Starchefs Review: Cocktails & Conversations


    Cookbook Review: 

    Cocktails & Conversations 

    by Joel Finsel

    by Deanna Dong
    July 2012

    As 2004 Rising Star Mixologist Joel Finsel muses in the introduction
    to Cocktails & Conversations, the role of bartender extends far 
    beyond a steady grip over the cocktail shaker. As Finsel puts it, he is 
    “friend, therapist, peace-maker, peeping Tom [sic], simultaneously 
    hired ear, and the last life raft one can hope to cling before drifting off 
    into the sea of total inebriation.” And during his years behind the bar at 
    Philadelphia’s Astral Plane, Finsel has performed all these duties dili-
    gently. But now he’s taken on an additional role, that of pseudo bar 
    historian. Readers get a barfly’s point of view as Finsel records the 
    bizarre encounters and ridiculous stories of colorful clientele and 
    kitchen staff in a collection of fictional vignettes inspired by true events. 
    Scattered between these tales are short essays on the basic spirits of 
    the craft (bourbon, cognac, gin, vodka, tequila, rum, scotch, & absinthe) 
    as well as a few classic recipes for each.
    The emphasis of Cocktails & Conversations is definitely more on
    conversation than cocktail. This is not an innovative recipe book (drinks 
    edge on the side of tradition and simplicity), nor will you find an academic
    tract on the delicate balance of sweetness, bitterness, and acidity. But 
    what you will sense is how much the bar is like the theater: conflict, 
    romance, comedy, and tragedy spill from the stools like so many tipped
    over pint glasses. Cast members are all walk-ons and the dialogue is 
    all improvised, although Finsel discloses that it’s a work of fiction based 
    on a real place.
    A preview of the scenes: the Astral Plane publicist’s near run-in with Vivien
    Leigh, the main man meeting tempting female customers, the history of gin 
    presented by precariously sane woman from the street, and the excitement 
    of being chosen by as the 2004 Philadelphia Rising Stars 
    Mixologist (we can confirm the last event is nonfictional). In a rambling, 
    casual style, Finsel meanders from one story to the next, loosely covering 
    his tenure at the restaurant from hiring to his last night. And like a stand-up 
    comedy routine or the latest Will Ferrell movie, this memoir is best enjoyed 
    with a drink in hand.

    Cocktails & ConversationsAuthor:

    Wish Upon a Star:
    Astral Plane Owner Reed Ray
    Apaghian waited six months for
    the stars to align before opening
    the restaurant. He also asked
    Finsel for his astrological sign
    before agreeing to hire him as

    Professional training:
    Finsel provides useful tidbits for
    novices to earn their bartending
    stripes, including eight steps to
    tasting wine and a discussion
    of Cognac vintages.

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