Erica Coffee had every intention of becoming a chef. For her junior and senior years of high school, she elected to go to vocational school for cooking. Upon graduation she was accepted into the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, where she earned a degree. Fresh out of culinary school, she landed a job at a nice restaurant in Florida and had taken her first real step toward becoming a chef.
"And that's when I developed a horrible seafood allergy and was forced to move to the front of the house," she explains.
Rather than blow up like an angry pufferfish every day at work, Coffee stuck to this side of the swinging kitchen doors. She's been a bartender ever since—but she says we shouldn't pity her plight.
"My heart belongs behind the line, and I would much prefer to be cooking," she says. "But I also really love the bartending aspect, so I'm kind of stuck in the middle. Both provide me with the opportunity to be creative, and both require long hours on your feet."
Surprisingly, she notes, a good bartender makes more money than most cooks.
Since landing in Cleveland, Coffee has cultivated robust bar business at L'Albatros, Bar Symon, ABC Tavern and Flour. She hopes to do the same at Society Lounge on East Fourth Street, where she just accepted a new job. Each new post brings with it a new set of challenges and opportunities, she explains.
"You have to be able to match your style of personality and your style of bartending with the clientele," she says. "You can't approach customers at a fine dining restaurant like you would at a hangout like ABC. As a bartender, you have to be able to flip that switch."
Ironically, the longer Coffee continues to bartend, the more similar to cooking the job becomes.
"Bartenders are using a lot more farm-to-table ingredients like seasonal fruit purees," she says. "I create cocktails the same way I would put a dish together. It has to have the right balance—not too boozy, not too fruity."
She also likes to use some unconventional ingredients, like the smoked rhubarb and cherries that add depth to a smoky Manhattan.
"I like to make my cocktails just different enough so that customers have to ask about them and so they'll remember them."