In my year and some-odd months working in Julian’s programs, I was always a bar back,” says Day. “I was itching to delve into the creative process of making drinks with the lead bartenders. Watching the process without being a part [of it] was frustrating, but at the same time it was completely awe inspiring and later helped me understand how to build balance in taste (and budget) for top-notch cocktail menus.”
Day continues, “While I may not have been hands-on in making the drinks, I realized that being able to keep the pace handling prep and service in a program Julian runs kind of sets the bar almost as high as it can be as far as what you expect of yourself and your staff. Being a bar back in Julian’s program taught me not only severe discipline and responsibility, it made a lasting impression on me as to how important support staff is to a true cocktail program. So much so that – considering how many classes since mine Julian has taught – I’m convinced I’d hire a bar back from one of his current programs much quicker than I’d hire a bartender.”
“I wanted to share my favorite Julian quote,” says Gunderson. “Julian is a big fan of saying ‘I’m proud of you.’ Those four little words can have such an impact on the whole outcome of somebody’s life. I am really going to miss his presence in L.A. I hope we can keep making him proud from afar.”
“The guy truly cared about and listened to all of us,” says Day. “Once I saw past the tremendous star power and importance in the food and beverage industry that he carried with him, I began to notice the young dude who made it REALLY fast and REALLY far. For the past five years, I’d wager that – despite the praise he receives in so many publications – he is still one of the top hardest hands-on workers in the business.” Day notes that despite Julian’s hectic work schedule, “you still knew that if he saw you passing by the street, he’d give you a hug to end all hugs and tell you how proud he is of you.”
Day adds, “The man has worked his ass off and though I’m sad to see him go, I think it’s about time for me to say that I’m proud of him. He deserves this and I wish him the best. I’ll raise an Absolut Mandarin and soda in his honor.”
Goldman says, “Julian is an incredible bartender, obviously. Knowing him for as long as I’ve known him, I’ve seen him grow into one of the most effective managers and trainers around. And this is a guy who doesn’t come from a GM background. Julian’s a student of this industry. He’s just going to continuously get better as time goes by because he’s methodical, he’s very introspective. Julian has the heart to be in this business because at heart he’s definitely a people-pleaser, sometimes to a fault. He’s ride or die for his family.”
Goldman continues, “One of Julian’s strengths, and the reason he’s been able to open as many bars as he’s been able to open – and they’ve all been very, very good and everybody’s enjoyed them – is because at the end of the day, just as Soigné Group not being about us, it was never about Julian. He didn’t make it about himself, he made it about the bar, about the work and the people that were going to be behind that bar. But more than that, he was making it about the people that were going to be sitting in the seats across from these bartenders.”
ONE FOR THE ROAD
I first met Julian in 2008, through a mutual friend who also worked at Comme Ça. (I still remember my first Pegu Club, made by Joel Black.) This blog wasn’t even an idea yet – nearly a year would pass before Thirsty in LA went live. It’s astonishing to see how far Julian has come in the years since then. For this native Angeleno, it’s been an absolute joy to witness Los Angeles emerge from the doldrums to become a world-class cocktail city, with Julian in the vanguard of L.A.’s renaissance.
As mentioned by Chris and Amanda, Julian would frequently say “I’m proud of you” when we saw each other. Occasionally he would add, “We’ve grown up together.” As usual, Julian is being much too generous. The blog hasn’t grown so much as L.A.’s cocktail culture has grown by leaps and bounds, and I have the good fortune to write about an extraordinary bar community that is without peer.
Someone once told me that being a good friend often means letting go. I have to admit, it’s a little strange to realize that this is the first time since Thirsty in LA launched that Julian will be in another city. He’s already left an indelible mark on Los Angeles, and I can’t wait to see what happens in the next phase of his career. The opportunities and challenges that come with joining a mega-company like LEYE are exciting and daunting. But if anyone is going to take everything on with an easy smile, next level creativity, endless reserves of energy, and a genuinely warm, gracious and caring soul, it’s Julian Cox.
Which leaves me with one last thing to say.
I’m proud of you.