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Some liquid assets do well in downturns

By Cindy Atoji Keene
Globe Correspondent / November 15, 2009

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On the job with
Max Toste, bartender

Don’t call Max Toste a liquid chef or mixologist.

He’s a bartender. Ask him for a Manhattan, and he can make it 10 different ways: as a Louisiana (rye and Benedictine), Red Hook (rye, Punte e Mes), 1900s (rye, Dolin vermouth, Boker’s Bitters) - the list goes on.

“This kind of bartending is not beer tending,’’ says Toste, co-owner and bartender at Deep Ellum in Allston.

Like many bartenders, Toste is a musician, a background that’s an asset, he says, because entertaining and performance are a big part of both being on stage or behind a bar. He favors Ray-Ban spectacles, Dickies buttondown shirts, and Levis as his work uniform, a far cry from the black-and-white tux he wore when starting out as a busboy at Locke-Ober.

“I learned a ton about wine and service, but at first didn’t want to be stuck behind a bar, forced to listen to patrons talk about Red Sox, golf, or The Wall Street Journal.’’

But a job at Bukowski Tavern in Cambridge changed his attitude toward bartending. “I realized I could talk about music, beer, and food. People who want to hang out, do. If not, they leave,’’ says Toste. “I created a clientele who liked what I did and kept coming back.’’

Today, at Deep Ellum, he serves everyone from “mohawks to suits,’’ and his cocktails are stirred, not shaken, with fresh twists and juices and cool spirits. Bartending may be the ultimate recession-proof career: employment is expected to increase 13 percent between 2006 to 2016. “People aren’t going to stop drinking when things go bad,’’ says Toste. “In fact, they go out and drink more.’’

Q. What makes a good bartender?

A. Proper pours on the beer, the correct glassware, all these things set you apart. Never let someone have an empty drink, and ask them what they’d like to have next. A good bartender remembers your name, pays attention, and puts in extra effort to find out what a customer likes - or doesn’t - and tries to customize the experience. I always put a glass of water out too, because that helps cleanse the palate and prevents you from getting dehydrated. Finally, a clean bar is a happy bar.

Q. What’s the best way to get training for this profession?

A. I recommend getting a job at a place you like - a restaurant, bar, or hotel. Start low and work your way up the ladder. Bartending can be still looked at as an apprenticeship. Going to bartending school isn’t necessary; you can learn on the job.

Q. What was the first drink you ever had?

A. It was a glass of Canadian whiskey, diluted by a bunch of ice that had melted. My grandfather had forgotten it. I was only 7 years old. And when I was 8, I pulled a bunch of Bud cans from his fridge in the garage. Maybe that’s why, to this day, I like beer and whiskey so much.