Meet & Eat: Don Lee, PDT
Editor's Note: Our pal Laren Spirer is bringing us the latest edition of Meet & Eat. She is yet another lawyer obsessed with food. When she's not eating, drinking, cooking--or thinking about what to eat, drink, or cook--she can be found cycling, running, or swimming (likely in preparation for a triathlon) or blogging at Sweet Blog o' Mine. This week, she introduces us to Don Lee, an East Villager doing what many of us only dream about--leaving his "day job" to follow his passion. In this case, it's crafting unique cocktails. He's even traveling to Bordeaux today to compete in the Marie Brizard finals! With that, we'll let you meet Don. (Good luck in France!)
Rumor has it you used to be a software developer/systems analyst. How did you make the transition from techie to cocktail guru? I'm actually still working full time in IT at the moment and waiting for the right opportunity to give up my last vestige of being a functional member of society. I was always interested in food and the first time I had a real cocktail, it was a moment of epiphany. Why was it so good while every other cocktail I've ever had was so bad? Trying to figure that out took me to LeNell's in Red Hook, spending an inordinate amount of time at Pegu Club, and eventually getting behind the bar myself.
You've been cleaning up at various cocktail competitions lately for Rhum Clement, Marie Brizard, and your now legendary one-armed win in Italy for Averna. What's the key to a prize-winning cocktail? While interesting flavors and technical executions are what I enjoy working on for the bar, the key to a competition is to show off the sponsoring product. I try to come up with simple easily reproducible drinks that balance and have broad appeal.
What inspires the flavor combinations for your cocktails? Most of my inspiration for cocktails comes from various eating experiences. A great dish at a restaurant, seasonal ingredients from the farmers' market, childhood memories of ice cream truck Mexican candies, etc. Savory flavors are underrepresented in cocktails and it's my goal to change that.
When you're not at PDT, where in the city do you like to go for a good cocktail? My favorite bars for cocktails would be Death & Co, Clover Club, Tailor, Little Branch, and Milk & Honey. But there are many other places that aren't known as cocktail bars that have great Bartenders worth visiting. Hearth, Insieme, dell'Anima, and Yerba Buena often get overlooked because they're known primarily as restaurants.
Any tips for someone who wants to learn some cocktail basics? I suggest going to cocktail bars to hang out with the bartender then try the drinks at home. It's surprisingly easy and that's how I learned. But for those who looking for a shortcut I also teach a Home Bar Basics class at the Astor Center. Next year we'll be adding a few more intermediate and advanced classes in cocktails as well.
Do you have any one particular go-to cocktail or spirit? The Manhattan is what first got me into cocktails but lately I've been drinking a lot of classic daiquiris and Negronis. When I go to a place with a cocktail menu though I usually go down the list and try everything. [Editorial note: not in one night, of course!]
Best pizza in the city? DiFara. Dom should be designated a New York historical treasure.
Favorite burger? I'm in love with the patty melt at Black Iron Burger right now.
Favorite bagel? I prefer a bialy and Kossar's is the gold standard.
Best late-night eats? Great N.Y. Noodle Town.
Favorite late-night bar? Milk & Honey.
Undiscovered gem? While its opening was highly anticipated by foodies, Tailor has surprisingly not become the popular destination that it deserves to be. Sam Mason and Eben Freeman are doing amazing things there. I'm still thinking about Mason's butterscotch miso pork belly from last fall. Freeman is by far the most innovative bartender in New York City. The green apple cocktail on the current menu is truly surprising and goes down way too quickly for my own good.
Guilty pleasures? Saltines with peanut butter and jelly. I blame Christina Tosi.
Most memorable New York City meal? Sushi Yasuda. Momofuku Ssam Bar is my favorite restaurant in the city and has been the most influential to my cocktails but I can still enjoy pork elsewhere. Since going to Yasuda, I have a hard time finding sushi that I enjoy anywhere else in the city.
Everyone has a go-to person they call for restaurant recommendations. Who's yours? Kathrynyu of eGullet, Chowhound and the Serious Eats comment boards. How can you go wrong with someone that makes jowl fat ginger spice cookies? Though Kathy YL Chan is the undisputed queen of all things pastry and sweet.
What's the best recommendation she has given you? Kanoyama, long before Bruni wrote it up in the Times.
PDT is located at 113 St. Marks Place (near First Avenue; map). 212-614-0386.