Charity Kay Johnston, the super talented beverage director at Toca Madera in West Hollywood, has trained bartenders for over 10 years in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Arizona, just to name a few dope places. Her bartending experience in LA includes upscale nightclubs like the Warwick and Argyle. Johnston has also been part of TV shows like Bar Rescue and The F Word with Gordon Ramsay. So, she knows her stuff.
During this COVID-19 quarantine madness, Johnston has been maintaining a fine balance of staying busy at work, still serving the public their favorite cocktails from Madera, while also experimenting with healthy concoctions at home in her free time. I caught up with her to get a peek into what the service industry is like these days and how she has been catering to inevitable changes. I also managed to squeeze a few DIY cocktail recipes out of the conversation that just may save your life during these weird times.
I’m up working from 7 in the morning until 2 in the morning, whether it’s at home or not. I’m mostly working from home, but try to go in as much as I can or when they need help (at Toca Madera). With everything that is going on, we let go our director of operations so as of right now I am kind of taking over that seat, doing beverage and operations. It’s like creating a whole new restaurant model which is pretty crazy. It’s definitely something that is new for me and my team. We’re doing a ton of extra work because there’s a lot of bodies that we’re missing because of our furloughed employees.
We had to recreate a whole menu for this, including all of our pricing which has to be different because we want to use the same quality of food. So you’re getting actual great quality, upscale-dining food and that experience, but at a price point that’s doable for people, because you also have to be considerate that not everyone has a ton of money right now. We’re trying to create the experience at home. At first, I was like, “What? You can deliver cocktails to people?” That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.
Our restaurant makes all of our cocktails by hand. We don’t batch anything – we have one margarita on draft. They are pretty extravagant, and I wanted to hone in on that but also make it doable. So I picked some favorites that are batched in house, but they are batched everyday or every other day, and they are made fresh so we are using all real ingredients that we normally would.
“The cocktails are not shaken because if shaken, the drink would lose a little bit of volume because of the added water from the ice. I wanted to make sure the guest was getting as much spirit as possible. They are meant to be poured on ice.”
You’re basically getting an actual craft cocktail delivered to you. My cocktails are always fully thought out so for me garnish is important. It’s about having that experience or something interactive. Like the Toca Margarita comes with black lava salt, just like it would in the restaurant, in a little bag and two dehydrated limes that will keep longer than fresh lime wheels. People can use the salt in their cocktail or on the rim. They can use the dehydrated lime which will cause some nice scents to their nose, and it’s dry so it’s going to last.
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For our agua fresca, which has canela (cinnamon) syrup, coconut water, pineapple, vodka (usually has aperol but has been removed because of costs), we serve it with a burlap bag tied around the bottle with two cinnamon sticks so the guests can take it home and they can either put the cinnamon stick in their cocktail and stir it, or they can lay it on top. So they get to almost garnish their own cocktail and it’s still interactive. It’s pretty cool and I’m super excited about that. People have been responding really well to it.
Last night me and my girlfriends, this is really silly, but we just called each other on Instagram and played a drinking game with filters. It’s so funny because you’re like ‘let’s drink together but let’s play a game so we have a reason.’ We were dying laughing.
I also started the Coachella documentary. In normal life, I love movies, especially because I think my job is so interactive with people. I am a homebody. I’m like an introverted extrovert. I’m great with being out with people and I love being busy all the time but there’s that other side of me that’s just like ‘oh my god I just want to be at home with my dogs.’ As much as it makes you a little crazy being home, for me it’s been a little bit nice.
“Also, I’ve been doing at home workouts, reorganizing my apartment including tons of bottles of spirits, setting things up, decorating with new plants and tie-dying all my clothes.”
I think there’s a fine line. It’s super hard not to get bored during all of this and you really want to keep yourself busy…It’s definitely given me some time to do at home projects.
I always kind of experiment because I think that’s just in my brain. Certain things that I’ve been doing is figuring out how to keep fruit and herbs from going bad. I had some turmeric that I knew wasn’t going to last much longer so I just boiled it down with some apple cider vinegar and sugar and I made a little shrub out of it. I did the same thing with berries and some sage. I’ll use that either in a cocktail or smoothies in the morning.
I also put some lavender and sage in the oven on like 200 F, on a really low heat, and I just let it dry out a bit, then hung it so I would have dried herbs. So I think there are some cool ways to get creative. I also like incorporating healthy things, like in my coffee I’ll do a collagen powder. Or I’ll take my agave and put some spirulina or chlorophyll in there. I’ll put it in my smoothie or juice. They are high in nutrients and are anti-inflammatory – really good for you. You don’t need to use a lot either.
(For cocktails) I’ll do mezcal, a little bit of spirulina-agave, apple cider vinegar, and soda water. You can use regular citrus or apple cider vinegar and it will give it that tart, sour flavor. It’s also kind of like this healthy cocktail. Who would have thought that a cocktail can actually do good for your body? Anything like ginger, turmeric, and sage. Sage is not used enough but it’s also an herb that’s really good for you. Adding sage is one of my favorite herbs to use, I love it. You can do an orange juice cocktail and drops of oregano oil. It adds a little bit of spice and makes you feel like you are giving your body something good especially during a time when everyone is worried about being healthy.
-4 cherry tomatoes muddled
-2 oz vodka or tequila
-.75 oz lemon juice
-.75 oz simple syrup (1 part sugar, 1 part hot water)
-Salt and pepper rimmed glass
*Shake and strain. Prepare over ice in 10 oz glass.
-2 oz whiskey
-1 oz fresh ginger (can be juiced, or muddled)
-1 oz lime juice
-1 oz honey syrup (2 parts honey, 1 part hot water)
*If muddled, shake and strain over ice. Add bitters as a float.
-3 sage leafs
-2 oz orange juice
-1 packet vitamin C
-.5 oz simple syrup (1 part sugar, 1 part hot water)
-2 oz vodka
*This can be built over ice
-1.5 oz Mezcal or Tequila
-.75oz apple cider vinegar
-.5oz spirulina-infused agave
-Top with soda water
*Infused agave is optional. Apple cider vinegar to taste depending how sweet you’d like it.
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