Bartender Spotlight: Chris Lane of Ramen Shop
For this installment of Bartender Spotlight, I met up with Chris Lane, Bar Manager at Oakland's Ramen Shop. We talked about a variety of things, such as how he first got started in bartending, why Ramen Shop is so polarizing, and some of his favorite things in the world of bartending.
Be sure to make it to the end of the interview for Chris' recipes for Everything's Gone Green and Swamp Water syrup. And stay tuned for our upcoming event, featuring Chris Lane. Details to be announced soon!
How did you first hear about Umami Mart? How do you know Yoko and Kayoko?
So I was working at Lolinda and a guy came in. He wasn't a regular, he was just kind of an "off-the-street" dude; really really nice. He noticed that we had Japanese stirring beakers on the counters and was like, "Oh, I've been looking for these. I heard there's this killer shop that opened up in Oakland where they just sell Japanese barware." And I was like, "No, there's no way. That's total bullshit. I would have heard about a 'Japanese only' barware space in Oakland because that's where I live. That's just too weird." And of course he was right. So I took a trip down to Umami Mart and was like, "Holy shit, this actually exists!" Yoko was behind the counter. We started geeking out about stuff. I had already been to Japan a couple times and was really interested in Japanese bartending, specifically the attention to detail and focus, and all of the purposeful tools Japanese bartenders use. I started carrying some Umami Mart stuff, just personally for myself, and introduced bartender friends of mine to Umami Mart. When I started at Ramen Shop, they already had an existing relationship. Friends of friends. That's how it all happened.
Word on the street is that you helped bring the Short Mixing Glass to Umami Mart. Can you confirm or deny that?
Yoko and Kayoko gave me a bar tool catalog and I saw the Short Mixing Glass and just wanted to order a set for myself. They were gracious enough to order me some. I love those damn things. I guess they caught on enough. I mean, it makes sense. They're one of those things where you're like, "Why had nobody thought of that before?" They have a shorter profile with wider sides so you could fit more ice in them. They are fragile, though. I have to be constantly on my bartenders not to chip them. You end up moving through busy service, you're working really fast, you end up just cranking through things, and before you know it you're like, "I don't remember this thing having a crack in it. How'd that happen?" Argh. God. That's why we can't have nice things!
How did you get started bartending in the Bay Area?
I worked down the street. It's now Cole Coffee, but it used to be Royal Coffee. I worked there for five and half years, something like that, when I was still in school. One of our regulars was this gal named Sarah Ryan, who's a buddy of mine. And she was a bartender everywhere. She bartended at Radio, she bartended at Golden Bull. She just kind of ran the circuit. One day she was shit-out-of luck and needed a bartender, and she asked me, "How would you like to learn how to bartend?" while I was working behind the counter, barely awake trying to serve lattes. She took me on as a daytime bartender at Merchant's for one day a week on Saturday mornings. Merchant's is a dive bar now, but it was a proper shithole when I worked there. One bathroom had a door that didn't work. You had to jimmy open the liquor room with a butter knife to get in. It had a lot of character.
Sarah and I both jumped out of Merchant's at the same time. [Sarah] started managing Missouri Lounge, and I ended up working for her there. I was there for probably a good three years. I ended up going from there to Flora and the rest has been kind of a steady stream of jobs after that.
[Sarah] kind of mentored you from the beginning then?
Absolutely. I was thinking about this the other day, about people who have been really crucial role models for me, in terms of service in general. Sarah's the one who taught me how to make drinks. I still think I have some shitty crumpled up piece of paper somewhere with the breakdown of the drinks you had to know when you started: a Cosmo, a Gimlet, a Margarita, and a Kamikaze. She definitely taught me a lot of the ropes and how to handle yourself and how to deal with various bizarre situations that will happen at a bar. It's funny because she notoriously had a horrible temper behind the bar and she would just go ham on people.
But probably the person who did the most for me starting out [in the service industry] was my boss Mike at the coffee shop. He ran his coffee shop like a bar. He always had a very real understanding of hospitality and what it's like to cultivate regulars, to talk to people on the daily, and the fact that you'll see most of these people more than you'll see your family.
It was really those two. I got really lucky. They taught me the foundation of how to bartend. And then past that, I got lucky enough to work with Erik Adkins when he was starting up Flora. And that's when my deeper knowledge began, not just cocktails, but the history of hospitality. Realizing how these decisions that you make affect someone's experience over the course of a night, and how you can actually craft someone's experience when they're sitting at a bar.
How did you end up at Ramen Shop?
I had been bartending in the city for about six years and got burnt out on the commute. I loved all the jobs I had. I worked with some amazing people, people I miss very dearly, who I don't get to see anymore because I don't work over there. But it seemed like every job I would take was farther away than the last one. "Oh I'm working in SOMA right now. Now I'm working in the Mission. Now I'm going to work in the Tenderloin. How the hell did I get to the Outer Mission and what am I doing in the Upper Haight right now? This is too much!" So it just kind of got to that point where I realized that I was going to need to change. The hour-and-a-half, to two-hour commute one way didn't work for me anymore. The City was getting really crowded, it was getting kind of nuts...
And that was years ago, compared to now.
Exactly. It's much worse now. There's too much mental crap getting from Point A to Point B. And that's also me being crotchety and stuck in my ways. I'm not twenty-something anymore. I started working with [Ramen Shop] because after going to Japan a couple times, I totally fell in love with ramen. Ramen is actually what pretty much ended my vegetarianism. I was vegetarian for about 14 years and then found out what really good ramen was. I was like, "Oh, I think I have to re-think this." My girlfriend told me there was a spot that had opened down the street from me. I was like, "Nahhh." Again, the disbelief that something like that had crept it's way into my neighborhood and I didn't know about it first. I went down there, met Sam, met JJ [two Ramen Shop owners]. One of the bartenders who worked with me at Lolinda is actually Sam's cousin. So that was kind of my in, and we just got to talking. I was just kind of looking for some part-time bartending work 'til I could get the next thing lined up. And as we talked, it became clear they needed someone to run the program. It sounded like a good thing. So here I am, three years later.
And then you guys had that expansion. Do you have an official name for Ramen Shop's new bar?
We have a name among the bartenders. We have nightly bar logs, where we all communicate in terms of like, what happened during service, if you're out of something, what to expect the next day. And we realized that we couldn't just keep calling it "new bar." So Jackie, one of our bartenders, called it "Roseanne Barr" and it stuck. It is officially "Roseanne."
Opening the new bar definitely helped out. We had really, really wanted that bar to be kind of a neighborhood destination, like a drinking place to just go and hang out. But the fact is, on any given night, that small space can be just like a completely packed mosh pit of a bar and that's not really what most people want to go to. It's our little holding pen. We hang out. All the bartenders kind of get to relax a little bit. The service is still on point, though. Everyone gets to have fun. Everyone plays the music they want to play. We've got a really great spirits selection. That's been awesome to have that space to showcase some things. It's interesting seeing it a year after it's gone up and seeing what it's become. I'll be curious to see where it's at in another year.
Foot traffic [at Roseanne Barr] has picked up tremendously since.
I think it's just a matter of presenting it as an option. There's always going to be a disconnect with how you present yourself as a business, especially if you're a restaurant versus how you present yourself if you're just solely a bar. Being a bar in a restaurant, you're flying the colors of the business. "Ramen" is in our name. So no matter what, even if we were calling ourselves "Ramen Bar,",people would still think there is some food component. So it has taken us a little while to actually just build up a really nice chill clientele, neighborhood folks, people from around the way who just want to cruise through and say, "What's up" to us and have a drink, instead of like, "Ramen Shop, cool we're going there for food." No, no, no. You can go there for a drink, too.
A lot of times, that's where I'll go if I want to grab a drink, just a drink.
Why do you think Ramen Shop is so polarizing? Why do people love it or hate it?
I saw this happen a lot actually with my friend's restaurant, Doña Tomás, when they first opened up way way back. They're essentially doing an elevated take on Mexico City cuisine. It's really, really good. But at the time, people were freaked out about the fact that they had to pay these kind of inflated prices. "Wait wait, this is just Mexican food. This is supposed to be cheap." And I think that's kind of a shortsighted way of looking at anything. Who says that ramen is supposed to be cheap? Just because, for the most part, it's supposed to be a quick snack, you can have it on the go. But it also cultivates this kind of cult audience where if you're bringing attention to detail, your food cost is going up, your cost of the cooks is going up. All these things contribute to the overall price of the bowl. That's something the guest doesn't necessarily see. And they shouldn't. I don't think that's something that should be revealed to them. But it's definitely on our minds. I think it's very easy for people to make up their minds about things like that. "Well... this is what I'm used to. So, maybe it's not my thing." And that's totally OK. But it is interesting that there's not a lot of "lukewarm" feelings.
Yes! I can't think of a restaurant or bar that is THAT polarizing.
I mean, it would be nice to have a little bit more "gray area." But the [Ramen Shop] guys really had a vision of what they wanted. And I think they did a really good job. As somebody who initially... full disclosure, I was totally a nay-sayer the first time I went there. I was like, "Ahhh yeah it's not the flavor I'm used to. It's something I can't quite get my head around. It seems like they're trying too hard." And then of course, I went another few times and was like, "Goddamn, this is really good food." They're all smart enough to realize that ramen has always been the product of whoever's making it. There are always different flavors of ramen in terms of styles and variations. It's gone really far out there, just like cocktails. There's this weird elastic band that can get stretched to a certain point, and then it'll snap back on itself and kind of get back to some sort of simplicity. But I think they are smart enough to realize that they're not a Japanese ramen shop. They come from a much different cooking background and that's something they have an affinity for and it's a great delivery system for these ingredients. And it is very much California ramen.
What more could you ask for?
Yelp is pretty funny. I'll crack it open once every three months, just to get some entertainment. I think that's a whole different conversation about food in general.
So now the usual Bartender Spotlight questions. Your favorite drink?
My favorite drink? Bartenders usually come up with a smart ass remark like, "Shot and a beer" or they can't decide. It's like picking a favorite song. Ummmm. I know this is kind of a crap answer to come up with, but my favorite drinks are the ones I haven't had yet, that I get really excited about. I love things that are well made and I love things that get me all, "Goddamnit, that was a really well done Negroni." Or, "I didn't know it, but all I wanted was a Gimlet." Whatever it is that is simple and easy. I think simple is typically something that a lot of bartenders really love because there are less places to hide your ingredients. If you screw up a daiquiri, that was three ingredients, chances are that wasn't the fault of the ingredients, that was something that you did. But I get really, really, really excited when I get to have a drink from someone that surprises me. Even if it's something I don't think I'm going to like. If I have it and I'm like, "Wow that stuck with me, that resonated." That's why I still do this.
When's the last time you had "that drink" and what was it?
There were a few. There's a drink from my buddy Daniel in Portland that was just absolutely incredible. He was making his own cantaloupe fruit soda to put in his cocktail, which is something I would never do in a million years, because I'm not that patient, but he's a really culinary-minded guy. Beautiful drink.
And then there was definitely a time where I was like, "That read so weird, and so good." It was a daquiri at Death & Co. that my buddy Joaquin came up with and it was a "curry leaf infused... Jamaican rum, orgeat, ginger, cinnamon, lime, and I think there was some bitters in there. But it read like this really intensely spice-forward drink that just sounded like it's going to be a big sticky mess, like kind of sweet, and all these competing flavors. And goddamn if that wasn't one of the best drinks I've ever had.
Locally, I'm always really excited to see what Matt [Harrison]'s doing over at Penrose. I think he's got a really good palate. I think he really does try to do things that are, first and foremost, really interesting to him. There's always a line between making something for your guest and making something for yourself. Ideally it's a little bit of both. It should satisfy the guest. But, you got to find whatever that line is that makes it really interesting to you.
I'm a sucker for a good Old Fashioned glass. Just something that feels good in the hand. I realize that this is for Umami Mart and I shouldn't be plugging someone else, but my homie Jackie has a vintage glassware business, and there's a very specific glass that she carries that I had first seen at Wo Hing General store, when I worked there. All of our glassware was vintage, so we were hitting estate sales, thrift stores, compiling massive amounts of glassware. It's a double rocks glass that's kind of round; it almost looks like a little globe with a big silver rim at the top of it. It got popularized in Mad Men, so you'd see Don Draper drinking out of these all the time. I don't know why, but that's still probably my favorite glass. Something about it just feels proper to have a drink out of.
Favorite bar tool?
You know... I think they all kind of serve a purpose and I love them all. I get really fetishistic about my shakers. I love different styles of shakers. I love having them lined up so you can use them for different drinks because they produce different results. But I have one tool that I somehow haven't lost in eleven years which is probably one of the only possessions that I haven't lost, and it's an old church key that still has shitty punk stickers taped to it and if it's not in my back pocket when I bartend, I feel like something is missing. It's like I don't have my wallet.
Favorite bar food?
Yeah, I think anything fried. I really can't think of anything better to have while you're drinking than something fried. I would love tots. That sounds great right now.
Favorite bar in the Bay Area?
There are just too many. Too many good friends. Too many good memories and places. I'd say that for consistency sake, for being able to go there on any given night and always getting the same level of service and the same friendly faces, same great mix of drinks, mix of spirits and cocktails, it's Prizefighter. They're my homies. They do it right. Everybody there is really, really good. And they don't flex like they are anything special. They just keep it humble. They do a really amazing job.
There are just so many other places that I think are amazing. We have such a great drinking scene here. But aside from Prizefighter, Loló in San Francisco. It's so solid. The food is incredible. The two guys who were running the bar program had worked in bars in Mexico for a long time. They came up to San Francisco and had a completely different skill set and completely different palate and different approach to bartending than anybody in San Francisco does. Just seeing how these guys run their bar and how friendly they all are and how they just move behind the bar and the drinks they make, just so goddamn good. And they're the sweetest people ever. They're just genuinely hospitable awesome folks. So if I think about going out to the City, I ask myself, "Where do I feel like getting a good drink and get some good food?" I'll go to Loló.
Any last words before we end this?
Yeah! How did you get attached with Umami Mart?
You've been putting me on blast.
I sure have. Umm, I was managing a bank Monday through Friday in Oakland, and honestly I wanted more tattoo money. I found out they were looking for someone to work Saturdays and Sundays. I was like, "I'm not doing anything on the weekend." I threw my name in the hat, and they hired me as a shopkeeper on the weekends only and I had a blast. I had so much fun working there, and that made the bank less fun. And then I was given an opportunity to work [at Umami Mart] full-time. I took a leap of faith. I was scared. I was leaving something stable, taking a chance. It worked out. I'm still here, two plus years later.
Did you have an interest in food and drink before this?
Just casually. I've never professionally cooked or bartended before. Just at home.
Do you find yourself getting more interested in food and drink?
Absolutely. I'm making more cocktails at home now. I've been on a Manhattan kick lately. Sometimes I'll sip vermouth on the rocks. And sake of course. I credit Yoko for that.
I'm still trying to get hip to that. It's so interesting to me. I love categories like that, because you can keep going down the rabbit hole and keep learning. It's so vastly different. It's pretty awesome. I'm glad you guys are doing that.
Everything's Gone Green
1 oz La Favorite Agricole Blanc Rhum
1/2 oz St George Green Chili Vodka
3/4 oz Lemon Juice
3/4 oz Cucumber/Celery Syrup
1. Shake all ingredients together with ice for six seconds.
2. Strain into a chilled double Old Fashioned glass.
3. Garnish with a mint tip and a cucumber ribbon (Cut a cucumber lengthwise with a Y vegetable peeler and roll the strip into a tight coil – fasten with a cocktail pick).
Cucumber/Celery Syrup (a.k.a. Swamp Water)
Swamp Water makes a hell of a good soda with a little seltzer and lemon.
1 cup of fresh cucumber juice
1-1/2 cups fresh celery juice
2-1/2 cup sugar
There are two ways to make Swamp Water:
Quick and Easy
1. Buy both celery and cucumber juices at Whole Foods
2. Combine all ingredients in a heavy stainless steel sauce pan and cook on medium heat for only as long as it takes to melt the sugars. Do not boil or simmer.
3. Strain the mixture and let cool.
4. Bottle. Swamp Water will keep in the fridge for about 1 week
This process will require either a slow juicer or a press. If you are using either, make sure that your juice is strained before you cook it; the more solids in the juice the faster it will degrade.
1. Juice enough cucumbers for 1 cup of juice - we use Japanese cucumbers from Hikiari Farms at Ramen Shop but organic English cucumbers will do.
2. Juice enough celery for 1-1/2 cups of juice. Tip: blanch the celery first with hot water and then shock it with cold water. This will preserve the color and stability of the syrup. Without this step the syrup will oxidize and turn a mucky sludge color.
3. Cook juices and sugar in medium non-reactive sauce pan until sugars are incorporated. Let cool and bottle. This should keep for 2 weeks in the fridge.