Team Spotlight: Benton Bourgeois
A bartender, a manager, a ginger beer maker: Benton Bourgeois does it all.
ST. ROCH MARKET, NEW ORLEANS, LA — On a bright, humid New Orleans afternoon, I met up with Benton and grabbed a high-top in St. Roch Market near the back, close to the bar -- “just in case anyone needs me for anything,” he said, only half joking. His lead bartender, Meira, held down the fort while we chatted about his life at St. Roch Market and beyond.
Within the Politan Row family of markets, Benton opened Auction House Market as a bartender back in early 2018 and, now, is steering the beverage program at St. Roch Market as Bar Manager. We warmed up with some rapid-fire questions, then got to real talk.
Childhood nickname: Ben, but I changed to Benton when I got older because there are too many other Bens all the time
Hometown: La Place, Louisiana
Favorite childhood meal: Spaghetti and meatballs
Favorite sandwich: Hot pastrami from Stein’s
How do you take your coffee? Cold brew, black. I’ve become so accommodated to Coast Roast’s cold brew, even though it has a ton of caffeine. Even on my days off, I’ll swing by Auction House to grab a large cold brew because I need it to function.
Preferred mode of transportation?: Walking. I hate unwalkable cities. I was in Fort Lauderdale recently, and I was trying to walk to a Cuban restaurant that was only half a mile from where I was staying, and I was just walking in the middle of the street because there were no sidewalks. It sucked.
So tell me, how’d you get started at the company. What brought you here?
I was working with Max Messier and his company Cocktail & Sons at the time, and Max was also working at The Mayhaw at St. Roch Market. He’s the one who told me that they were opening another food hall and were looking for bartenders, so I figured I’d go for it. I joined Auction House Market’s opening team as a bartender alongside Alia and Sophie, and they’re both still around, too. That was February 2018, and I was offered the Bar Manager position at St. Roch Market in November that year, when I was looking for a more full-time job alongside the ginger beer business I have.
That’s a solid crew. What do you remember most about opening Auction House?
Oh man, it was a whirlwind. Miami had just opened a few weeks ago, so these two openings were basically back-to-back, and I remember the Bar Manager got stuck in Miami, and by the time he got back to New Orleans, we had about four days to train up and go.
That had to be an intense week. How has the company changed since then?
I think the vision for the company has really come together. You can really see how the purpose and form of things have come together with each new market, and for me, it’s really cool to see a young company that’s still agile and open to new ideas. I was in a very corporate-minded hotel world for over ten years, where everything just was what it was. People didn’t listen to problems or ideas because of an SOP that was written fifteen years ago. When I went to Chicago to help train the opening bar team there, I saw how much the training program has developed for the better under Sophie, who’s now the Beverage Director. It’s refreshing to see.
Especially as co-owner of your own company! Being a part of a young, growing company is a whole other ball game. What, to you, makes our markets stand out from other restaurants or food halls?
Yeah, we got into Huhu’s Ginger Brew in April 2016, and these markets are so intricate in the way the chef-owners play off each other, sort of like a start-up incubator. For Huhu’s, we did the Idea Village IdeaX program in 2017, and our markets have the same feeling: a bunch of brands that may not have anything to do with each other but still learning together. I see Tung [chef-owner of T2 Street Food] and Daniel [chef-owner of Chido Mexican Kitchen] have a beer and brainstorm, and it’s a cool, collaborative environment that really does foster growth. It’s a bootcamp for how to run a business.
It’s a community of like-minded individuals all pursuing their own goals, and that’s fun to work in. Speaking to your role as a Bar Manager, what are you most proud of accomplishing in your time at St. Roch Market?
Being able to develop the staff. Helping my team realize that there’s a career here if you want it to be and helping them determine if they want it to be their career. With Meira, I was happy to have her take on a bigger role and came on full time while also encouraging her to pursue wine in her sommelier training, which is a huge undertaking. And sometimes they don’t want it to be their career, and I still get to support my team in all the things they’re doing. Like Alia with her art and her music in addition to her bartending. We might be starting a band.
Please do. That would be amazing.
Yeah, we’ll see.
So, what do you hope first-time visitors to St. Roch Market take away after their first visit?
I want them to say, “I can’t wait to come back here because I didn’t get to try everything I wanted to try.” I want them to see the cocktail menu and say, “I want five of these drinks and probably shouldn’t have them all today.” I want people to feel like they can come any time of day for any type of reason and have us be a part of their daily routine. Grab a bite, grab a drink, stay long, stay short.
I identify with that. I’ve been trying to drink my way through the spring menu, but I loved one of them so much that I kept ordering that one instead of trying a new one.
Which is also totally fine!
The summer menu is in full swing now, and the board looks so great! What’s one aspect of a new drink that’s deceivingly difficult to make?
I was recently able to figure out peach syrup, which we use in the Peachy Keen. I’ve been trying to perfect peach syrup for years because peaches are incredibly delicate. Typically getting peach flavor into a cocktail is by just muddling a bunch of fresh ones, but that’s not always realistic. I’ve tried so many ways: macerating them in sugar for week, pureeing them in a blender, and so on. Turns out sous vide at 135° F works the best. It’s the best peach syrup I’ve ever made. The heat helps bring the flavor and texture together without killing either one.
That’s a lot of love and dedication and time, so props to cracking the peach code. Outside of perfecting peach syrup, do you have a moonshot professional goal?
Okay, here we go. It’s a bar that’s also a music venue, and we serve cocktails on tap only. So a whole wall of cocktails on tap, which means you can have one bartender serve thirty or forty people at a time. There’s no special skill involved, it’s just about being fast and nice.
Can you really put anything on tap like that?
Yeah, you can have still drinks or bubbly ones, it’s about getting it into the keg right. I’d invite other bartender friends into our test kitchen slash lab to do some R&D, and we’d work together to get it in a keg and hooked up, so we can sell, for example, Sophie Burton’s creation on tap. And then there’s a legacy of who’s been involved with us and all sorts of great drinks.
That sounds… Wildly practical and fun. Alright, final few questions: What’s your favorite thing to eat at our markets?
My favorite favorite thing would have to be the Cubano at Sola Deli in Auction House Market. But if you’re asking what I eat most often, it’s the Chicken Quesadilla at Chido here at St. Roch. It’s cheesy, it’s flavorful, and it’s easy to eat one-handed when I’m doing other things. It’s just. Really really good.
What about to drink?
Oh, man. I guess I’d say the Green Age Riot, which was on the spring menu and is tweaked a bit for the summer menu as the Green Age Diet. It had Midori in it, which a lot of people will laugh at, but it’s balanced by this white sesame and white peppercorn syrup we made in house, so it’s more rounded and honestly just really good.
That’s one of your personal creations, right?
Yeah! New menus are great because everyone on the team will submit something and we workshop it together, talk about them, and whatnot. It’s a special activity that really brings us together as a team.