I am romantic by nature, always longing for a world I’ve never known but somehow feel connected to. I’m nostalgic for a day gone by, some would say. As I drive up to the Roosevelt Hotel, I am quickly taken aback by the beauty it beholds and the history that lies within its walls. If these walls could talk, I am sure I would hear the stories of yesteryear, of “Old” Hollywood. From Clark Gable to Humphrey Bogart—stars I’ve admired on the silver screen—curiosity overtakes me and I sit in wonder of what it would have been like to be alive during the Golden Age of Hollywood.
With each step I take, the grandeur of the place speaks volumes and I find myself almost stumbling, feeling clumsy, as my head turns from left to right as history displays itself everywhere, especially in the 1927 chandelier hanging above. As I reach my destination on the second floor of the hotel, arms are extended to greet me as I prepare to get everything in place for a casual interview in what is known as The Spare Room. The space is located on the eastern side of the hotel, with a full cocktail bar and a two-lane bowling alley with natural light peering in, offering a sight that would later be the envy of a friend as I recant my day’s encounter.
With my notebook in hand, I am introduced to Yael Vengroff, The Spare Room’s recently appointed beverage director, and quickly fall into ease with her. Her eyes offer a sense of comfort and her smile quickly dissipates any apprehension I might have had. At 27 years of age, Vengroff is an accomplished woman in the cocktail industry. Having learned from some of the industry’s best—such as Alex Day (Death & Co.), Audrey Saunders (Pegu Club) and Giuseppe Gonzalez (PKNY)—she has been groomed to be the torchbearer for the next generation of cocktail greats. With accolades such as the 2014 Champion of Fastest Hands in the West, she is a force to be reckoned with, but also one to be admired and respected for the hard work and dedication put into her craft.
Yael kindly shared the following recipe for her drink of choice, an Electra Complex. She described it as such: It is a nice marriage of ingredients. You get the herbal components in the gin and then you have spice from the cinnamon and the fruit from the peach and you get a well-rounded cocktail. It’s bright and citrusy and easy to drink. It’s great for the spring season we are in.
.75 oz. – Beefeater 24
.75 oz. – Lemon
.75 oz. – Becherovka
.75 oz. – Giffard Peche de Vigne
Combine all ingredients in a shaker tin. Shake with ice. Strain into a sifter with one cube. Garnish with an orchid.
As we sit in a booth toward the back of the room, we reminisce about our childhoods and find we had a similar upbringing where our parents introduced us to an abundance of activities in music and dance, so we dubbed ourselves as the typical “programmed child.” Little did we know, those rich experiences would be the catalysts in shaping our characters, personalities and work ethic later on in life.
“I owe all my success to my mentors,” Vengroff explains. “That is the only reason why I am where I am in this industry.” Understanding all who came before her, she recalls how getting into the cocktail industry was merely a means to an end at first. She had moved to New York at the age of 17 to attend NYU and desperately needed a job to stay afloat. She soon landed a cocktail waitressing gig and quickly began to covet all that was going on behind the bar. With sheer willpower and determination, she landed a bar-back position and eventually started serving drinks while simultaneously being a diligent student of the ins and outs of cocktails.
“Alex Day used to have these little organized cocktail books. One was for gin while the other was for bourbon. And I would sit there on the side of the service bar and just copy down all of his cocktails, and then I would go home and copy them into my book,” Vengroff recalls. “The biggest fear I had was that I was so young and I felt that people could tell.”
With time, patience and practice started to resurface inside her. These were skills acquired at a young age as a competitive dancer and now were being put to the test daily as she worked tirelessly to improve her craft. With an exasperated look on her face, she recalls probably one of the biggest lessons learned from Audrey Saunders.
“Audrey made me create my first cocktail and I cried in that bar meeting. I couldn’t do it. I obviously didn’t have enough sense of balance in cocktails yet. It was my first one and she gave me an assignment to make a some variation of a daiquiri that is so easy today.” Although discouraged, but not defeated, Vengroff saw that as a learning experience. It’s one she carries with her today as a thorn in her side to remember where she came from and how she had progressed to the point where she is now.
“I had to do it. There was no question about it. First the challenge was: how do I create a balanced drink? I was still learning the fundamentals of that. What makes Audrey so remarkable is that she loves to drive cocktails off a cliff,” Vengroff recalls with excitement in her voice and her eyes beaming with pride. “She can take an ordinary drink that is great by anybody else’s standards and add something like a mist of pepper into the glass and give the drink a new life making it fucking delicious.”
Taking what she learned from all of her experiences, Vengroff transformed herself into the role she felt she was made to play: a mentor. This next phase of her career is one she holds with honor at The Spare Room. It is at this point in the interview when I see Vengroff’s heart as she wears it proudly on her sleeve. Her vision for The Spare Room is one that is defined by each part, moving in a way that feels curated with the customer in mind.
“I try to enable the staff as much as possible. I feel like it is never about one person. For me, I look at it from a curator’s standpoint, which I believe is honestly my biggest strength. I don’t believe creating drinks is my forte,” she explains. “In fact, it is kind of a weakness for me. You can ask people I previously worked with and they would say that is bullshit, but it doesn’t come that easy to me, especially on a large scale. For me, what I like to do is curate programs.”
“You help your bartenders and the customers have a wonderful experience and that is at the heart of hospitality, which is at the end of the day what we are doing and I am really trying to drive that home,” Vengroff continues. “It’s about the customer. It’s good to educate them when they want that. But ultimately we are here to give them what they want in a highly curated way. “
This type of curating can only occur when you have all moving parts subscribing to the vision at hand. Vengroff believes constant dialogue is key in order to make sure everyone is on the same page. And even if they agree to disagree, they understand that her call is the final decision. It is based upon mutual respect.
“Giuseppe Gonzalez was a huge mentor of mine. He said you have to ask questions when people present something to you. Usually that makes them think about why they constructed the drink a certain way. Sometimes you do run into people who say, ‘I want it to be this way and that’s why I did it.’ Unfortunately, the drink probably won’t go on the menu,” says Vengroff. “I feel that as long as you explain ‘why’ and ask questions, I find that works well with people. Some people will just never understand your aesthetic, and you try to work with them in being informed on why they made that decision. I tend to offer alternatives to their choices to see if they can see where I am coming from.”
As the interview winds down, I find myself inspired by all she has said and by all she has experienced to get to this point in her life. Her words held weight, and but it was her actions that spoke with force. When I first walked into the interview, I noticed something among everyone in the room: laughs were exchanged. Eyes were dancing. There was joy and unity.
When I asked Vengroff about this she replied, “Everyone here is great. Some have been here for years and hold a unique fondness for the place. It was terrifying coming in here being the new person, but they welcomed me with open arms. Their attention to detail is unmatched making them extremely focused with the task at hand. This makes them always on top of the game, which makes it a pleasure to be around. There is a respect amongst all.”
Sincerity echoed through the room with a sentiment of respect for a woman who knew becoming successful is not done solely by a single individual but on the backs of many.
As I say the words, “thank you,” at the conclusion of the interview, the romantic sneaks in again and I find myself in a state of nostalgia for the time gone by. We entered in as strangers but we left as kindred spirits. To me, I met Yael Vengroff the person, not the acclaimed bartender, and my life was richer for it. With hugs exchanged, we said our goodbyes, adding another memory embedded into the walls of The Roosevelt Hotel.
The Spare Room
7000 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90028