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Left: Photo by Jennilee Murray, drink is "The Mexican Gentleman". Right: Photo by Esmeralda Smith Romero, drink is a gin fizz.

Stephen Flood, Riviera’s Master Bartender

By Esmeralda Smith Romero on July 4, 2016

As the excitement grows around the opening of Chef Matthew Carmichael’s Riviera, one thing is certain, the restaurant’s opulent bar will be managed by the best Ottawa has to offer.

Stephen Flood’s barcraft is an effortless extension of his love of people and the good life – a perfect fit for the attention to detail Riviera promises. Stephen’s goal is simply to make your day better. It is a responsibility he has relished over 21 years at the Black Tomato and 3 years at El Camino.

In June of this year, Stephen Flood won Fauna’s Negroni competition. His approach was to keep it classic and highlight the perfect bitter balance offered by the Campari, gin, vermouth and torched orange peel. The result, a drink voted on by the judges, the competitors, and the guests as simply the best.

We caught up with Stephen recently to discuss his approach to hosting, his time in Paris and his appreciation for perfect moments.

Apt613: You competed in Fauna’s first Negroni competition, how did it go? 

It was so wonderful to be in that beautiful space, with so many people I’m fond of, all celebrating the ever-rising cocktail culture in Ottawa. And I’m honoured to have won, especially as the contest was judged by both a select panel and by my fellow competing bartenders.

Stephen Flood drinking his winning Negroni. Photo by Quinn Taylor.

Stephen Flood drinking his winning Negroni. Photo by Quinn Taylor.

You will be leading the bar program at Riviera, how did that opportunity come about? 

For the past three years or so I’ve been working one night a week at Matthew Carmichael’s El Camino restaurant, both because I’m very fond of him and his cooking, and because I like being around different energies and ideas. During this time, as Riviera was coming together we discussed the possibility of my running the bar program. And it just seemed to me to be a perfect fit.  

Can you describe some of your small batch infusions

I really like working with oak barrels, and currently have one that is full of bourbon and cigars, making for an amazing, smoky Old Fashioned. I also like working with strong flavoured coffee infused into bourbon, the way those bitter notes play off the vanilla/caramel sweetness of the whiskey.

You have developed a keen ability to pair a drink to a guest’s mood, can you tell us a bit more about this? 

It started with making cocktails for friends and regulars, trying to tell how they were feeling when they sat down at the bar, and sliding something across to them that made their day better without them having to think about it. And I’m not sure exactly why, but thankfully it seems to work.

What makes a great cocktail?

I would say the Negroni is probably my favourite example of a great cocktail. It’s all about balance, three equal elements all with strong personalities that must be made to live in harmony. I think once you can make a truly balanced Negroni you’ve unlocked a world of possibility in terms of understanding how flavours work together.

You lived in Paris last year for a few months, how would you describe their cocktail scene?

The cocktail scene in Paris is stunningly beautiful, and despite the reputation they have for being standoffish, I found quite the opposite to be true. One amazing, serious cocktail bar called The Red Little Door was especially inviting, giving me many exotic spirits we never see here to try once they learned that I am also a bartender. And the second time I visited, they invited me behind the bar to make whatever cocktails I wanted for the staff. Very difficult to imagine that kind of openness happening very many places.

What techniques did you learn there that you have brought back to Ottawa?

What really struck me in watching the way the Parisians work is the way they understand the idea of theatre, the way the experience is heightened when it is a bit spectacle. The way they move behind a bar is also a little bit like dance. I can’t possibly hope to emulate that, but I did come away from Paris with an even more heightened desire to make everyone’s night at the bar as special and magical as possible.

When you eat out, what do you look for in a place? 

I look for ambiance (lighting, music, and general mood), good food, a good selection of drink options and service with the right attention to detail.

What are your favourite cocktails right now? Can you share a recipe with us? 

I’m very fond of using mezcal (when availability at the LCBO allows) in cocktails at the moment, the way the smoky and vegetal nature adds an extra layer of flavour and mystery. And share a recipe? Well now that would be telling. But I’d be more than happy to make any of your readers a drink. 🙂

Do you have any advice for people just getting into the restaurant industry? 

Always bear in mind the effect you can have on someone’s day. It’s a very special thing when you’re able to take someone’s day and make it better, and it’s not every profession that gives you the opportunity to do that.

The Riviera will be opening at 62 Sparks St., near Elgin.