Coveted as a “neighborhood gem”, Grand Cru is notorious for its extensive alcohol selection with numerous varieties of beer, wine, and cocktails to choose from. Providing an answer to even the most particular of palettes, Grand Cru really is, a grand bar. However, that is only a small variable of Grand Cru’s equation to creating one of the greatest food and beverage establishments in the Baltimore area. Their passion for creativity, dedication to service, and commitment to quality is what truly sets them apart from the rest – revolutionizing my idea of what it takes to be the best. With one of the most knowledgeable and inviting staffs I’ve ever had the privilege of experiencing, this week’s selection came easy. I am happy to announce Full Society’s Bartender of the Week, Chris Jennings of Grand Cru. I was fortunate enough to spend a few hours with Chris, who proudly shared with me how intensely he and the entire Grand Cru team strive daily to provide nothing but the best and finest to their guests. In his words, “The care that I take is what I pride myself most on. I strive for every process of your drink, from the fruits, syrups, and ingredient to the final pour, to have all been touched by my hands. My biggest priority is coming in every single day of my life and providing whatever my guests may need – it kills me when I can’t provide them with a drink they desire”. Raising attention of detail to new heights, Chris’s focus on quality has rightfully earned him his title of our Premiere Bartender of the Week of 2016.
Chris grew up near St. Louis, IL in a town called Bellville where “farm to table dining” meant just eating and the inclusion of fresh, locally sourced ingredients in food was just a standard practice. Chris’s understanding of the importance one’s ingredients holds was sparked at a young age. As a child, he would watch his grandmother grow and can all of her own fruits and vegetables like, peaches, strawberries, and corn. Unknowing at the time, this spark would catch fire and eventually fuel his success later in life. As he grew older, Chris’s interest began to spread into the world of alcohol. Chris was not alone in his desire to explore this new world, and fondly remembers the days when he and his friends would run around town with a backpack full of whiskeys, “drinking has always been an area of interest to me”. As time matured his interest grew into a passion and Chris eventually made his way to St. Louis in an effort to feed his passion and let it grow, “St. Louis is a big drinking area, especially for beer”.
Chris’s passion for all things alcohol was further increased with the aspiration of surpassing just drinking Bud Lights to get the buzz, “Why do you eat and drink? If just to eat and drink you are wasting your time, you need to love what you eat and drink”. Beginning in 2001, Chris began to expand his pallet and branched into the world of craft beer. He quickly fell in love with the detail that craft beer carried with them and used this love as a catalyst toward becoming involved with bartending. In 2007, after years of serving, Chris began his new life in St. Louis with his first bartering job at the Hard Rock Café, where he worked toward helping expose other to the beauty of craft beer. Chris wanted to help move whoever he could beyond the big 3 beer companies, Anheuser-Busch, Millercoors, and Pabst, so he began exploring the craft beer side of the business. With perfect timing, as craft breweries were gaining momentum, Chris sought to help his guests explore their options and expand their knowledge of what the beer world had to offer, invoking excitement with each interaction he shared. In a sense we should all praise craft beer, without it Chris may have never ended up in Baltimore.
Witnessing the pleasure his suggestions brought his guests, Chris was more inspired than ever to master the fields of cocktails and wine, in hopes to once again assist those he served to an even greater level of satisfaction while simultaneously increasing his own prowess. Chris’s journey eventually brought him to Baltimore which he happily finds very reminiscent of home. He has now been with the Foodshed Company since October 2013, when he started working at Shoo-Fly. Following his time at Shoo-Fly, Chris had the opportunity to experience a variety of highly regarded establishments including Woodberry Kitchen, Parts and Labor, and Artifact Coffee. Chris, ultimately ending his time of diverse experience, felt confident in what he had learned along his journey and was ready to let his creativity play a larger role in his bartending. Finding Grand Cru as the perfect fit, due to his alignment with their concern about their ingredients used in every aspect of their service and desire to provide their guests with the greatest experience possible, Chris feels like he has found his home as a manager/bartender at Grand Cru.
Focusing their efforts on what goes into their guests’ drinks, Grand Cru and Chris try to only use the freshest and healthiest ingredients when crafting their cocktails. Taking the time to cultivate their own garnishes, syrups, and purees, Chris has witnessed and overseen every aspect of what goes into your glass. For Chris, service is monumentally tied to the care it was provided with, and is one of his favorite aspects of his job and helps him fulfill a sense of community, “You get to put your hands on everything you do; it’s important to me to have strawberries in June and July, and watermelons in August in September. It’s about not having things from other parts of the states when it comes to produce and meat. You know these (local farmers) people, you want to support these people, you want to see these people happy and successful”. With such a heavy emphasis on supervised quality, I asked Chris his greatest challenges when creating new cocktails for Grand Cru’s menu. Chris answered with,
“Every day is a preparation for a test, and when that test comes, you don’t always get that A. How you learn and grow from that determines how fluent and successful you will become in the future. Every moment is an opportunity to learn and grow. I’m not using someone else’s cocktail, I’m always inventing my own, which is a continuous challenge I look forward to tackling”.
So what helps Chris ace his tests and continually prepare for success? The thought of providing his guests with something they love and their bodies will love as well, “My grandfather, who was my best friend, faced cancer and was told to start eating organically which monumentally inspired my passion for fresh, local, and well sourced ingredients”, endlessly using his grandfather’s experience’s as support. He doesn’t even use citrus in his drinks because “citrus takes the most pesticide and herbicide application of any amount of produce in the world”. When a drink is produced with love and care, it will always be a phenomenal experience.
Chris was kind enough to let me sample some of his favorite creations, allowing me to fully experience the impact his ingredients have on his drinks. I was given four drinks, all of which were unlike anything I have had before, utilizing local Maryland and Virginia sources to completely encompass a taste that rightfully portrayed the tastes of our area. We began with The Shrub Life which was wonderfully blended with Maryland honey Barhill Gin, and house made strawberry shrub (cold packaging process that uses fresh local strawberries, honey, and apple cider vinegar) delivering a sweetly tart taste. He then moved onto the Dead Flowers, meant to meld the cocktail and beer worlds, which was inspired by a guest who “had too much hops in his life”. The Dead Flowers is crafted with Virginia Whiskey infused with local hops, hop tincture, verjus (acidifier since they stay away from citrus) and truly achieves the perfect blend of the tastes of cocktails and beer. To add a sweeter twist, Chris poured me up The Summer House which uses 2-month aged rum infused with vanilla bean skin and cinnamon sticks, Pawpaw (locally grown in the Chesapeake Forest, Pawpaw is an indigenous fruit that resembles tropical flavors) puree, orange bitters, and candied watermelon rinds. After my first sip I was blown away, between the smooth flavors incredibly refreshing sweetness, I had fallen in love. Lastly, I was provided with the Fisherman’s Fire, crafted with 8 year Kentucky Whiskey, California Vermouth, and 18-month aged Maryland Fishpepper Mead. If you are a fan of bourbon or whiskey this is the drink for you, with no taste overpowering another, this beautifully smokey concoction is sure to drown your body in happy warmth.
Chris continues to increase his knowledge in any way he can to this day. He opens himself up to every avenue for knowledge possible; from working with mentors, to reading books, to testing his own creative abilities, his thirst for knowledge seems almost unquenchable. His passion, dedication, and commitment have transformed the way I view a bar experience, and have nothing but upmost praise for Chris and Grand Cru on their incredible efforts towards this experience. I can’t wait to experience what Chris has planned for his next creation, and thank Grand Cru for proving that passion is the cornerstone for success, and nurturing such passion in your restaurant.