Franky Marshall is always on the move. We met her in Cognac, bumped into her in Paris, saw her from afar in New Orleans and drunk with her in New York. A fixture of the New York bar scene, she has worked in some of the best bars in the world. So when we saw she took part in Julio Cabrera’s most recent Havana trip (Cane & Table’s Nick Detrich, whom we’ve written about before, was also part of the team), we found the perfect excuse to ask her a few questions.
Your first big cocktail gig was at Clover Club back in 2008, but what were you up to before?
I started in this industry as a server. Classic scenario of needing money to pay for school - music school in this case. I worked as a singer, but I made more money waitressing. I always noticed though that bartenders were making even more money, having fun, and had more autonomy - and they just seemed cooler. So... I decided to become a bartender. It wasn't very demanding when I started out, so I just pretended to know what I was doing. For a few years, I made Cosmos, lots of vodka & fruit cocktails. Then I started reading and hearing about this "craft cocktail" movement. As someone who always loves to learn and be challenged, I started to investigate. No one would hire me or even call me for an interview. I didn't know anyone in the scene and had no "cocktail bartending" experience. Then I saw an ad for the opening of Clover Club. I'd read about Julie Reiner and knew I had to apply there. I wrote a cover letter specifically targeted to her and the place, talking about different types of ice - which I’d never used - etc. Although they didn't hire me as a bartender, I started as a server, and finally got behind the bar about 9 months later. It was there that I started learning and realizing all the things I didn't know about the cocktail world. I met a lot of people, was exposed to some great experiences, got my first bits of press, etc. I started to realize that there was so much to learn, so much information to take in, and so much more to the job than just making drinks.
You mention Julie, but you’ve also worked at Dead Rabbit from its opening until 2014 and met many people in-between. Some of the best in the industry… I've been fortunate to have been given plenty of opportunities and some valuable advice from many talented, established, and experienced people. I'm not afraid to ask questions and am thankful that I’ve gotten some very good answers. Even bad advice can be helpful - if you realize it's bad advice and don't follow it - because it makes you think for yourself and trust your own instincts more. Among some of the most important lessons I’ve learned is the need to always strive to be better and keep improving your knowledge and skills. More specifically, things such as how to consider flavours and the importance of a guest receiving a "perfect" drink every time. I'm not saying I succeed at these all the time, but I do try!
For the last few years, you haven’t really worked full time for one place. What have you been up to?
I've been lucky to have the opportunity to do a good deal of travelling. A couple of competition wins brought me to Europe last year, and I also had the opportunity to be a presenter, and work events both nationally and internationally. Whenever I do those gigs, I always try to add on a few extra days so I can see more of the city or country I’m visiting. I also have interests outside of the industry which occupy my time.
If I’m not mistaken, you’ve been busy with a new bar…
I am involved in a new project called Le Boudoir in Brooklyn, NY. It's a sexy subterranean French inspired space with cocktails and music. I'm also getting ready to give a talk to college students - first time for that! And I’ll be moderating a seminar for Montreal Cocktail Invasion in May.
You’ve recently travelled to Cuba. How did that come about?
I'd heard about the trips that Julio Cabrera was leading for American bartenders, and naturally, wanted to get involved. I reached out to him in early 2014. He does very few trips, the demand is high, and obviously he can't take everyone. Finally last October he messaged me to say he was planning a trip in December and he'd love for me to come. I responded "por supuesto!" right away.
So how did it go?
Being in Havana was rewarding and exciting in many ways. We went to some classic, iconic and beautiful bars: Hotel Nacional, Sloppy Joe's, Dupont Mansion in Varadero, and of course El Floridita. There, we all got behind the bar to learn from the cantineros.
I loved what I saw of the city. Some of the hollowed out buildings with crumbling façades were incredibly beautiful. We also stayed with locals part of the time which really added to the experience. In fact, one of the best meals we had was made for us by the wife of the President of the Cantineros Association at their home. And yes, there were cigars all day every day, they really do taste better down there!
We also got the chance to address and interact with cantineros from across the country during a daylong seminar and competition. We each gave a little talk about our bars, bartending, our mentors, etc. It was interesting to chat with them and see that many have been working at the same place for 10, 15, 20+ years. As experienced as they were, they were still very open to meeting us and hearing what we had to say.
And as a musician?
Of course, there was music everywhere. We danced, sang and laughed a lot too. Our very first meal in Havana was accompanied by a live band, and there seemed to be music everywhere after that. All the musicians we had the pleasure of hearing were sharp and talented. I even got a chance to sing “Guantanamera” accompanied by a great duo at lunch one day, what an unforgettable experience!