Though RedFarm and Decoy beverage director Shawn Chen majored in business administration, he knew it wasn’t the direction in which he wanted to take his career. “I didn’t have much interest in it, and I simply thought that it would be ‘the right thing’ to do,” he says. So the native of Fujian, a province on the southeastern coast of China, called upon his first bartending job (when he was just 16 years old) to inspire an entrée into the hospitality scene. “I remember I was really fascinated by the bartenders when they used all the tools and ingredients and mixed all different kinds of drinks,” he explains. That passion has landed him behind the bar at West Village’s RedFarm and Decoy, where he serves up menus of market-driven libations that honor his Chinese American heritage. Here, Chen talks about the go-to pairing for Decoy’s lauded Peking duck, the items on his day off laundry list, and his icon in the industry: Sasha Petraske.
BoozeMenus: What went through your mind in creating the drinks list at RedFarm vs that at Decoy?
Shawn Chen: The philosophies behind the food at RedFarm are to reinvent the classic dishes while also creating “Chinese cuisine with a greenmarket sensibility.” When I create the drinks list at RedFarm, I also have these two philosophies in mind. I want to reinvent classic cocktails not only with a modern twist, but also an Asian one to celebrate Chinese American heritage. And I also want to create cocktails with fresh, seasonal ingredients, which could pair well with our food.
As for Decoy, which is a shrine to Peking duck and a cocktail bar, it’s all about creating cutting edge cocktails. We take our cocktails very seriously at Decoy, and every single detail matters when crafting an outstanding cocktail, from choosing the right types of ice to making our own tinctures to aging our cocktails in oak barrels.
BM: Which cocktail on the menus are the best one to kick off an evening?
SC: I would highly recommend Le Club Hot to kick off an evening. It is made with jalapeño-infused tequila, cucumber, mint and smoked salt. It’s spicy, smoky and refreshing all at the same time. The heat from the cocktail is guaranteed to stimulate your appetite. It is definitely one of our customer favorites.
BM: So we must know: what cocktail to pair with the covetable Peking duck?
SC: “Sitting Down For Dinner” would be the go-to cocktail to pair with the Peking. We use duck fat-washed George Dickel whiskey, lemon, egg white and red wine. It’s a must-try cocktail to complete the duck experience.
BM: What's important to keep in mind when pairing booze with Chinese fare, in general?
SC: Chinese cuisine is very complex. The style of cooking and flavors varies from region to region in China. However, you will find soy sauce, sugar, salt and vinegar in most dishes because these are the most common seasonings used in Chinese cuisine. If the dish is spicy or salty — take Ma Po Tofu or King Po Chicken for example — pairing the dish with booze with more sweetness would be the way to go. The sweetness in the drink will help to balance the spiciness and the saltiness in the dish.
BM: When was your last day off, and what did you do?
SC: My last day off was last Wednesday. I started my day with a fresh cup of coffee, checked emails, updated social media, and researched new restaurants and bars to try.
BM: If you get hungry mid-shift, what do you reach for?
SC: I always like our yellow curry. Our chef makes this awesome yellow curry dish with seasonal vegetables. I also always eat it with a big bowl of rice. My meal is never complete without rice.
BM: What was the last conversation that inspired you?
SC: I don’t have a conversation in mind, but I remember the last time I was very inspired was when I attended the WSWA Convention as a judge. It was a very inspiring moment for me to be able to witness all of the talented mixologists from around the country who were crafting cocktails with speed, precision and creativity. It inspired me to create more.
BM: Who has been a mentor for you in this industry? Why do you admire them so greatly, or what piece of advice have they given you that has stuck with you?
SC: I didn’t have a mentor when I started bartending, so it was through observations and a series of trail and error. But my icon in the industry has to be Sasha Petraske. He single handedly revolutionized the cocktail scene in the early 21st century in NYC, and made it possible for all of us today to do what we love dearly. I just found out he passed away a few days ago, and it is an incredible loss to our industry, so may his soul rest in peace.
BM: Between the conversation (with patrons), the camaraderie (with your colleagues) and the cocktails themselves, which do you love most about this industry?
SC: What I love most about this industry is the room it gives me to create. Not only does it allow me to be creative and to challenge myself to think outside of the box, but it also allows me to incorporate Asian American heritage into what I do, which is very important to me. And it is also an incredible feeling to see that my cocktails could bring delight to my customers.
BM: Where are you traveling to next?
By Nicole Schnitzler
(Photos courtesy of RedFarm | From left: RedFarm/Decoy Exterior; Sitting Down For Dinner Cocktail; Shawn Chen)