Berto Santoro is one of the most respected bartenders in Kansas City today, but when he first started, in 2002, it was all about getting out as many cocktails as possible.
"I saw all the bartenders, and they looked like they had so much fun back there. There was so much camaraderie, and they made all the money and got all the girls. So that's what got me into bartending when I was 20 years old," he recalls with a laugh.
In 2009, Santoro helped open chef and restaurateur Michael Smith's Extra Virgin under Ryan Rama, who now runs the tequila-heavy program at Coco Bolos in Overland Park.
"[Rama] is a big mentor for me," he says. "We started creating some cool, high-level cocktails and I've been doing it ever since. I take a lot of inspiration from Michael Smith. All of a sudden it changed my world from making [a] high volume, pushing cocktails out to using fresh ingredients and starting to think about things like that in a culinary sense."
Santoro, who is hard at work on Michael Smith's latest concept, Farina, an Italian restaurant set to open later this year, talked to us about making cocktails fun, his favorite brunch spot and working with a new generation of bartenders.
What is your favorite ingredient to work with and why? I like funky stuff. I like weird, interesting stuff. I love using sherry. I love weird rums like wacky stuff like Paranubes, which is Oaxacan aguardiente that just came out. It's weird and funky and I get so many crazy things – you taste it and you think it's gonna taste like rum, but it doesn’t. I get olives, and weird crazy stuff. I like funky, weird stuff like that. But I also love mezcal. Mezcal’s one of my favorite ingredients to use in cocktails. I like to turn people onto stuff they normally wouldn’t have or aren’t comfortable with and make that comfortable. Like people use to be like, "I love vodka, I hate gin." So I would make them a gin cocktail. “How’s that cocktail?” “Oh my god, it’s so good.” and I'm like “Ahh, you’re drinking gin.” I like to introduce people to things they wouldn’t normally have and then they’re like, "Oh, I do [like it]!" There’s some really great stuff on the market – try it, you’ll really enjoy it.
Do you have a secret weapon spice/ingredient/technique? You know, fresh stuff – you really can't go wrong there. Fresh and seasonal stuff. I guess it depends on the time of the year. Right now peaches are rockin’, all the berries, blackberries, strawberries. In the winter time you’ve got apples and pears and stone fruits. So if it’s fresh, seasonal stuff, especially if's local, it's better if it's close and it gets here so nice.
What’s your perfect day of eating or drinking in Kansas City? Oh, man. I suppose my favorite brunch spot has gotta be – it’s so difficult to narrow it down! The Antler Room, probably, for brunch, and then maybe since it’s Kansas City, LC’s Bar-B-Q for lunch. And then probably – perfect, perfect scenario, it’s a perfect day, so a patio in Westport, maybe Harry’s Bar & Tables on the patio. And then walk around Westport having cocktails and sitting on patios all over. Westport Café, Ça Va. Dinner I suppose – it’s tough to not say Michael Smith! Maybe The Rieger for dinner.
How has the local cocktail scene evolved over the past year? I started the United States Bartenders' Guild (USBG) Kansas City chapter in 2011, and watching the whole scene grow and elevate. I stepped back from that – I was the president for five years, and this past year I was no longer the president, and to watch all these new people, these new bartenders come at it from a culinary standpoint is awesome for me. It's just a whole new generation, I suppose. It's really cool for the city. And when you travel around everyone just thinks Kansas City is this awesome place with a tight-knit bartending community, which is really cool.
Who are Kansas City bartenders you admire at the moment? I'm a big fan of Brock Schulte over at The Monarch, Andrew Olsen at Rye, love Jenn Tosatto over at Mission Taco. She was one of the co-founders with me at USBG. Dave Misler over at Harry's Bar & Tables is probably my favorite bartender ever, and he never gets enough recognition.
What concepts or styles in food or drink do you hope to see added or expanded in Kansas City? I think we've got a really diverse set of cocktails and different bartenders making really different stuff. I think more fun cocktails – back when all the bartenders started becoming a lot more educated a few years ago, everybody started getting more rigid and pretentious about it. Maybe even two years ago, people started getting away from that, and they had no problem making a Lemon Drop Martini that they didn’t want to make a year before that. Making it fun and taking that pretentiousness out of it and making fun stuff. So I'm seeing it more, but I'd like to see it [even] more. Also the hospitality – everybody's concentrated on the cocktails, but that’s only 10 percent of being a bartender. It's all about hospitality and taking care of the guest and making sure they have a great experience, so I’d like to see more of that.
What do you like to drink at home or on your day off? I'm a pretty straight shooter. I'm not really making too many cocktails at home, so I'm drinking a lot of sherry and tequila and mezcal, and when I do drink a cocktail it’s a vodka soda or a gin and soda – or a sherry and tonic. That’s what I like to drink at home: fino sherry and tonic.
What’s your favorite comfort food? I'd have to say mac 'n' cheese.
If you could tell home bartenders one thing, what would it be? Don’t overthink it. Keep it simple. Try to balance out the cocktail as far as strong, sweet and sour – not over-complicating things, and not to be afraid of thinking outside the box. And try it out! That’s the most fun part, right, trying it out?
What’s the most intriguing cocktail you’ve made recently, and why? We're putting out a new cocktail menu today, and we've got a clarified milk punch on there with Campari, rum, cognac and a chile liqueur – Ancho Reyes Verde. And there's so many things going on [in the drink]. There's ginger, clove and pineapple – there's so many different things going on, it was like, there's no way this is all going to work out. And it did, and it's really cool.
What inspires your drinks? How do you approach R&D at your restaurant, and what inspires that process? I check out to see what’s seasonal right now, and then I look at my previous cocktail menu and I try to balance it out to make sure all the spirits are represented, and make sure I'm not doubling up on anything. And because I ask for input from my bar staff, we make sure we’re all on the same page and have a little meeting so we’re all not making the same drink or all using the same spirit to make a drink. Then over a few cocktails, we start chatting about flavors. Sometimes the first thing we do is come up with weird, crazy, funny names and build the cocktails around that. I'd say half the time, we build cocktails around wacky names we come up with. [The clarified milk punch is called] Puncho Villa, and it’s garnished with a little bushy Mexican mustache.
What are your future plans? I also work for Angel’s Envy as a brand ambassador for Kansas City, so I focus on that about a quarter of my time. I just designed a new bar for Farina, which we're opening at the end of the year. So that’s going to be a big focus – developing an Italian-style menu in a whole new environment. I run the Paris of the Plains cocktail festival here in town every year. That’s coming up in six weeks, so I’m like elbow deep in that right now. So I'd like to continue honing that and making that bigger and better every year.
Michael Smith Restaurant and Extra Virgin, 1900 Main St., Crossroads Arts District, Kansas City, Missouri, 816.842.2202,michaelsmithkc.com