When I asked Kara Smith if her ascent in the bartending scene had turned her into a rockstar, she answered with a soft laugh and a smile.
“If you were to talk to my parents, I am a rockstar,” she said, “but I don’t know. There are definitely a few people in this industry who everyone knows. They know where they work, they know where they started, and they know their craft.”
Smith is the mastermind behind the bar program at Pajarito, a Mexican food-focused establishment on Seventh Street in St. Paul. From its front entrance, if you squint hard enough, you can make out whatever hubbub is enveloping the XCel Energy Center. You don’t feel it from Pajarito’s vantage point, though. Walking down the sidewalks doesn’t require throwing an elbow. Even in the worst of times, you can find a parking spot – a clean one, too, none of that “I hope Burger Moe’s isn’t watching” sketchiness.
Smith, a self-proclaimed Minneapolis girl, was coaxed over the river from Libertine when Stephan Hesse – Libertine’s head chef at the time – reached out to her about a project he had in the works.
“Hey, when you get a minute call me,” she said, repeating the message. “I was like ‘Oh, shit. Something went down at Libertine. I’m about to get fired. Why is Chef calling me?’”
Smith was apprehensive at first when she heard his proposal, but came around when Hesse and co-founder Tyge Nelson assured her that she would control the bar program with minimal interference from ownership.
“They were true to their word,” she said. “I came up with a drink program and they were like ‘Looks awesome. We’ll go with it.’”
Kara Smith on Precision, the Negroni Ratio, and “Frank Had a Bad Day at the Office”
Smith got into the business at 18, in Minneapolis, working VIP bottle service for Schiek’s Palace Royale. Her transition from bottle service to bartending wasn’t exactly a heroic scaling of the ladder; rather, she went into work one day and began bartending because nobody else was available.
That staff turnover was high should come a shock to no one at all.
“People who’ve never worked in situations like that, they don’t get it,” she said. “They think you get drunk every night, do a bunch of drugs, make a ton of money, and go home happy. That’s not how it is. You’re dealing with girls fighting, you’re dealing with guys fighting. It’s a little ridiculous.”
And that’s how it began, not with a bang but with (Jager) bombs.
What was simply a job became an art form – and a career – after she moved to Las Vegas in 2009. She began as a buffet hostess and spent a year working her way up, eventually earning a bartending spot at Wolfgang Puck’s. She recalled being offered the job, and thinking “You got lucky to have hired me! I’m a rockstar bartender!”
The set list at Puck’s was unlike anything she’d seen at her past gigs.
“First two weeks I worked there, I went home crying,” she said. “I had never felt so incompetent in my entire life.”
Smith called her first two weeks at Puck “the best and worst two weeks” of her life, but added that the anxiety of those two weeks made her fall in love with the work. She kept at it, capturing the attention of her peers, and cutting a pathway that led her to a massive project: helping open a brand new casino in California’s wine country. She powered through 18-hour days to get a staff of trainees – many of whom had no service experience whatsoever – up to snuff in two weeks. It was a chaotic, but successful, mission.
It wasn’t long after, however, that Smith decided it was time to move on.
“I called my parents and said, ‘I can’t be here anymore,'” she said. “It was physically and mentally killing me.” Within two days of that call, she was back in Minnesota.
It was April 2014. By this time, the Twin Cities craft cocktail scene was a bundle of dynamite … and there wasn’t a lot of string left to burn.
If Stephan Hesse Asks to Borrow Your Shaker, Say No
When Stephan Hesse joined Mike “YC” DeCamp behind the bar at Constantine last month, his goal was a modest one.
“My goal was just not to break any glassware,” he said.
Hesse’s breakage-avoiding efforts came as part of Constantine’s Chef-Tender series, a bi-weekly event to benefit No Kid Hungry. It’s exactly as it sounds: area chefs design, mix and serve drinks. Hesse’s partner at Pajarito, Tyge Nelson, worked a Chef-Tender shift back in August in advance of Pajarito’s grand opening.
Hesse designed four cocktails; and, by his estimation, made 20-30 of each during his shift. He got passing grades from Smith, who was in attendance that night; and, while he escaped without breaking glassware, one shaker wasn’t so lucky.
“I did get one of the shakers stuck pretty badly,” he said. “I slammed it too hard, and it went into an oval shape. [Smith] was like, ‘How is that even possible?’ It kept popping on me, so I finally got mad and just slammed it.”
The next installment of Chef-Tender is March 28, featuring chef Brian Warner of Heyday and at least one shaker not used by Hesse. All gratuity from drinks benefits No Kid Hungry.
Craft cocktails in the Twin Cities are everywhere now. They’re in distillery tasting rooms. They’re in bowling alleys and they’re on ferris wheels. They’ve always come in tiki glasses, but now they come in plant pots. You can find some on special for $6, sometimes. You can find some on extra-special for $20 or more.
Smith’s cocktails comes in the classic vessels, run $8-11, and complement a pair of pork tacos or basket of chips quite nicely. She designed her bar program with the intention of delighting customers with the occasional surprise, without pounding their pocketbooks or overwhelming them with ingredient lists. One drink on the current menu, called “A Mexican Monk Walks Into a Bar …” is a perfect example: you can ask what a yellow chartreuse honey is if you’re curious, or what the weird cube is in the glass, but the flavors are well-known and the price point won’t make you sweat (the habanero salsa will, though).
Q: What IS that weird cube, anyhow?
A: Hibiscus ice! Smith explains: “We take a hibiscus puree and we reduce it down. We get the sugar to a level where it’s going to freeze faster than it normally would, but it will also stay a solid cube. We have a 2×2 ice cube mold, and we throw the mixture in there. It takes about seven hours for it to freeze. We’re still trying to perfect it, keep the flavor but make it freeze faster.”
Peruse the menu and you see names like “You Boys Ever Been to Oaxaca?” and “The Trouble with Tipples.” It’s a small way she incorporates another of her loves, writing, into the hustle. There’s a big way, too, though: Smith has her sights set on one day getting a cocktail book published. In the meantime, hosting cocktail classes helps her pass on the knowledge she’s piled up on the way.
Beyond that, Smith said her ultimate end goal still changes from time to time – some days, it’s owning her own little 12-seat bar; other days, she joked, it’s just getting out of a shift alive. Her short-term goals, she says, are taking place as we speak.
“I’m more less at the point where I just want to let people know that I’m here,” she said, “and I’m kind of good at what I do.”
Now you know where she works, where she came from, and her craft. She might not sign a guitar pick for you, but I don’t think you’ll mind.
She mixes one hell of a signature.
RELATED: I wrote about the Glockenspiel, the restaurant formerly in the space Pajarito now occupies, after they closed in 2015. I also spoke with Hesse, and a few other folks, during Hesse’s victory at Taste of the Nation Hotlist 2016.