Rich Woods, Head of Spirit and Cocktail Development at Duck & Waffle

The  Staff Canteen
He works at the top of one of London’s tallest buildings and took twitter by storm with his Nutella Negroni but Rich Woods continues to try and reach new heights with is food inspired liquid creations. Head of Spirit and Cocktail Development at Duck & Waffle, Rich enjoys playing mind games with his customers by creating risqué and experiential drinks which confuse the senses while at the same time tasting great! The Staff Canteen took the lift up to floor 40 of 110 Bishopgate to talk to Rich about his unique flavour combinations, distilling his own drinks and why it’s a long way down if he runs out of ingredients! What’s it like working in a 24 hour operation?DuckWaffle-1269 low res It’s interesting, from my perspective it makes you look at the operation of the bar completely differently. You can’t run out of anything, you can’t even run low because our business is 41 floors above our storerooms. That’s where we prep all of our fresh juices, syrups and infusions that we make in house. It’s a military operation, you have to continuously rotate not just the staff but the stock and there has to be constant communication with your prep guys downstairs so they can bring stuff up before you run out. This bar has more in common with the kitchen and the way it’s run than any other bar I have previously run or worked in. It makes you look for a different calibre of person. You don’t just look for a bartender who wants to make drinks, you look for someone who wants to take themselves further and understands what you are trying to deliver. We have a large team for such a small bar but because it’s 24 hours you have to rotate the staff, one of the guys will have been downstairs prepping for two hours before they even come up and do their shift. Peas & Q low resYou’re the only one in your family who isn’t in the military or in the police, so how have you ended up working at the top of 110 Bishopgate as Head of Spirit and Cocktail Development? My favourite seat anywhere is at the bar so I can see what the bartenders are up to, in and amongst the thick of it! But I fell into this industry. I took on a part time job pulling pints at a local pub when I was younger, it had a limited cocktail menu typical of that time so fruity cocktails, mojitos and every variation of a Martini you could possibly think of! But I liked it, I liked meeting people, the interaction and I liked being the centre of attention behind the bar. I left school at 19 and I went into management and ended up a few years later in London. I was always management and I’ve only been bartending seriously and at this level for the past six years. It was at my last place, Floridita in Soho, that I started bartending. I stayed at Floridita for a few years and then the opportunity to come here came up. I was presented with two concepts Sushisamba and Duck & Waffle, which was always going to be a chef driven concept. I had the best of both worlds in the fact that Sushisamba had a history and a heritage that I could then modernise and Duck & Waffle was a blank canvas which I could do whatever I wanted with. You’ve developed your own style then since coming to Duck & Waffle? It took some doing and persuading. Sushisamba is very vibrant, very much a party atmosphere and trying to deliver good quality but still with those core ideas sees drinks of a completely different strain to the ones at Duck & Waffle. At Duck & Waffle, culinary influenced or experiential cocktails, that play as much on the experience of drinking them rather than the theatre of just throwing liquid into a glass; a few people had done it but not in a 24 hour restaurant. Over the few years I’ve been here my role has seen me expand from local to global and now I’m responsible for liquid development for all brands across all locations. But home is very much still up here!
Places I like to drink: White Lyan in Hoxton – to me its home away from home. I’d happily go there on my own, sit at the bar and I trust the guys who work there implicitly. In terms of the style of the bar it’s incredibly different to my normal working environment. In terms of pushing boundaries, these guys don’t use anything perishable in their drinks including ice! I also like: the Artesian in the Langham Hotel, Dandelyan and Damson & Co.
You distill your own drinks at home and supply them to Duck & Waffle/Sushisamba. How easy is that to do? I have the best of all worlds. I’m able to experiment with all different kinds of flavours, different styles of spirits but at Duck & Waffle it’s about pushing boundaries all the time. If I can’t find an ingredient which works for me, I like to create them. I like the idea of serving a White Russian, everyone would expect it to be creamy and thick but it’s actually completely translucent and looks just like a Martini – it’s a mind game, I remove all of the elements from the drink that you would normally associate with it. That’s what I do, look at a classic and think how can I make this better? Can I make it better, is it a classic because it’s a good drink or because everyone knows it? Also can we make it more user friendly, so a cosmopolitan which is a predominantly female drink, can we make it a rounded drink appreciated by everybody? Right now I’m playing around with an idea I like to call ‘virgin is the new vegetarian’. If you think back five years and dining in restaurants, back then you would be hard pushed to find a really good vegetarian dish on the menu. Same with bars and virgin cocktails, so for me it’s about recreating that great drink that’s still a virgin cocktail but with all the flavours of an alcoholic cocktail. I’m playing around with taking alcohol out of alcohol, distilling the alcohol out of Campari so you can have a completely non-alcoholic Campari and soda, a virgin Pimms, a virgin Negroni and so on. The distilling I’m doing at home allows me to distil flavours into alcohol but also remove the alcohol from a spirit.DuckWaffle-1459_HighRes low res It sounds very scientific and seems like you’re always learning something new? Always. I didn’t study this at school and I was rubbish at science but I have a drive to find new ways of doing things and seeing how far ideas can be pushed. I have 10 or 20 cookery books for every one cocktail book at home and I’m more influenced by food than drink in terms of flavours. I’m very much about trying to bridge the gap between the liquid and the culinary world, showing how great flavours which you would normally find on your plate can work just as well in a drink. So I have a blue cheese and chocolate cocktail on the menu, it came from me having nothing else in the house to eat but blue cheese and a chocolate digestive. They worked incredibly well together but they are two ingredients you wouldn’t necessarily associate with a cocktail. Talking about bridging the gap between the liquid and culinary world, do you and Duck & Waffle’s executive chef Dan Doherty work closely together? Most of the drinks I take to the kitchen to get some feedback. If it’s something inspired by a culinary element, a bit way out there like goats curd. It’s difficult to imagine that as a drink and I never want these drinks to be gimmicks. I just want people to understand that unusual ingredients work. Dan and I have talked many times about doing various concepts of liquid and food dishes. Whereby he would make a dish and I would serve a drink as an accompaniment to that dish – like a tasting menu.

>>> Read more about Duck & Waffle’s executive chef Dan Doherty 

But then on the second course the star of that course would be the drink and he would make a bite sized dish to compliment the drink and so on. It’s a strange comparison but if you imagine a bowl of cereal, say coco pops, and then the milk, on their own they are great - everyone eats dry cereal and everyone drinks milk but together they make a meal. It’s the same concept for us, we are trying to deliver two individual elements that work on their own but together make a dish. DuckWaffle-1714_HighRes low resYou say some of your ingredients are ‘way out there’ have you created drinks that were really disgusting and just didn’t work? I get asked this a lot! I don’t see any of these moments as failures, I just write down the recipe and look at ways of how to better produce that idea. There have certainly been drinks I’ve put on the menu that were a little bit of a stretch but from any particular drink there has always come a success. For example we had a cocktail called Astoria which had elements of a Waldorf salad in it, it was too on the fence but within that drink were some interesting ideas. I used these elements and the recipe six months later to create two new cocktails which were the celery and wasabi Bellini and it became one of our most popular Bellinis. The other was the blue cheese and chocolate martini which I entered into the World’s Most Imaginative Bartender competition. Are competitions something you enjoy doing? I’ve only ever entered two competitions. It’s nice to be on a world stage and when I won the UK final with the blue cheese and chocolate martini it was judged by Simon Rogan. I was ecstatic to be judged by a chef, he praised the unusual pairing in a drink but expressed delight over the creativity. The competition was about being as risqué as possible, without it being a gimmick and it had to actually work as a drink.DuckWaffle-1244 low res Do you enjoy watching people try your drinks and seeing the mind game your cocktails play? Yes definitely, from my point of you I like seeing the confusion. I like it when one person has a cocktail and they let everyone on the table try it – by the time it comes back to them it’s gone! It’s pleasing to see. Equally it’s nice to see a beer drinker or a gin and tonic drinker who walks out completely mind blown by the delivery of some of these drinks. We have regulars who didn’t come to us as cocktail drinkers and now tap me on the shoulder, ask what I’m playing around with and tell me to give them whatever I want. Do you think these ‘risqué’ drinks are the future for cocktails? I think drinks are definitely leaning towards the more experimental, but I think that comes from our increased appreciation of food and the various ingredients you now find in dishes. A lot of it is to do with social media, I can’t remember the last time I read of an ingredient being used in a dish and thinking that’s strange. Nothing seems to be strange anymore and the surge in our dining culture helps a lot when it comes to this style of drinks. So what do you like to drink? Er……anything! It must be hard for you to just sit and have a beer? DuckWaffle-1460_HighRes low resThat’s probably my favourite drink! If it’s a weekend and I’m chilling it would be a beer, I very rarely make drinks at home for myself. I have a drinks trolley but I don’t have a massive selection because most of it ends up here! If I’m out drinking I’d start with a gin and tonic and I always generally end my night on a gin martini – strangely enough I find it clears my head. That’s usually followed by beans on toast, which is actual food not a cocktail – although that’s a bloody good idea, watch this space!
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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 13th August 2015

Rich Woods, Head of Spirit and Cocktail Development at Duck & Waffle