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Hearty Boys hope new book raises the 'Bar'
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Andrew Davis, Windy City Times
2012-12-19

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Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh. Publicity photo


The Hearty Boys (Steve McDonagh and Dan Smith) have been known as entrepreneurs and culinary masters for many years, but their popularity really exploded when they won the first season of Food Network Star. Since then, they have done everything from catering events for President Obama to opening the Lakeview restaurant Hearty.

They are now out with a new book, The New Old Bar: Classic Cocktails and Salty Snacks from The Hearty Boys, which specializes vintage cocktails, but also advises the reader how to make various snacks and even the proper toast at a gathering. Windy City Times talked with McDonagh recently about the book as well as politics and the status of the Boys themselves.

Windy City Times: I realized we hadn't talked in three years. Give me a status update regarding the Hearty Boys' empire.

Steve McDonagh: I think the empire stopped expanding because of our family. Nate [McDonagh and Smith's son] is 7, and we're consciously trying to do less. Our original plan [regarding the restaurant] was to do Frill—which was to be all cocktails and hors d'oeuvres, with a little music—but it was just too much.

Then we opened it up into a TV studio, where we showed people how to cook on camera; however, people came in saying, "A cooking show is great but there's nowhere to eat in this neighborhood." So we changed it to the restaurant about three years ago; it's a great neighborhood spot. Our plates are pretty full...

Windy City Times: ...so to speak.

Steve McDonagh: [Smiles] Yes. There's always something coming up, like a book or pitching a new TV show. When Dan and I get a Sunday and Monday off, we have a weekend place in Michigan. You have to try to find a balance.

Windy City Times: What about the television aspect?

Steve McDonagh: We're always pitching. We were the chefs for Windy City LIVE when it first started. That's all we have with TV right now.

Windy City Times: I remember the last time we talked; you didn't like the direction the Food Network was going.

Steve McDonagh: It's very different than when we first started. It's all about extreme competitions. It's just a different monster. I'd love to have another cooking show, though; I enjoyed the hell out of the last one.

Windy City Times: I know that you and Dan hosted "Chick-fil-Gay" a couple months ago [in response to the Chick-fil-A situation] and you've invited [conservative pundit] Mike Huckabee in the past. Do you see any drawbacks to being so politically involved?

Steve McDonagh: Absolutely not. If somebody doesn't want to dine here because of our political beliefs—and our political beliefs are less party-oriented and more focused on families like ours—I don't want them here. I don't have a huge media outreach, but if I can get more [exposure] to protect families like mine, I will do all that I can. That is the most important thing to us.

We invited Huckabee because he said same-sex couples shouldn't adopt. So I keep an eye out for him. When I saw the Chick-fil-A thing, I asked, "How do I make this a positive?" I didn't want to attack or bitch.

Windy City Times: Let's dive into the book. How did you come up with which cocktails to include?

Steve McDonagh: Oh, that was easy. I have been focusing on teaching people about pre-Prohibition cocktails before people were really doing it in Chicago, [although] they were doing it on the coasts. That's why I wanted to open Frill, which would've been ahead of the curve; however, I couldn't do any more so we decided against it. Now, I'm kinda behind it.

When I find out when we do our cooking demos is that the average person doesn't know what a pre-Prohibition cocktail is. They don't know about gin, and I had been pushing that for years. There are some people doing some terrific things with cocktails, and there are some books out there for cocktail geeks. But no one is talking to the people who come in my restaurant and sit down.

So I'm walking around, asking people, "Why aren't you drinking gin? You're ordering a dirty martini in my restaurant? I won't let you do it." [Smiles] You should see the waiters if someone orders a cosmo; they're, like, "Um..." You can get a cosmo anywhere.

I studied many out-of-print books and found recipes that were good or needed a little tweaking. So, with [more than] 200 cocktails, there are vintage cocktails, vintage cocktails with a twist and drinks that were inspired by the pre-Prohibition cocktails. I won't serve drinks here unless they're based in history; it's just more interesting.

Windy City Times: Something I noticed is that there are primary and secondary spirits.

Steve McDonagh: That's how I refer to them. You have your basic gin, vodka, tequila, scotch. Then I think of those jewel-colored bottles as my secondary spirits, like the chartreuse, which adds herbal and licorice notes and texture to the drink.

Windy City Times: I always thought of absinthe as something from the 18th century.

Steve McDonagh: Yeah, but that's still pre-Prohibition. It could be something from the 1700s. I have something called a shrub in the book; it's from the 1700s, and it's how they used to preserve fruit. They would use vinegar, an acid, to preserve it. So I have a raspberry shrub in the book, and it uses sugar, water, raspberries and champagne vinegar. A little of that goes in the cocktail, and it provides this surprising tang in the back of your throat. I don't like sweet drinks; I want them to be citrus, spicy or herbaceous.

This is why I love cocktails so much. Now I understand why my grandparents would have a cocktail before dinner—it pairs with food. The cocktails we had in the '70s had a lot of sugars; I don't want that.

Windy City Times: Are there cocktails that are meant to be enjoyed during certain times of the year?

Steve McDonagh: I don't break it into seasons but some things, just by their ingredients, are seasonal. For example, I have a basil julep in there. It's better because it's fresher in the summer but I don't that it's something I'd want in the winter, palate-wise. Also, I don't drink cocktails with Benedictine in the summer.

Windy City Times: Do you encourage readers to put their own twists on some of the recipes here?

Steve McDonagh: No—which is the opposite of what I say in the cookbook. Drinks are different; they're all measured and exact—it's a lot like baking. The cocktails are measured for balance so if you change things, you'll throw off the balance. Plus, the funny thing about cocktails is if you switch one ingredient out of four, it'll probably be another existing drink. [Laughs]

Windy City Times: What's your take on vodka?

Steve McDonagh: It was difficult for me to put many vodka drinks in this book. People come in and ask for it, but we didn't really drink it until the 1950s and 1960s. I put some in because I want everyone to be happy.

Windy City Times: Is gin your favorite spirit?

Steve McDonagh: [Pauses] It changes, depending on the season. My answer may be different tomorrow, but for right now it's rye. A good intro to rye is to mix it with ginger, by the way. [Leafing through book] By the way, I took all these photos myself.

Windy City Times: I didn't know that.

Steve McDonagh: Yeah. I've been doing my own photos for the restaurant for years. [For one set,] I went all around the Midwest; I looked for lounges and neon signs. [Page 19] is the bowling alley on Diversey.

Windy City Times: Seeing that page with poutine lends itself to the fact that there are snack recipes in this book. Why include them?

Steve McDonagh: Because it's not about a cocktail party—it's about setting up a bar and having things people can just take. There are maybe two or three things you might need a fork for; everything else can go in a bowl or in your hand. There are chorizo-stuffed olives and Kix mix [with Kix, Cracklin' Oat Bran and Life cereals].

Windy City Times: The savory pop tarts look really good.

Steve McDonagh: Yes, they do. And then there is the wasabi-pea caramel corn. That was made by mistake, actually, when I mixed up two bags.

Windy City Times: And then there's the section on toasts.

Steve McDonagh: I think that's the next thing that has to come back. All of these hipsters are at bars and are getting into pre-Prohibition drinks, and these guys are wearing vests again—I think the next thing in the natural progression is a great vintage toast. It's not just about drinking booze; it's about the whole experience.

My favorite one we learned in Tuscany. You know how you're at a big table and you can't reach everyone with your glass? The host raised a glass and said "Toccato uno, taccato tutti," which is "touch one, touch all," while you touch one glass.

The New Old Bar is available at Amazon.com and other retailers.


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