Katie Vota

Katie Vota

Katie Vota, Beverage Director of Banh Chanh 99 in Chicago, IL shares her career timeline and advice for up-and-coming talent.


I’ve learned that I have to build a team founded on the success of everyone, not just one star, because no one person should have to shoulder the time burden of running a whole program.


EXPERIENCE
EDUCATION
As a woman, I’ve learned to never let yourself be limited by what others expect of you, as they never realize what you’re capable of. I’ve learned to be loud and stand up for myself, especially in matters of harassment.
I knew I wanted to go into beverage after helping to design the Ladies’ Room at Fat Rice. I’d been cocktail serving while hosting, and I was so fascinated with what we were creating. They told me I could serve in the lounge, but to move up, I’d have to put in the time and do my research, so I started reading every book on cocktails I could find. I was fascinated. It was so akin to the art I was doing in my practice at the time and the research aspect just led me down one rabbit hole after another. I was immediately hooked.
“Be the Chef you want to see.” With the current mess of chefs being outed for bad behavior, this advice becomes more prescient. As I re-enter the beverage industry from being furloughed all winter, I keep asking myself: What do I want to be doing? Who do I want to work for and in what capacity? How do I want to function in this world? What are the changes I’d like to see and how do I find a path to work towards those goals? In essence, how do I become the chef of my domain? How do I manifest this in a way that I can be proud of?
I maintain a healthy work/life balance by working in places with humane hours. I do yoga and pilates every morning that I have a shift as well as the morning after, so that I’m not so sore – cocktail bartending can be hard work! I bike everywhere, even to work to get my exercise in, and I love to cook for myself healthy meals. In the summer, we have a CSA with plenty of fresh produce. I love having a salad ready post-shift. A friend once called them my “night salads” and it stuck. I laugh every time but will never stop eating them!
I was an artist before I was a bartender and my identity will never be wholly wrapped up in my job, I still practice my art. I have to find time to be in my studio, which usually results in working more hours in less days. Even then, working four 10-hour shifts is a good trade-off for me to continue to have a life outside of work—you can still wake up, make breakfast, hang out with friends before work, get some art in.
Flexibility, curiosity and humility are the most important skills to possess. A motivated person can learn knowledge and skills, however some days, someone calls off and you find yourself dishwashing. It sucks when it happens, but at the end of the day, you sink or swim as a team.
I try to ask the whole team to contribute to menus, whether it is our seasonal menu or our rotating special. In doing this, I’ve always found that your ability to create cocktails is limited by your own curiosity, because no matter how much you know, there will always be someone who knows more and there will always be new places to draw inspiration from.
A barback may come to you, without any cocktail knowledge but they’ll look at what you’re doing and offer a great suggestion because what you’re making reminds them of a dish their mom used to make, and it suddenly unlocks a key flavor or ingredient you had been missing. Do you dismiss them because of their experience or do you dig deeper for knowledge? It’s really telling of how a person will grow in their career.
When I have a choice, I always try to use seasonal ingredients. Not all of these things are easy to work with, or conventional. One time, we were handed a pile of carrot peels and we ended up making a carrot peel infused brandy for a cocktail. I don’t even remember what was in the cocktail itself, just the beautiful color obtained from the red and purple peels, and the oddly fruity-yet-savory quality the brandy had. Given access to every ingredient in the world, I’d have never come up with it, and if I’ve got a mind towards sustainability in beverage, it becomes even more imperative to look locally for inspiration. The best place for inspiration is to find a farmer to partner with, ask your kitchen what’s left over, raid the spice shelf, make shrubs and bitters from everything, and then find a way to make these weird creations into something anyone can imagine being delicious.
I follow Imbibe and Punch on Instagram. They’re amazing publications and they do excellent research, however they shouldn't be your only source of inspiration. Sure, the nerdy bartenders will love your weird and specific creations; however the crushable, popular element can’t be dismissed. I love to see what’s popular as well, on places such as The Spruce, Serious Eats, or random publications and blogs on the internet. Even what flavors are being brought in at Trader Joe’s! If passion fruit is the ingredient this season, guess I’ll be making a passion fruit drink this summer! However, to satisfy my inner nerdy bartender, I’d split something weird like Baijiu into it to make it the best drink I can.

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Inspirational Career Timelines

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