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Head Bartender: Mix Master

By Danny Freedman
Express
Monday, October 31, 2005 4:10 PM

CHRIS CUNNINGHAM, 37

JOB: Head bartender at Oyamel restaurant in Crystal City.

SALARY: $50,000 to $70,000 including tips, which can comprise up to half his pay.

EDUCATION: Bachelor's in political science from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.

WHAT HE DOES: In addition to serving customers and making sure the bar's stocked, Cunningham is Oyamel's in-house drink expert. He tinkers with the wine list and gins up new drinks that will satisfy -- or shock -- the palate. He's had "pretty good" luck so far; fresh-fruit margaritas made with pomegranate or prickly pears have been hits, and now he might try using pineapples and even avocados. "We don't know where that's going to lead us," he said. Cunningham did run into problems with the habanero pepper-infused vodka he made for his "Chili Martini" -- people were "blowing fire" after a drink -- so he now uses the brew in Bloody Marys and "Bloody Marias," which are made with tequila rather than vodka ("It was a little easier to stomach with tomato juice"). He's also a tequila specialist, and is working to double, to 50, Oyamel's top-shelf tequila list. He teaches classes on tequila appreciation at Andale, a Mexican restaurant in D.C. where he used to work, and hopes to start teaching at Oyamel soon. People are surprised when they imbibe good tequila, he said. "My motto is: Sip it, don't shoot it, to enjoy it."

WOULD YOUR WANT HIS JOB? The safety of customers and others can be at stake if you don't pour responsibly. "You've got to put a lot of thought into refilling someone's drink," Cunningham said. People who are cut off can become belligerent "and it can get physical," he said, though the unruly types are "far and few between."

HOW YOU CAN GET HIS JOB: Training programs, though not required in D.C., Maryland or Virginia, will teach you the basics; some will even help you find a job afterward. Cunningham, who learned on the job, suggested finding a restaurant or bartender that will show you the ropes. A winning personality is kind of a must. "Anybody can make drinks," he said, but personality is what will keep customers coming back. He recommends that bartenders learn everything they can about the cuisine and culture they work with -- he became a tequila expert while working at Andale.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Maryland Bartending Academy in Glen Burnie and the Professional Bartending School of Arlington.

This article originally appeared in the Express on May 2, 2005.

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