Cocktails make the French connection for Bartender of the Year JS Dupuis

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      Silky smooth, frothy on top, and served in a footed goblet, the St. Germain cocktail at Tableau Bar Bistro is as pale green as avocado flesh; garnished with a slender lavender stem, it tastes fresh and herbaceous. The Jambe de Bois, poppy red and bold in a crystal Riedel rocks glass, is a drink that grabs your attention with its flavour of bitter orange.

      What the concoctions have in common is their French connection. The Melville Street restaurant and lounge pays homage to the place that invented the mimosa and celebrated the belle époque with absinthe.

      Green chartreuse is the star ingredient in the St. Germain. Only two monks from the Grande Chartreuse Monastery in Grenoble know the names of the naturally green liqueur’s 130 herbs, flowers, and plants. The Jambe de Bois features Bigallet China-China Amer, a liqueur made out of botanicals and macerated orange peels in Virieu, a small town in the heart of the Loire region.

      Heading Tableau’s bar is Jean-Sebastien (he goes by “JS”) Dupuis, who hails from Repentigny, a Mon­treal suburb. The beverage director of Tableau and Homer St. Cafe and Bar, both of which belong to the Wentworth Hospitality Group, is the 2019 Golden Plates Awards’ bartender of the year.

      Dupuis cites Harry MacElhone as his favourite bartender. The Scottish master started working at Harry’s New York Bar in Paris in 1911 before buying it and wrote Harry’s ABC of Mixing Cocktails and Barflies and Cocktails. Taking inspiration from the first-edition recipe books he sourced from a cocktail museum in France, like The Bar Américain Cocktail Book and The Bar Napoléon Cocktail Book, Dupuis uses original recipes for some of his drinks, adapts others (crediting the sources on his menu), and creates originals, like the 1181, with gin, elderflower syrup, lemonade, and sparkling wine.

      While Dupuis can shake, stir, and invent cocktails that linger in the memory as well as on the taste buds, he says that creating and pouring drinks is but a small part of the art of bartending.

      “Making cocktails is maybe 30 percent of the job,” Dupuis says in a late-morning interview at Tableau, where the décor is art deco and the food menu features classics like steak tartare, moules frites, and salade Niçoise. “There’s a very, very important aspect of entertainment when you’re behind the bar, of creating an experience. It’s not hard to pour whisky over rocks, but how do you become an ambassador for your city, a concierge, confidant, and standup comedian? That’s what hospitality is all about.

      “You have to know what your regulars like; if they always have the same wine, then when you see them walking through the door, that wine is already on the bar waiting for him or her,” he says. “The aspect I like the most is building those relationships, and ensuring that everyone who comes to your bar gets the same level of service so they come back.”

      Tableau Bar Bistro
      Leila Kwok

      Dupuis didn’t set out to be a bartender, having studied botanical science at McGill. (“Liquor is made from plants, so I’m using my degree,” he says jokingly.) While there, he worked at the campus bar, serving beer, rye and gingers, and rum and Cokes. That’s where he got a taste of earning money while being part of the party and experiencing the camaraderie that seems to naturally flourish in the hospitality industry. After university, he moved to Whistler to work as a ski instructor, taking on a second job as a bartender at Garfinkel’s. The latter reignited his passion for slinging drinks and being a host. He left the slopes to bartend full-time, working at the below-ground club for seven years, learning more than how to serve up drinks at whip speed.

      “Whistler is where I really learned about hospitality,” Dupuis says. “People visit for a week or two; how do you get them back in a short period of time when they have so many options? And how do you make sure the locals, who are your bread and butter, are happy?

      “You do that by providing good, friendly service, by becoming an ambassador of your town. Having a rapport with your guests is Bartending 101, saying ‘Let me make this experience better for you,’ ” he says. “That’s what bartending is all about, making people feel special. There are no off days for bartenders. You can’t be grumpy. I don’t tolerate it. People sit at your bar, and you’re always on deck. It’s very demanding, but when you get it, it’s the best job in the world.”

      Next, Bearfoot Bistro recruited him. Widely recognized as one of the best restaurants not just in Whistler but right across Canada, it’s also one of the resort town’s most expensive. His career took off. He took on all that comes with the title of bar manager and could use any ingredient he craved, no matter how pricey or outrageous, adapting to the molecular wave when it surged.

      He was entrusted with opening the restaurant’s famous vodka ice room just in time for the Olympics, the first of its kind in Canada and still the coldest, at –25° C. He has a scar on his arm from helping build it; among the guests he served vodka flights in it were the prince of Monaco and members of 54-40.

      Working 16-hour days at the Bearfoot during the Winter Games, he says, was “magical”. Gold medallists came in with their families to celebrate. “I got to work with [skeleton athlete and Amazing Race Canada host] Jon Montgomery behind my bar,” he says. “I was teaching him how to make drinks and I got to wear his gold medal.”

      In 2011, Dupuis moved to Vancouver with his wife, making a home in the West End with their two dogs, to work at Tableau, ultimately overseeing the beverage program, from apéritifs to digestifs and everything in between, there and at Homer St. Cafe. He took a pause for a couple of years to be a wine-and-spirits rep, but missed the restaurant industry and its inherent camaraderie. He worked at Boulevard Restaurant and Oyster Bar, winning the Golden Plates bartender-of-the-year title, before returning to Wentworth.

      Tableau allows him to travel back in time to the City of Light a century or so ago, when luminaries like Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and Josephine Baker made the metropolis sizzle, to use author Mary McAuliffe’s term.

      “At Tableau, I say to my bartenders to really go to French roots,” Dupuis says. “ ‘Think Paris in the 1920s: be bold.’ All the bartenders in the U.S. who got kicked out because of Prohibition were creating all these wonderful cocktails, discovering these beautiful European spirits, with people drinking absinthe and partying.”

      To keep that spirit alive, Tableau favours French spirits and liqueurs, such as brandy, cognac, Armagnac, and eaux de vie. It carries only French and B.C. wines.

      Homer St. Bar and Cafe has an open kitchen on its lower level.
      Carolyn Ali

      Homer St. Cafe and Bar is a different beast. Although French-inspired, with its showcase rotisserie, its menu is broader, drawing on Mediterranean and South American influences. “It’s a bigger sandbox to play in,” Dupuis says.

      The international wine list emphasizes wines that may be less familiar to local diners but provide terrific value, such as those from Portugal, Spain, and Argentina, along with bottles from California, Oregon, and Washington. The lively bistro has a rotating tap of local craft beers and its own collaboration with Powell Street Brewing, a hazy IPA. “It’s hard to justify bringing in international beers on draft when we have so many good beers made a few blocks away,” he says.

      When he’s not pouring drinks or ordering wine, Dupuis has the added role of treasurer of the Vancouver-based Canadian Professional Bartending Association. It’s one way to bolster the community he’s so passionate about, with Vancouver’s scene being especially vibrant and creative.

      His advice to diners, whether they’re in their home city or travelling, is this: sit at the bar.

      “The bar is always the best seat in the house,” Dupuis says. “It’s always my first choice. My wife and I went to Montreal last year and went to a bunch of different restaurants; we sat at the bar at all of them.

      “The bartender will know where to send you depending on what you want to see or do,” he says. “The bartender will take care of you.”