CASSANDRA ERICSON + BAR & RESTAURANT CONSULTANT
I'm a horrible chef. There's really only a handful of things I can make, and to me they're pretty good but I won't be hosting any dinner parties with my go- to recipes. So, part of the deal when my close, childhood friend, Cassandra wanted to move into my apartment in LA was that she had to cook to for us! She was over living in San Francisco. She had been there for a couple years going to university and working full time managing a restaurant. She wanted to do something different. She wanted to venture south to Hollywood and give modeling a solid try. Even though I lost a couch to sleep on when I visited San Francisco, I did get to spend practically everyday with her for a couple months. In that time we both grew in the model and photographer world and most importantly, I was introduced to amazing food. Almost every day she would go to a local farmer's market and pick up fresh ingredients for our dinner. We shared my tiny kitchen, and as her part time sous chef, I learned to appreciate all that went into the process of making a thoughtfully made meal.
Like most of us vagabonds, Cassandra didn't stay in one place for very long. From going to shows and hanging out in SLO, to wandering the Mission in SF, to attending runway shows and afterparties in LA, she then jetted off to France and well... I'll let her tell you the story. The point is, through all that time she never lost her passion for the culinary arts.
She was recently on a tasting trip across a couple states in the Pacific Northwest. So I made the journey up to see her and catch up. We spent an afternoon tasting and sipping the best of what SLO has to offer. We also took a few photos. Man, it was just like old times, her and I just shooting away. Some things never change. Anyways, check out my interview with Cassandra below and check out her blog for delicious recipes, drink ideas and general healthy lifestyle tips. Cheers Cass, and congrats on all the success!
JOSH: Who you are, Where you’re from? Where do you live now? CASSANDRA: Hi-yo. My name's Cassandra Ericson. Born and raised in California (Central coast to be precise) went to SFSU for undergrad then flew the coop and lived abroad for 3 years, spent time in Australia, United Arab Emirates, and Western Europe, lived in Toulouse and Paris, France. Now, I'm enjoying PNW in Portland, Oregon.
What did you do before you do what you do now? I've dabbled in and out of bars, restaurants, and nightclubs all my life. But once in awhile I get the crazy idea to have a "normal" 9 to 5 kinda job. Those intermittent "daywalker" jobs have included working at a very corporate bank and Doctor's offices. I financed my travels by teaching business English to corporations and government institutions in France. That was really repetitive work but I got to meet some really amazing people that I still stay in contact with. I also used to model which sounds way cooler than it actually was.
What was the worst/unusual job you ever had? I got booked for a gig that was supposed to be a "sporty" high fashion photoshoot and the photographer ended up being a total creep, made everyone on set uncomfortable, and was basically asking me to get naked on a windy parking structure in SF when that wasn't the original concept at all. Needless to say I called my agency and told them I had to bail, they were supportive and apologized for putting me in that situation. After spending a few hours in hair and makeup we ended up not getting any pictures out of it which was a bummer for the whole team. Oh, and nobody got paid for it.
Talk to me about the food and beverage industry? It's a fickle bitch. Trends, diet fads, and changes in the economy can all impact a restaurant/bar. Pair that with a couple yelp trolls, food critics, and challenges in finding reliable crew. If you don't know what you are doing, the odds are really stacked against you. To be successful you need to have the right concept, at the right time, in the right location. When those stars align you need to dish out consistently great food, drinks, and most importantly customer service. If you can juggle all that at once you can turn a profit and make a considerable name for yourself.
You’ve worked in restaurants and bars almost all your life, tell me a little about that. I grew up working in my grandmother's restaurant called Omelets & More in Nipomo, CA. It was a breakfast place mostly where I spent my summers and after school hours helping out. Many of the regulars were more like friends, and I helped out wherever help was needed in both front of house (FOH) and back of house (BOH) positions. As I got older my responsibilities grew, helping with invoicing, daily reconciliations, and payroll. Putting myself through school I worked making pizzas, working as a barista, and catering weddings. I moved to SF for university, and as soon as I turned 21 I wanted to work in a bar because I heard tips were way better. I started as a cocktail server, then moved my way up to bottle service, and eventually became club manager for a huge music venue; Yoshi's Jazz Club. It's here that I began my real education and appreciation for saké, spirits, Japanese cuisine, and fine dining.
How’s the food scene in SF? It's always changing with the trends, pushing boundaries, but yet has some classic "Big City" limitations. I find the variety and authenticity of exotic dishes appealing, but sometimes the higher the expectations of a place, the easier it is to be disappointed. There's also the price point. I just can't live with myself paying $30 for mediocre mush just because it has some off-brand white truffle oil in it. Lame.
Perfect summer cocktail? I feel like clear spirits are better for day drinking so I would have to say a Cucumber Gimlet. In the evening or around Derby Day, I'd go for a Mint Julep.
Describe to me how to make your favorite drink. Yikes, this is a tough one because my "favorite" changes ALL the time. I like variety and I have my flavors of the month. I go through phases of learning a cocktail inside and out. I try to make as many variations of the same drink until I find my holy grail so-to-speak. Negroni Week was last month so I got really into that cocktail. The classic recipe is 1 ounce of each: Gin, Sweet Vermouth, and Campari. Stirred and strained into a chilled glass with an orange peel twist. There are a million variations on this classic depending on what brand of gin (which can vary wildly), vermouth, and campari (or aperol for sweeter, less mediciney) I could ramble about this for a while, so I will just move on... haha...
Talk to me about some events you’ve attended, either as a guest or say a contestant in a competition. I like to target educational food and beverage events. I've attended Oregon Bar guild meetings which always have an educational component, Glenfiddich Whisky School where I learned about Single Malt Scotch, as well as wine blending and tasting classes in Barossa Valley, Australia and Bordeaux France. Recently I competed in the North West Regional Finals of the Most Imaginative Bartender competition sponsored by Bombay Sapphire. It was my first major competing event and it was an incredible experience. I really got to push my cocktail development process to the next level, compete against the best bartenders from San Francisco, Seattle, and San Francisco.
You live in Portland now, which is a foodie city for sure, what are you favorite spots? It really depends on my mood and who I'm with. For low key cocktails I find a spot in Alberta Arts District.
What food / beverage blogs do you follow? Big shout out to all the printed books I read from cover to cover too! Here's a couple of recent favs: Jim Murray's Whiskey Bible, Zen and Tonic by Jules Aron. Sites: Chilled Magazine, Jeffery Morgenthaler, NomNom Paleo, The Feisty Kitchen, Vice Food, and Anthony Bourdain.
You lived in France for a while, Toulouse for 2 years, then Paris for 1 year, how did that affect your taste (no pun intended) in food? Living there is much different than visiting as a tourist. Firstly you get used to shopping at specialty shops. Need meat? Go to a butcher. Bread? Go to a baker. Everything is specialized, artisanal, and people take meal time seriously. Hours are spent shopping, preparing, and consuming meals. Especially around holiday time. An expat friend of mine coined the phrase "FLFL" aka Fucking Long French Lunch. During the holidays cleanup from lunch blended in with preparation for dinner. 5-7 Courses was the norm during the holidays, taking smoke breaks and "trou normand" in-between.
What is a "Trou Normond"? When you start getting full towards the end of a meal, you have a shot of locally made eau de vie, or apple brandy. This is supposed to help digestion and burn a hole through your food so you can continue with the next course.
What’s the difference between whiskey and scotch? This is better explained by my cheat sheet, which you can download for free HERE.
Typically, women don’t prefer whiskey, you love it, which is rad, how did that happen? G-ma Anna had a fondness for American Whiskey. I remember being given a hot toddy when I had a sore throat as a kid. Her favorites included Jim Beam and Tennessee Honey. The first time I ever got drunk was swiping her handle of Jim Beam from my grandparents motor home at my 15th birthday party. Sorry mom.
Current Projects? I'm currently working with a client to build out an Irish pub, building the menu, staffing, and creating his social media platforms and marketing strategy. I'm helping another client to develop a signature cocktail menu with world flavors like cardamom coffee and a harissa bloody mary.
Dream clients? I love working with new business clients that understand that adaption is necessary to survival. Creativity is important, but only when in balance with some structure. My ideal client is someone who can communicate their needs clearly, prioritize the project for maximum impact, and take pleasure in the process. I know that the better I can asses the needs, goals, and limitations of a client, the better I can develop an action plan to serve them. I like to set up businesses for success, as well as create a sustainable model so that clients learn to serve themselves when making future decisions about their bar or restaurant.
What inspires you? I find inspiration in a lot of places, mainly the idea that behind everything we put into our bodies, there is a story, a business, and a person. When we start to investigate and inquire about ingredients and processes, we appreciate and care more about our bodies and the planet. There are better ways to be a consumer culture, and it begins with education.
Favorite dish? My comfort food is legit Mexican food. A good al pastor, mole, or menudo satisfies me all the way to my core.
What is the craziest food you’ve ever tried? I think "crazy" food is very relative to what you consider normal. In France it was normal for me to eat tartare (raw beef), duck hearts, and foie gras. Here those things are considered rare and even repulsive. I've had century eggs, tripe, lots of intestines, blood sausage, tongue, heart, bear, wild boar.... I love fermented foods too! Kimchi and kombucha are some of my favorite things, and great for your gut's microbiome.
What is the most abstract entrée you’ve had? Probably my most indulgent and insane meal to date was at Vue du Monde in Melbourne, Australia. We ordered the 10 course tasting menu with wine pairings and one of the dishes that stuck out in my mind was smoked trout with white chocolate and caviar with lemon gelee, which was followed by albino strawberries with blue swimmer crab and crumbled meringue. This was all served on a table made of kangaroo leather. Shout Out to Chef Shannon Bennett for the best meal I've eaten (so far).
What does it mean to Eat and Learn and Drink and Learn? What is the philosophy behind this concept? Like I mentioned before, when people know the who, what, when, why, how of the products they put into their bodies, they actually start to give a shit about the whole process. Eating is not just a chore, it is our fuel. It gives us energy and balance and should be treated with respect. How many people would honestly want to eat processed foods or fast food after seeing how it was raised, harvested, and prepared start to finish? I suspect, not many. Getting people to care about their bodies, and the planet starts with education. What you put on the end of your fork matters. It's not just a instant satisfaction of feeling full, it's the choices you are making everyday and where your dollar goes it ultimately giving those financial resources to support an entire industry. Building awareness that our everyday food choices do make an impact is a major long-term goal of mine. A big responsibility falls on the shoulders of the bar and restaurant industry. Carefully choosing where to source food not only builds a healthier community, but also builds the perceived value of your products and business
Favorite Bowie song? His lipgloss was most memorable in "Magic Dance" and "As the world falls Down" from the Labyrinth Soundtrack, love that movie.
If you could have dinner with anyone tonight, who would it be? Where would you go? Why? I would love to take my Grandma Anna out for a nice dinner, she was the matriarch of our family and my inspiration for traveling, and falling in love with food. I was living abroad when she passed, and I to have the chance to treat her to something special. She always put her family, friends, and treated her crew like family too.
Do you collect anything? I have a few vintage collectibles: old singer sewing machine, a few vintage film cameras, and an old typewriter I can't part with. I feel drawn to things with a history.
If you could choose any superpower what would it be? I think ESP and reading people's minds would be a blessing and a curse, but knowing people's true character is invaluable. It would also help my poker game and make me a better consultant. So yeah, reading people's minds.
What do you think of garden gnomes? Oh lordy, we had those things all over the yard growing up. One of them had a fishing pole and I swear his eyes followed people as they walked by....
Worst meal you’ve ever had? On a flight in Italy I ordered the pasta. It was horrid and tasted like cardboard and smelled like old fish. You would think Air Italia would step up their pasta game, but noooooo, next time I'm bringing a sandwich in my carry on.
What did you have for breakfast? Scrambled eggs, avocado, and cholula hot sauce.
What do you do on your days off? What days off? lol. I rarely have a day completely devoid of work. I enjoy what I do! Going to tastings, reading about distilleries, writing recipes and blog posts... I joined a climbing gym to get out of the house more, I do yoga and love trying new bars and restaurants all around town!
Who do you follow on twitter that is the most entertaining? I'm more of an Instagram girl at the moment @cassandraericson
Do you believe in bigfoot? Around here we call it Sasquatch. Credible friends and family members have some pretty crazy experiences in both Washington and Colorado, but personally I haven't so it's hard to say...
If you were to get rid of one state which one and why? Only one? Sorry Caitlin, I think Mississippi can go- worst state for women's health, civil rights issues, obesity, education-
What do you think about self driving cars? Last I checked they are already legal in Nevada! I'd definitely like to get one!
Craziest thing that has ever happened to you? I've had some wild times for sure, I somehow volunteered to be a golf cart driver for a celebrity golf tournament fundraiser in Avila Beach. I ended up driving around and hang out with Adrian Young (Drummer from No Doubt) and Josh Duhamel all day. That was rad.
What would constitute a “perfect” day for you? Waking up early and finishing a month's worth of content before noon, having a massage and spa day, then finishing the night off with a nice meal with family and friends, dancing salsa with my hubby.
If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want? I think a healthy young mind is so valuable. I'd like to be sharp in my golden years! Seeing the mind fade is the saddest thing, but an aging body seems natural.
For what in your life do you feel most grateful? My health. Without it nothing else would be possible. I feel lucky to wake up everyday with an able body, and energy and motivation to go through each day.
What do you value most in a friendship? Honesty, and integrity. If I feel like someone is being fake, or flakey, I move on. Life is too short to spend it with people that are just using you or don't care about you. I have no problem pulling the plug on a friendship that isn't working. Like with cocktails- I'm a quality over quantity kinda person.
What’s next for you? I want to focus on learning as much as possible and trying new concepts. I recently became a Chilled Magazine Ambassador and exploring more beverage competitions. I'm always open to new opportunities, as long as it is in my scope of food / beverage / wellness. In the future I hope to write some more eBooks and eventually something in print. Long term, I would like to open my own restaurant and travel abroad again, South America next time!
Any advice to someone with a passion for food and beverage? Either just breaking into the scene or just wanting to grow and be inspired? It really depends where they want to take that passion. Start local, get curious, ask questions. There are so many resources for learning online. Build a network of like-minded people. Join a club or weekly meet-up that fits your interests. Eat out as much as you can afford to, order the things you normally wouldn't, never eat the same thing twice. Force yourself out of your comfort zone and try to get the story behind every new product you encounter.
Thanks Cassandra for taking the time to talk to me about this. Cheers.
Check out her website and sign up to receive her 'Bourbon Vs Scotch Cheat Sheet'. Say hello and get to know her:
all photographs and interview questions by joshua caine