Matthew Biancaniello’s new world
Written By: Kelly McHugh
Photographed by: Mieko Horikoshi
Matthew Bianciaello’s trip to Maui was supported by Ocean Vodka and Montage Kapalua Bay and edible Hawaiian Islands recognizes the generosity of their support.
As I enter the cocktail lounge at Montage Kapalua Bay’s Cane & Canoe, the man behind the bar swiftly excuses himself from his guests and makes a beeline towards me, asking if I would prefer a seat at the bar or a table, warmly complimenting my freckles and, in an instant, soothing me with his New York expat moves: animated, fastidious and incredibly outgoing.
This is the guy. The king of the bar pop-ups and most coveted bartender in L.A. Part scientist, part therapist, part yoga disciple. The foraging, fedora donning, completely captivating Matthew Biancaniello.
“What’s in this thing?!” begs the suddenly stoked tongue of a guest seated at the bar, “vodka, ice and amazing?”
“Let’s get you started,” Matthew advises me, with deep, direct eye contact.
Welcome to Eat Your Drink, a garden-to-glass venture à la the Alice Waters philosophy whereby meals are based on seasonal ingredients that are produced sustainably and locally, manifested in cocktail form by Biancaniello. “Believe it or not, this all just started for me about six years ago,” he submits while designing my first cocktail, “All of my past jobs have led me to this moment – from underwater photography, to selling ads for ‘Time Out New York,’ to working in L.A. with a catering company. I landed at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel’s Library Bar and just started making my own flavors rather than using the customary sour mixes they had on-hand.”
Crediting his mother, a renowned Boston interior designer, with his creativity, he was exposed to fine art and antiques, color scheme, detail and texture from an early age. Growing up in New York, he visited the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) every week to study the likes of Francis Bacon and Alice Neel, noting that what they were doing with their work actually had few reference points, and therefore did not easily lend it to criticism. “This is how I approached my own work; I didn’t think about what was missing in the market, I just did what came from me, and I lived inside of that bubble until it was time to come out.”
Biancaniello events are going for $10,000 – $20,000 a pop these days, a substantial validation of his talents in the rapidly growing cocktail chef scene. Never mind the hilarious (loose, energized, excited – an embarrassment of descriptive soirée ingredients even before dinner) comments careening through the lounge: “I have one thing to say: OH MY GOD!” from a woman attending the Women in Technology conference, who rented a car from Wailea to be here.
“I have been following you for TWO years, Matthew! Thank God my friend in L.A. told me about this event, I hear about you everywhere,” from a woman presenting Biancaniello with a paper bag of Surinam cherries, one of his signature ingredients.
“Goodbye piña colada; this is going to change everything,” from a self-proclaimed foodie sitting beside me, eyes alert and titillated.
This is the vibe that is created by an Eat Your Drink event, whether it be a pop-up or chef collaboration. “Generally, I like to ensure that everyone at my table is getting something unique,” explains Biancaniello, “It’s a fun challenge for me to tailor a drink specific to my guest’s situation. What kind of mood are they in? Are they having a night cap or just going out? Have they eaten yet or is this dessert? And so, I might make a wild arugula gimlet that can act as a salad course, or an amusebouche of passion fruit (I just got 50 pounds from my favorite farm – the second it hit season) with a home-made sriracha just to open up the palate. And then the best part is to watch as everyone inevitably passes their drinks around and shares their experiences. It becomes much more interactive and fun. And if they order food, all the better because now I really have something to interact with.”
For the Maui Eat Your Drink event, Biancaniello teamed up with Ocean Vodka, Montage Kapalua Bay, chef/farmer and Farmto- Plate advocate James (Kimo) Simpliciano of Simpli-fresh produce LLC and esteemed Maui chef Riko Bartolome. “Going to James’ farm with Riko was such a different experience for me,” Biancaniello says. “In L.A., I’m at the farmer’s market four times a week, (people always joke that I’m in the farmer’s market mafia because I’ll walk up to a stand and a box will suddenly appear from underneath the table with an ‘I have been saving this for you!’ because I’m always asking for new, different, seasonal ingredients for my drinks), but it’s rare that I actually have an opportunity to interact with the farmer. They’re 4-5 hours outside of town, tending to their farm, and they’ve sent their friends or workers to be at the markets. And the last place I’m going to see them is at my bar at 11 p.m., because they’re down for the night. James really took the time to work with us, I think we foraged and talked for like two hours! And it was interesting because, like most farmers, he’s thinking food. So when I started putting ingredients together and mixed something for all of us on the spot, I could see that James was blown away.”
“Like any artist, be it a chef or mixologist, when I am approached for help finding what is wild, local or in season, I love to share – especially now that I am foraging and farming,” offers Simpliciano. “For farmers to make these things available that are not on-hand in the grocery store only adds to a mass understanding of the factors that make this whole process beautiful. This is about artisanal taste, not just aesthetic or visual taste and texture.
As a farmer, knowing someone like Matthew adds to the palate on our farm, and opens doors for other mixologists to explore the farms around them. Just knock on their door and ask for a tour or an exchange. Matthew was really looking for different ingredients and a broad variety of options. Now it’s up to us to adapt to what’s in demand in order to see this process grow – this melting pot of abundance.”
As we are seated for dinner that evening, Chef Riko Bartolome mentions how easy Biancaniello made his job of creating the collaborative tasting menu,: “He picked all of the ingredients first and made my task super easy.” After a third course presentation of Biancaniello’s Ocean vodka, uni pure, cumin simple syrup, nori, lemon and agave – a recipe that he intended to “replicate the ocean as much as possible,” Bartolome followed with a prosciutto, watermelon, uni, radish and watercress dish in order to “replicate his replication.”
The guests seated around the family-style table for 30 (with a wait list of 60) laugh in appreciation of the chef’s apparent admiration of mutual talent, then sip, taste and laugh again in surprise; each collaborative course designed as a sophisticated mating – not quite complete without its counterpart. It’s surprising, it’s sensual, and yes – it’s FUN.
“The way I see it, you have four chances to make an impression with a drink during an event like this where people are coming to learn about the Eat Your Drink trend and to figure out what it means for them,” explains Biancaniello. “You have the name, the presentation, the scent and the taste. Each step should take you one step closer and one step further into the process. What combination of elements fits into this moment? How can I make this exciting?”
Weeks after the Eat Your Drink event he flew to the islands for, I ran into one of my fellow attendees still reeling with this excitement. As she described raw green mango foam on an oyster and candy cap mushroom bourbon concoctions by a man, completely engrossed in his task, wearing a starched aloha shirt, kukui beads and farm boots, conceivably trailing a lilac vine as he danced behind the bar with a penetrative story about where every ingredient on the menu came from, I felt pressed to call him and ask, “Why L.A.?”
“Please, my dream now is to move to Maui,” he grants, “but right now, L.A. is the greatest place for produce in the world in my opinion. If Hawai‘i can keep embracing and encouraging local farms more than anything, and not just for food, but for drinks, so much more can be happening. I didn’t get to meet Sunny Savage while I was there, but I read her book and know that I need to come back and spend some time foraging with and learning from her.
Also, if Hawai‘i can somehow revise the alcohol laws so that ingredients can legally be infused into spirits (rather than just muddled), this shift can work. You have so much rain, and beautiful, fertile, sacred soil. Organic can be expanded into biodynamic farming there. Once these steps are taken, we will see this trend evolve in such a way that farmers aren’t just thinking food – they’re thinking drink.”
And as we hang up the phone so that he can make it to his yoga class on time, twin toddlers being juggled in the background, Matthew implores me to buy a ticket to L.A. to be at his pop-up the next night. “Passion fruit is in season. It’s going to be amazing. You have to be here.”
Twist my arm, Matthew. Twist it.