Karen Fu
Photo by Lizzie Munro

Pairing Cocktails and Summer Reads with Karen Fu

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Karen Fu is a connoisseur of cocktails and books. She’s acquired more than a decade’s worth of bartending wisdom, and when she isn’t shaking up creative, deliciously nuanced drinks, she reads a lot, absorbing the world around her through the poetry of thought.

A Los Angeles transplant after living in New York City for 15 years, Fu took up bartending when she left college, inspired by preceding bar-dwelling writers to sustain the lifestyle of both occupations. Named a “Rising Star” by Food & Wine magazine in 2015, Fu has directed and managed hot spots like Donna Cocktail Club, Mayahuel, The Happiest Hour, Studio and Gallery at the Freehand Hotel New York and she was on staff at Manhattan’s PDT and NoMad Hotel when each received a James Beard award for outstanding bar.

Two years ago, Fu left the Big Apple for a change of scene and headed to the sunny West Coast. Nowadays, she can be found at Republique and is slated to run the bar program at the yet-to-debut Bicyclette Bistro. Until the world of hospitality resumes any semblance of normalcy, Fu is occupying herself as a volunteer board member for the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, an advocacy nonprofit created by and for restaurant workers, the segment of the industry hit the hardest by the pandemic lockdown.

So here we all are at home with plenty of time to indulge in good books and fine libations. Why not bridge both worlds and get fancy in the drink department while simultaneously nourishing our minds?

Dig into these pairings courtesy of the mighty Fu, who conjured up a list of reading material enhanced by her exquisite cocktail recipes:

1.

Book: “So You Want to Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo

Cocktail: Sazerac

The Sazerac is from New Orleans, the vibrant birthplace to many classics in the cocktail canon. Cognac is a special twist in this recipe variant. Intrigue between Black America and France began during the Harlem Renaissance and lingered through World War I and World War II as troops’ affinity for the brandy grew to modern-day popularity.

What’s vital, now more than ever, is dismantling systemic and institutional racism and anti-Blackness. “So You Want to Talk About Race” is an actionable primer in which Ijeoma Oluo gifts readers disarming clarity for understanding racial divides.

Get ready to interrogate implicit bias and navigate collective uprising, perhaps while paying homage to Black power with this Sazerac in hand.

Recipe:

3 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
2 dashes angostura bitters
1 demerara sugar cube, muddled
1 ounce cognac, preferably Dudognon 5-year
1 ounce rye, preferably Rittenhouse or Michter’s US-1

Method: Rinse a chilled rocks glass with a hefty bar spoon or scant quarter-ounce of absinthe, preferably St. George. Roll the absinthe in the glass until the inside is fully coated. Measure and pour each ingredient in a mixing glass with ice. Stir, then strain into the absinthe-rinsed rocks glass.

Garnish: Gratuitously and zealously express a lemon twist over the top of the cocktail, the rim of the glass, and even swab the inside of the glass to bring out the absinthe’s aromatics.

2.

Book: “The Book of Delights” by Ross Gay

Cocktail: Namaste

Ross Gay’s lyric essays exude celebration as he honors an attentive task every day in 2016: finding and writing about something delightful. Truly inspiring as we live through a pandemic in isolated bubbles, each of us accidentally inhabiting our own planets. Gay meditates on the gravitas and oppression deeply rooted in his identity as a Black cisgender male gardener in personal interactions, or ‘manifestation of interdependence.’ Yet his writing also achieves levity through ambling cadences, an encouraging reminder that insignificant musings can suddenly arrive at insight. The Namaste cocktail is meant to be enjoyed in an exercise of reflection too, using ingredients that soothe the immune system and hopefully invoke spiritual oneness.

Recipe:

1 slice of jalapeno (no seeds)
3/4 ounce lemon juice
1 ounce tea shrub*
1 ounce apple brandy, preferably St. George or Laird’s

Method: Measure and pour each ingredient into a shaker tin and shake with ice. Strain into chilled coupe or glassware of your choice. May be served with or without ice.

*Tea shrub recipe:

Measure out 3.5 grams of chamomile tea, or gather three single-serving bags. Steep the tea in 8 ounces of hot water for 10 minutes. Strain, then measure 4 ounces of tea water and set it aside in a small saucepan. Add to the same saucepan: 4 ounces orange juice, 2 ounces apple cider vinegar, 4 ounces turbinado sugar, a pinch of turmeric, a pinch of ground Saigon cinnamon, a pinch of ginger powder. Set the saucepan over low heat. Stir occasionally until sugar is dissolved and let cool.

3.  

Book: “Number One Chinese Restaurant” by Lillian Li

Cocktail: Public School Spritz

In lockdown, the service industry initially came to a screeching halt and so did my work livelihood. An ecosystem of reasons have driven my 12-year career in the food and beverage world. At this juncture, the value of hospitality transmutes beyond the controlled chaos.

Writer Lillian Li deftly captures fortitude, grit and labor instilled in restaurant life: ‘She used her nose for conflict to head off complaints, steering easily chilled matrons away from the air-conditioning vents; handing toddlers balls of dough to play with and gum on; and offering discounted drinks at the bar when reservations were overbooked, as they were every single weekend.’ Family-owned Beijing Duck House is the ‘heartcenter of the universe’ with camaraderie, rivalries and entangled relationships of Chinese-born elders, their American-born offspring and workers experiencing the uncertain in-between of Chinese and American.

Public School Spritz was originally created for a Yuh-Line Niou campaign fundraiser, 65th District Assembly in New York City. Rarely have I participated in events where passion, heritage and activism equally intersect, much like the challenging shared experiences in “Number One Chinese Restaurant.”

Recipe:

1.5 ounces cordial*
1 ounce bourbon, rye, or blended scotch of your choice. Suntory Toki is recommended.
1.5 ounce dry Riesling or Chenin Blanc
1/2 ounce club soda

Method: Measure and pour each ingredient into a glass with ice — ideally, a wine glass.

Garnish: Strawberry

*Cordial recipe:

Weigh 3 1/2 grams or measure out 1 tablespoon of Chai tea. Lapsang Souchong or any other strong black tea also works. Steep in 8 ounces of hot water for 10 minutes. Strain, then reserve 4 ounces of tea water. Set it aside in a small saucepan. Add to the same saucepan: 4 ounces turbinado or cane sugar, 1 drop of vanilla extract, 1 ounce of lemon juice, 4 ounces or half a cup of chopped strawberries, 1 tablespoon of red wine vinegar. Bring to a simmer and cook on low heat for 15 minutes. Let cool and strain out the strawberries (delicious if refrigerated and saved for later). The shelf life of this cordial is about one week.

4. 

Book: “Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology” edited by David L. Ulin

Cocktail: Banana-Pineapple Daiquiri

Three ingredients compose the bones of a daiquiri: lime, sugar, rum. This triptych opens up to infinite combinations in measurement, producer and style. The daiquiri, whether abiding to classic anatomy or a nuanced modernist rendition, is ultimately playful and surprisingly complex.

Los Angeles is a multi-dimensional landscape of shifting creativity, and this dense anthology, published in 2002 and spanning a century, is a stunning tour de force. Stories by Joan Didion, John McPhee, John Fante, Octavio Paz, Simone de Beauvoir, Tom Wolfe and more connect the fragmented realities of Hollywood myth-making, socio-political history, civilization and nature. How fittingly romantic to read about “Joy’s metropolis” (Aldous Huxley) and sip on a refreshing daiquiri.

Recipe:

1 dash angostura bitters
1/2 ounce cane syrup (2 parts evaporated cane sugar to 1 part hot water)
1/2 ounce pineapple juice
3/4 ounce lime juice
1/2 ounce banana liqueur, preferably Giffard or Tempus Fugit
1/2 ounce Jamaican pot-still rum, preferably Smith and Cross or Hampden Single Estate
1/2 ounce Plantation Stiggins’ Fancy Pineapple rum
1 ounce aged rum, preferably El Dorado 5 or 8-year or Panama-Pacific 5 or 9-year

Method: Shake and fine strain into a coupe.

Garnish: Pineapple wedge (optional: dipped into cinnamon sugar) 

5.

Book: “Bright Dead Things” by Ada Limon

Cocktail: Peach-Shiso Cobbler

Ada Limon’s poetry collection “Bright Dead Things” is introspective and unflinching. She explores how identity is developed by milestones and places from New York City, ‘I relied on a Miracle Fish, once, in New York City, to tell me my fortune’ to ‘the black rock cliffs off the Sonoma coast’ and rural Kentucky, ‘all these great barns out here in the outskirts, black creosote boards knee-deep in the bluegrass.’ She examines age, youth and love through an intimate lens and terrific tempo: ‘I am in no hurry to stop believing we are supposed/ to sway like this, that we too are immense and calling out.’

Similarly, this cobbler merges disparate flavors: peach, shiso from the Japanese mint family with notes of fennel and clove, and a Napa Valley sweet vermouth with unique touches of coconut, cocoa, vanilla, cherry bark, gentian root, orange oil, cream sherry.

Recipe:

Half a peach, muddled
Shiso leaf, green or red
3/4 ounce lemon juice
1/2 ounce honey syrup (2 parts wildflower honey to 1 part hot water)
1/2 ounce Lo-Fi sweet vermouth
2 ounces mezcal, preferably Mal Bien Espadin

Method: Shake and fine-strain in a rocks glass with crushed ice.

Garnish: Peach slice and shiso leaf

Where to get your books:

Where to get your booze:

Los Angeleno