From Garden to Glass, It’s all About the Fresh Veggies

“Same old, same old” isn’t in Liz Studer’s vocabulary. For her, innovating and experimenting with plant-based beverages is all about finding what’s new and what’s next.

One of Studer’s responsibilities as wine steward and head of the Culinary Vegetable Institute beverage program is to routinely create signature cocktails for every CVI event ─ cocktails and other libations crafted to showcase specific farm-fresh vegetables, flowers and herbs from The Chef’s Garden.

“You don’t always need a knife and fork to taste wonderful things,” she said.

Never the Same Way Twice

“Our menu changes every time we do a dinner ─ it’s always different,” Studer said. “That’s pretty uncommon. It really fuels the creativity and allows me to take a different approach to things all the time. It starts with that main theme, whatever’s in the spotlight at that moment.”

Easier said than done. But Studer isn’t one to back away from a challenge.

“This has pushed the envelope further, it’s definitely very challenging,” she said. “I don’t think any other bartender in the country has probably been like, ‘Hey, we’re doing a legume dinner. I need a cocktail made with legumes!’ It’s insanely challenging.”

For those who choose to imbibe, a bespoke, one-of-a-kind signature cocktail is a guest’s introduction to each vegetable-themed dinner at the CVI (along with an alcohol-free version). Studer said the featured beverage is strategically positioned to set the stage for the meal that follows. “It’s another added layer to really nail down the theme and set the mood,” she said. “It’s always at the beginning of the dinner, so you want it to blend into that first course. It’s going to be something that’s balanced and something that’s tasty, and that’s going to relax you a little bit, but still keep your keen edge to enjoy the rest of the dinner.”

It’s All About the Fresh Veggies

Studer said there is no exact formula for concocting brand new beverages. At the CVI, her only hard and fast rule is that the drink be “plant-based” or “veggie-centered.” She did share some general guidelines though, some “sciency stuff” that usually helps kick-start the process. Begin, she says, with four basic elements: a spirit, an acid, a bittering agent and something sweet. Then, play.

“It’s about finding that balance between the bitter and the acid and the spirit and the sweetness of what you’re going for,” she said. “What else can you add in a small dose that will give it an extra layer of depth? What is your bitter element? Maybe it’s floral. Say I want to make a signature cocktail with marigolds. What’s the best way I can use it? I’ve made marigold syrup before. I’ve made marigold tea. I’ve rolled the stems so it’s just aroma. The basis of creativity is taking everything you know, and asking ‘how can you see it differently?’ It’s a lot of experimentation.”

Studer is always interested in sleuthing out new drinkable ways to incorporate ingredients from The Chef’s Garden.  Making tinctures from Chef’s Garden edible flowers, leaves, herbs and vegetables has enabled her to craft unique and inspired bitters blends. She has plans to create her own vermouths, too, as a way to use leftover herbs, wines or brandies.

“A lot of my leftover wines will go to the back (into the kitchen), which then are used for cooking purposes,” she said. “They’ll reuse those somehow. A lot of their herbs will go into kombuchas, which I’ll use in the beverage program.”

Inspiration is Everywhere

Being open to inspiration whenever and wherever it strikes is vital to the creating process, Studer said. History, places, people and stories can all spark drinkable ideas.

“You look to people around you, key elements, themes, things you’ve done in the past, things you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t had the opportunity to try yet, definitely nature, science, art,” she said. “It’s a little bit of everything from everywhere.”

Studer’s young son Tiberius has been an unwitting resource.

“The other night we had breakfast for dinner,” she said. “I made pancakes and sausage. And I busted out the spinach because I was making myself egg salad. I just had it out on the table, and he starts eating spinach, and he’s dipping it in his maple syrup, and I was like, ‘Wow, I wonder if that’s any good.’ So I tried the spinach and the maple together and I thought, ‘You know? This could work.’”

And the wheels in Studer’s mind started turning and sifting through ideas for a beverage to accompany an upcoming spinach-themed dinner.

“I could do a bacon wash with bourbon, because our first course has bacon in it, too,” she said. “And maybe do spinach juice with vermouth. That’s how I’m going to incorporate the spinach. Green foam? Maple somehow in there, too, maybe mixed with the bourbon, or in the foam. I haven’t played with it yet. I’ll probably try to add some sort of saline element to bring out the flavor of the spinach. Adding those flavor-enhancing elements brings balance to the cocktail, but they bring out the flavors, too.”

No Place Like Home

Studer said The Culinary Vegetable Institute is the ideal outlet for creating, exploring and expanding the possibilities of innovative beverages.

“Look at all of the equipment we have upstairs,” she said. “No bar or restaurant has that kind of stuff. And the few that do are doing day to day service. Here we’re definitely not hampered by day to day service or a set menu. Our menu changes every time we do a dinner. It’s always different. That’s pretty uncommon. It really fuels my creativity and allows me to take a different approach to things all the time. You don’t get bored making the same old specialty Manhattan five hundred times. And it allows me to have some lead time beforehand to really perfect something before we present it to the public.”

“We’re really blessed to have all the fun toys and all the time to play with the toys, and a beautiful platform to showcase the fresh herbs and vegetables and all the other stuff,” she said. “It’s pretty unique. There’s no place like this in the country, that’s for sure.”

The best resources in the kitchen, though, are Chefs Jamie Simpson, Tristan Acevedo and Dario Torres, she said.

“I couldn’t work that equipment without them. I never would have tried that liquid nitrogen thing (potato tapioca pearls) if it wasn’t for Tristan’s help,” she said. “I’ve taken a lot of cues from the kitchen. It’s a beautiful moment in time here because you have all of these people with all this experience and high standards and level of expertise, and we’re all kind of mixing and melding a little bit together to make these unique experiences. Having the caliber of chefs that we have upstairs in the kitchen, they set a standard, and I’ve got to live up to that standard, too. They’re great teachers. That’s for sure.”

Practice Makes Perfect

Studer is first to admit that some experiments are more successful than others, and many take a few trials to perfect.

“I’ve definitely failed a few times at things,” she said. “Not everything works. And that’s OK. A lot of it is happenstance and chance and dumb luck, too. I’ve thrown stuff together that doesn’t taste good. And what do you do? I dump it and try again, you know? Rarely is my first attempt ever the final one. It’s always an evolving thing, right up until service. You never really know ‘til about five minutes before lineup.”

The best marker of success, Studer said, is honest feedback from longtime CVI guests.

“You know these people and you’ve formed these relationships,” she said. “To have them really give something a thumbs up, to have them be like ‘Hey, this is your best yet!’ ‘Hey, this is a killer pairing!’ ‘Hey, that didn’t quite work so well!” It’s not just some random Yelper off the street. The people who come all the time, who are supportive of me, who support what we do here ─ it gives you a good feeling.  ‘Hey, I’m growing. Hey, I’m learning. Hey, we’re getting better!’ You don’t want to hit this plateau of the same old thing. No, we’re going to try and do it a little bit better.”