Chef Irene Li
We recently spoke with Irene to find out more about the world of mobile foodservice and its differing processes from work-life in a brick-and-mortar restaurant kitchen.Read Bio
Shaking Up New Cocktail Trends
You’ve been recognized nation-wide as a “Cocktail Maven,” what inspired you to choose this career path?
In high school, I started working some part time jobs, and one of the first ones was in a restaurant. I remember watching the bartenders analyzing what they were doing. Then, when I was out with friends in a secret jazz bar, this immaculately dressed bartender moved with such grace. I was so mesmerized by the experience and completely fell in love with the idea of being able to give customers that incredible, sophisticated experience. So, when I moved to America for university, the first jobs I applied for were bar and bar-backing jobs.
With both your alcoholic and spirit-free beverages, you push limits with your range of diverse and distinct ingredients. Describe how you balance and elevate the flavors of both styles of beverages.
Balance, at its core, is very simple. If you break it down to the definition of a “cocktail” being spirit, bitters, sugar and water, it is just a balance of these four elements. When it comes to a sour cocktail, it would be spirit, sugar, and a sour component — typically citrus. In the realm of cocktails, the spirit is the backbone. It is an ingredient that opens up with water, and at times changes for the better when mixed. In the case of spirit-free, you’re working with ingredients that don’t open up with water. Rather, they get over-diluted. For this reason, a different type of equation is needed to achieve balance for spirit-frees. Essentially, a base needs to be created to take the place of that spirit and then the balancing with sugar and bitter or citrus may happen in the base itself, or later in the process. Other factors to take into account are the texture and temperature of the drink.
If you add water early on, the key is to not add any after the fact. Store the balanced base chilled, and serve. I serve most spirit-frees in this fashion down, or up — not on ice. Serving the balanced base on ice may lead to over-dilution and a muddied flavor, negating all of the hard work that went into infusing the mixture.
If the intent is for the spirit-free to be enjoyed on ice, it is crucial that the base is created with a high enough concentration of flavor, sugar, bitterness and acidity, so that when it sits on ice for any amount of time, even up to 10 minutes, it still tastes delicious.
Share with us the cocktail techniques you are currently utilizing to enhance the overall flavor of both your alcoholic and spirit-free cocktails? Do they differ between the two styles of beverages?
There are techniques that may be applied early on in the creation process to magnify and sometimes alter the flavor of certain ingredients. For example, cracking spices before infusing exposes fresh elements of the core which have not oxidized and lost their flavor. This delivers a more intense aroma and flavor. If these cracked spices are then toasted, the heat will intensify the flavor even further. Something to keep in mind here is that heat will also change the flavor in some cases.
As for the sugar component of the cocktail and the spirit-free equation, there are so many different types of sugars and sweeteners available, all which act in a beautiful way to help bind other flavors and create more of a concentration of flavor. For example, if you're using granulated white sugar, it's just sweet. When adding brown sugar, maple sugar, molasses, or honey, these sweeteners are actually adding a whole other layer of flavor to the mixture, which is a great way to add complexity.
When it comes to building the beverage, whether spirited or spirit-free, I take extra care when adding sparkling ingredients to a drink — taking care not to pour over the ice to maintain the carbonation of the ingredient. In the case of spirit-frees, the mixture plays an extra important role as both effervescence as well as flavor contributor. It is vital that it is at its peak level of carbonation because with these “simple” drinks, there’s no room to cover up flaws.
Where things begin to differ is when it comes to stirring and shaking. The goal for spirit-frees, as for with cocktails, is for the drink to be perfectly chilled. However, it’s important to keep in mind that spirit-frees are at a higher risk of over-dilution. Instead of stirring, I store spirit-frees and their ingredients in a cooler or ice bath and then build or pour them into the glass to serve. If there’s a need for aeration, I may dry shake or throw. There are times when a touch more chilling is needed, and that is when I may shake over one large piece of ice, or briefly wash the mixture over ice, before straining.
Describe your flavor process for creating the optimum palate pleaser with each of your concoctions.
It really depends on whom the drink is for — more specifically, what purpose the drink is fulfilling. For example, if I’m helping out at a restaurant with a tasting menu, I'm creating pairings for particular dishes. In that case, I'm talking to the chef about what ingredients he's using and whether he's grilling, toasting, frying and/or dehydrating ingredients. I then try to take that into account to inform how I approach my ingredients before creating the cocktail. I'm really looking to the culinary pantry for my ingredients and techniques. It's super fun and there's so much inspiration from the kitchen. If the drink is intended as a stand-alone à la carte offering, which may or may not be sipped alongside food, I like to fill certain categories of drinks, such as an aperitif, digestive, bright and refreshing, or bitter and brooding.
What role do spices, herbs and seasoning play in taking your cocktails flavor to the next level? Provide examples.
I derive quite a bit of inspiration from the kitchen and culinary world. At Oriole, I have access to a plethora of beautiful baking spices. Whether it's cinnamon, allspice or nutmeg. These baking spices work beautifully with any type of spirit whether it's a vodka, gin, rum, or whiskey. When used in small or larger amounts, baking spices have a way of highlighting and elevating the spirit in a cocktail. For spirit-frees, incorporating baking spices can mimic the peppery burn you get in alcoholic beverages. At Oriole, I created a spirit-free in the style of a red wine, using a special blend of teas, pomegranate molasses, shiitake, and star anise smoke.
Traditionally you opt to include a diverse set of global ingredients in each of your creations. Which region and ingredients are you inspired by at the moment?
Japan is home for me, and I am inspired by and drawn to ingredients from my home country; there's certain nostalgia for me. It's kind of exciting because a lot of these are ingredients that people are not familiar with in the United States.
For example, kinako, roasted soybean powder, is toasty and nutty like peanut butter and is really fun to play with, as it’s a Japanese ingredient, which can also tie into American nostalgia. There's also katsuobushi, which is thinly shaved fish, that has been dried, fermented, and smoked. This ingredient introduces a great amount of umami and kokumi to a drink, much like a stock.
I'm also extremely inspired by spice blends from around the world, especially those from around the Mediterranea, Saudi Arabia, India, and Turkey. Many of these blends have influenced and inspired cocktail creations. For example, one I created was inspired by Dukkah, a Middle-Eastern spice blend that is often enjoyed with olive oil on pita. Everyone has their own version of it but they all seem to incorporate nuts of some sort, like hazelnuts or walnuts, with dried mint, thyme, and spices such as cumin, coriander seed, and peppercorns. I had the idea to recreate the flavor of Dukkah, but without relying on any of the actual spices. Instead, I found spirits that have those flavors, and created the cocktail called Six Bit, with nocino, crème de cacao, kummel, sweet vermouth, sotol, Irish whiskey, and aquavit.
Define your signature cocktail and why.
Definitely the highball, specifically a Japanse whiskey highball built over crystal clear ice. Currently, there is a rise in the popularity of this drink, but through the spread of highball machines from Japan. These machines are great but I do prefer the ritual of chilling a glass, softly pouring the whisky, and then careful topping off of sparkling water or club soda; simple yet significant.
Which new cocktail flavors and ingredients can we expect to see making their way to the center-of-the-glass in the near future?
I have been using teas for quite some time, in cocktails and in spirit-frees, but I have a current infatuation with oolong tea. Oolong is available from many different regions and as a result of terroir and individual farmers’ processes, there is a wide range of flavor that may be expressed through the tea. There are some with the essence of white flowers like plumeria, orchids, or magnolias, and others with hints of rich honey suckle, calendula, or even rose. There are times when the oolong is savory and smoky, and times when it is bright and citrusy. I love how there is so much diversity within this style of tea, and hope to explore it further so that I may share these special elements with the people who stop by my bar.