I have had the pleasure of working alongside some incredible talent in my career in hospitality. I owe a lot of praise to some of these individuals. Without them I may have never achieved the success I have in the food and beverage industry. When we talk about success, in any industry, it so rarely comes from one individual. It usually comes from a community of people all working together to reach a common goal.
Two Vancouver-based food and drink industry stars, Lauren Mote and Jonathan Chovancek, epitomize what the community is all about: Inclusion, education, hard work, and fun.
After a recent event, where I was lucky enough to guest bartend and make some fantastic drinks with Bittered Sling Bitters, I sat down with the dynamic duo (who happen to be a married couple) to chat about how Bittered Sling came to life. Here are the highlights of our conversation.
Can you go back in time and tell me how it all began?
Mote: I’ve been in the food and beverage industry since I was 16, and have been a bartender since I was legally able to. Throughout high school and university, I couldn’t shake the hospitality bug — there’s something inside me that constantly wants to communicate with, please and engage people. Starting mostly in the wine industry, I worked with some of the brightest sommeliers in Toronto. Honing my expertise in wine and top-notch service made it possible for me to delve head first into spirits and cocktails.
Was there a moment of no return?
I had an epiphany under a pile of International Relations books in second year university that eventually I would have to figure out a way to incorporate my love for food and beverage, people and politics into one role – I was NEVER going to have a desk job. My education and experience has helped me in more ways that I could’ve dreamed as a bartender.
How did you end up in the industry, Jonathan?
Chovancek: I started cooking in 1993 and have had the good fortune to work and cook across Canada, in China, Italy and Mexico. I love cooking in BC the best though – the ingredients, climate, and people who work so hard, provide me with my flavour palate. Things happened fast for me. My first job was 1995 at a Relais & Chateaux on Vancouver Island. Shortly after I was hired, we were in New York City as the second Canadian property to be invited to cook at the James Beard House. It was such a fast-paced and exciting time to be young and cooking.
Lauren, given your relationship to Chef Jonathan, how has his skills in the kitchen helped the development of your bitters?
Mote: Chefs always have a different perception and understanding of flavours compared to bartenders and sommeliers, but it’s with all of these perceptions together that our products are so complex, interesting and balanced. Without understanding palates from all angles, the beauty and uniqueness of our products would not be possible.
Since we are talking about relationships – has it ever ended up in a heated discussion?
Chovancek: No, we argue about everything EXCEPT flavours. I have never met anyone so in sync with the balance of my own palate. We inspire each other with how we build flavours. It’s so exciting when we are creating something new. It’s like making a baby!
Is there a key to your ‘baby’s’ success?
Chovancek: I think that we are just beginning – I don’t look at it that we are a ‘success’ – to me that indicates the end of something and Bittered Sling is just getting started! Hard work, tenacity, great people, and a partner who inspires has been working for us so far. We will keep pushing though, to build Bittered Sling into a global brand.
Mote: “Successful” means something different to everyone. We will know we’ve really become successful when we are both working full time on Bittered Sling’s business initiatives. I would say that we have been very fortunate to have a lot of great opportunities, but we still must rise to the occasion. Some of these opportunities only come around once, and we scrambled to get everything lined up as not to miss the boat. A lot of “success” is a leap of faith – a risk – and you’re unsure that it will pay off, but you’re hopeful – success, hard work, hope and a bit of luck I guess, but we are still working towards our goals in business every day.
What are bitters and why are they important to a cocktail?
Mote: Bitters are the foil that bring flavours together, and create harmonious balance between ingredients. They create a full-figured flavour, with every layer subtly sliding on to the next. The characteristic is called “complexity” and can be achieved using potable and non-potable ingredients.
There are obvious applications for bitters in cocktails, but how can they be used in the kitchen?
Chovancek: Bitters are amazing in baking applications as a replacement for vanilla extract. Using our Malagasy Chocolate, Moondog, Plum & Rootbeer or Kensington Aromatic in cakes, meringues, cookies, creams and dessert sauces is extraordinary. For savoury applications, using citrus bitters as a fish seasoning–in ceviche, cures, brines–it’s a great way to add bright spice notes to a dish.
Where can someone find your bitters?
Mote: All across Canada, USA, Australia, New Zealand and of course, Vancouver is home court advantage; we have a bunch of “bitter babes” (ambassadors) living here, so it helps. Vancouverites are very proud of local product, and on a provincial and national scale, both BC and Canadian governments are very supportive of Bittered Sling’s initiatives.
Which, if any, is the signature bitter of Bittered Sling?
Mote: The signatures are Plum & Rootbeer, Moondog and Kensington, but it’s like picking your favourite child–it’s not possible. All of our expressions fit in a certain time and place, and we love them all.
Chovancek: Lauren and I would deconstruct tasting notes of wine and food and then rebuild them with spice and botanicals when we started dating. Then we started to make bitters that would represent each other’s personalities. My spice and botanical description of Lauren became Moondog and her description of me became Denman Bitters.
Most good bartenders dabble in making bitters and tinctures, but when did you realize that yours were good enough to take to market?
Mote: Success in business isn’t just having a great product (as most people do), it’s about the ability to develop the idea into a business, create a product that’s delicious, hits all the notes and is consistent. Creating a brand that has loyalty, equity, and good will takes years and years, and isn’t the “fast pay off early retirement plan.” I am addicted to entrepreneurial enterprise, and a healthy and super positive “workaholic,” and love to make people happy. I was able to see all of these characteristics in Bittered Sling, and the food science understanding helped a great deal as well. Lastly, creating a brand within your own realm of understanding creates trust and credibility with consumers, so being that Jonathan is a 23-year chef and I am 16-year bartender, and the product we developed is used in both departments gave us the spotlight in a way as well.
Where do you go now? Is there a next stage to Bittered Sling, either in development to do more flavours or even moving to produce your own spirits?
Mote: We are always moving forward, what we don’t lack is ideas and concepts, and we just wait for the right timing to implement programming, so you’ll just have to wait and see!
Is there a single defining moment when you realized you are on to something huge?
Chovancek: The day I met Lauren I was with a good friend, and after watching us interact for a couple hours he turned to me and said “You two have electric chemistry – I can see you doing amazing things together.” Man was he right!
Lauren and Jonathan were kind enough to share some recipes with me so you can start incorporating bitters into your own food and beverage. You can find Bittered Sling bitters for sale at select retailers in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, and Montreal, among other cities.
Orange and Juniper Cured Salmon
Yields approximately 60 nice thin lox-style slices
- 1 kg wild salmon filet, skin-on, bones removed
- 60 mL Bittered Sling Orange & Juniper Bitters
- 30 g sea salt
- 30 g sugar
- Tarragon to taste
- Line a shallow pan long enough to accommodate the fish with plastic wrap so that the length of the wrap is double the length of the pan.
- Trim the salmon of any fins and bones. Lay it skin side down in the centre of the pan. Gently pull the sides of the plastic up to create a ‘well’ around the fish.
- Pour the Bittered Sling Orange & Juniper Bitters over the salmon. It will run off and into the ‘well’ but this is a good thing.
- Combine the salt and sugar. Sprinkle evenly over the fish, giving the thicker parts of the salmon a little more. Add the herbs. Bring the plastic up and over to enrobe the fish and cure tightly.
- Cut a piece of cardboard the same size as the fish and place on top of the fish in the pan. Place a kitchen weight of no more than 2kg over the cardboard to gently press the cure into the fish. If you have a vacuum sealer you can perform the cure inside the bag and seal it under medium pressure.
- Place the weighted fish in the refrigerator for 24 hours.
- After 24 hours unwrap and flip the salmon ever so that it is skin side up. Repeat the wrapping and weighting process and refrigerate another 24 hours.
- After this time has passed remove the fish from the cure and lay skin side down on a cutting board.
- Gently remove the curing brine with a towel by wiping it clean. Flip the fish over and repeat on the skin side. Do not rinse the fish under water. Slice thin and serve.
The Gondwana celebrates the beautiful environment–the smells, sounds, and arid climate–of South Africa. Named for the original southern portion of the Supercontinent “Pangea,” Gondwana focuses on the ingredients, flavours, and bold dryness of this spectacular location.
- 1.50oz | 45ml Don Julio Reposado Tequila
- 0.75oz | 22ml “Leather” Cynar Artichoke Amaro*
- 0.50oz | 15ml Cointreau Orange Liqueur
- 2 dashes | 2ml Orange & Juniper Bitters
*How to make “Leather” Cynar Artichoke Amaro
- 20g “BC Forest Tea” by Tea Leaves
- 4 pods green cardamon, smashed
- 2 pods black cardamon, smashed
- 1.00L bottle Cynar Artichocke Amaro
- Combine all ingredients is a food safe container, and allow to steep for 72 hours. Strain and store in a clean dated bottle.
- Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass, and stir until well chilled and diluted.
- Strain neat into a chilled cocktail coupe.
- Garnish with an elegant lemon peel, after expressing the oils over the top of the cocktail.