Get to know a bartender: Kyle Fawcett, The Westerly
One of several smaller restaurants that have opened up in Roncesvalles Village over the past couple of years, The Westerly serves up a popular fusion of fine dining and comfort food incorporating aspects of French and Italian cuisine. The staff takes pride in its wine, beer, and cocktail list as much as the food menu, offering pairings with wine and beer including a range of mid and higher end wines at an affordable price.
I visited The Westerly to talk with head bartender Kyle Fawcett about his cocktail list, his love of beer, how he got into bartending, and his childhood love of hardcore and catching frogs.
Are you originally from Toronto?
I grew up near Thornbury, Ontario on a farm. My dad was the town manager of The Blue Mountains and my mum was a stay-at-home mum. So I'm a farm boy, walking around in underwear and rubber boots as a kid, catching frogs. I had no connection to any kind of restaurants. I think the first time I went to a restaurant, I was about 9 years old with my mum and dad. We had a lamb farm on one side, a veal farm on the other, and apple orchards behind us.
When did you come to Toronto?
As I went on to high school, I would go to hardcore show and metal shows in Toronto every single week, pretty much. One of our friends would have a car and make the two-hour drive. That's how I got connected with Toronto. I moved here when I was 18 or 19 for school. I went to University of Waterloo for a year--for architecture--and then I went to U of T for Arts & Science--politics, history, and psychology--and then I bartended. Because you don't get a job from doing that. [Laughs]
A lot of bartenders seem to have non-specific degrees like that!
That's the thing. I wanted to go out and be a political analyst and do all this stuff but I started working in restaurants in Collingwood when I was 13, just bussing and doing bullshit stuff the whole time, and then went to university, finished my degree, and I was like "I hate this."
I genuinely like dealing with people. When you're behind a desk, you don't get that face-to-face, and I just crave that. Especially as a bartender, I'm basically about customer service. That's what I get out of it. I've been thinking about going back to school, but each time I work here you meet new people every day, and it's easy but you get to use your brain; making different cocktails, selling wine, selling beer. It's real life.
Where did you start out?
I worked at The Blue Mountain Inn a bit as a kid, and my uncle owned quite a few restaurants. He was the general manager of 360 at the CN Tower and owns about 10 restaurants in Burlington. He got me into the restaurant business here and he owned The Miller Bistro. It was in Etobicoke, at Dundas and Kipling. I was there for about 3 years supervising and managing, and that gave me a base knowledge. Then they shut down. I came in one night to work my shift and it was empty. They had cleaned the fridges out, and they had cleaned all the grills. Everything was gone and I was like "Fuck. What am I gonna do now?"
Is 'face time' what drew you to bartending in the first place?
Yeah, man. Especially in a little bar like this--when I was at Terroni, it was basically the same size as this bar--you get all your regulars, especially in these little neighbourhoods. It's really comfortable; you get to know everyone and exactly what they want.
It also allows you to mess around and make up all the stuff you want to make up for them. Last night, I had people that I knew, and I was just making random cocktails all night. That's how I make them for the most part--I'll test them out on people that I know. I obviously don't charge them for it as they have to be my guinea pigs.
Do you like to play with classics and come up with your own twist?
With drinks like bourbon and stuff, I like to stick [to the traditions]. I'm not gonna mess with an Old Fashioned, I'm not gonna mess with a Manhattan. They're things that have been perfected. But with drinks like Chartreuse and stuff that people usually don't like--so many of my customers are like "Eww. Chartreuse? That's gross," and I'm like "No, it's not gross. Try it like this," and that will open that door for them to try stuff.
I think people are getting more adventurous of late.
Definitely industry people are. One of my favourite things is when I hear people talking about amaros or something that they don't know a lot about. To guide them into that cocktail that they normally wouldn't have, or even the drink itself, [is satisfying]. I had the chance to work at Terroni with all their amaros and I've learnt a lot from that kind of thing. But cocktails are probably about a fifth of what I do at this bar.
First and foremost, I love beer. If I can pair someone's beer or wine with their food, I'm happy, and then at the end of the meal I'll do some cocktail stuff with them. One of my favourite things to do is, instead of wine, pair a beer with someone's meal. There's been such an explosion in the craft beer scene in recent years which means a larger array of choices, so instead of just Stella or Moosehead, you can have a Brooklyn Lager for example.
Cocktails are trickier to pair with food as there's more than one thing going on usually. It tends to be a preprandial or after-dinner thing anyway.
Yeah, I think it also depends on the spot too. The Westerly is a small place and sees a young family, kinda mid-fifties age group. Then you get the young people that you know or who wander in here, and you can experiment a bit, but I'm just as happy selling someone a fantastic wine with their food. When I worked at Terroni, I had the pleasure of working with John Szabo, who is a fantastic wine sommelier, and a few of us were lucky enough to do his private wine tastings on Adelaide.
That makes me feel better as last time I was here I just had red wine.
Exactly. Being a bartender is not conducive to just making cocktails. I make coffees, we picked a really good beer list, and Tom does a fantastic job of building the wine list. When I first started working--at Miller's Bistro--I wasn't bartending. I was there for two and half years just supervising the serving. I would also sometimes bartend as it was a gigantic spot, but I was more into experience, and with the spots after it, I got more and more into bartending as I went. If you'd asked me 9 years ago if I was going to be really into cocktails--I don't know.
I also think that if you'd have asked me 10 years ago I would have seen cocktails as an elitist thing.
Yeah! Which has changed entirely. I think that specific people will come to The Westerly and try every single thing on the list, which I love. Our list is not changing lives. We have a Boulevardier and a Gimlet, stuff that I love, and stuff that you're gonna find at other spots, but maybe not done as well as we do. And it's those little tiny things that set aside those drinks; the attention to detail.
It's much more important for me to do the classics incredibly well than my own concoctions, especially if someone has a favourite they've been drinking for years; just in case you've been to spot where this drink was invented, served by a fantastic bartender that changed your life with this drink, and that's why you're ordering it!
Do you have any particular habits when it comes to bartending?
I get made fun of--I have this thing where I stand up and stick my leg out and shake my cocktail like an idiot. I don't know why I do that, but I'll act like an idiot. You bartend to have fun, right? That's why I'm not a psychiatrist, or a psychologist, or a political analyst. I'm here to have fun.
So you're just working here right now?
Yeah. When I was at La Societe, I worked like 6 days a week. Insane hours. I only work 4 days a week here. They might be the busiest days, but I wanted so desperately to have a small spot to play around with. Tom, the owner, and Beth, just kinda let you free. I'm very much allowed to do whatever I want to do with beer and cocktails.
How did you find out about the place?
I came here randomly one day about a year ago. I was working at La Societe, which is bow tie and vest. You're supposed to wear a tie--the only liberty I had was to wear a bow tie instead of a tie. That was my fashion statement. Yeah! Bow tie. I'm different.
I came here for brunch here one day and Tom was here, and Trevor who I had worked with at Terroni in the past was working here. He worked at Buca; he works a lot around the city. I didn't even know Tom owned a restaurant and I'd served him for years at Terroni. I'd never worked at a small spot and always wanted to.
So was there a cocktail list here when you started?
There was Trevor's cocktail list at the time, which was great. I'd worked with him at Terroni in the past and he's a great bartender. The thing with this spot is, we're not about doing a 3-page cocktail list. I think this one has 7 cocktails on it. They're not crazy. They're interesting. They're easy to make, and they're just done well.
It sounds incredibly cheesy, but it's about simplicity to perfection; doing things that have been done at every single bar around the city a thousand times, but doing them better than those spots. I have people that come back here to drink the Manhattans that I make. Something (that seems) simple, but it's not. I like to make a drink where someone is like "That's the best one of these I had," and that's why you do it.
I think the Manhattan is a good litmus test of how a bar or bartender makes drinks.
Exactly. It's the same as going to a pizza place and ordering the Margherita. Even a simple classic like a Manhattan can vary from place to place, and you don't necessarily need Antica Formula to make a great one. Last night, I was trying to make a Chartreuse sour. I was using Chartreuse and Knob Creek, which has this smoky, I would almost say peatiness to it, and blended it with agave, lime juice, and egg white. It was a little too sweet, but verging on what I want to make.
Sometimes there's just too many adjectives in food and cocktail menus.
So much! Sometimes it's about selling the sentence, not the food or the cocktail. I know, especially going through university for psychology, that your impression is your whole thing, but things should stand on their own. If I feel like I'm not good enough to make those specific drinks, then I'm not going to until I've been trained by someone who knows better than me, or until I've spent a lot of time researching and making it for myself.
What do you use as references for making cocktails?
I bought a couple of cocktail books that I have here, including the PDT book, which is awesome. We had the Vauvert Slim, which is Chartreuse with grapefruit juice, egg white and a Laphroaig scotch rinse, which is from that book. Right now it's cold outside, and one drink I make for people at the bar is an Aperol Cucumber Smash. It reminds me of summer. It's Aperol, blood orange, and cucumber. Aperol and cucumber go great together, and I just top it with Cava and sparkling blood orange.
That's what I'm trying to do with cocktails--those little moments where it's like "That's amazing, it's summer time," and yeah, look outside. It's not! [Laughs] You still have to go outside and walk home tonight, but this will make it a little bit better. You may not be able to afford to go to Mexico, but you can have this summery cocktail and it will help.
So what would you drink when you're on the other side of the bar?
Depends where I go. Usually it'll be wine or beer. If I do order a cocktail, it'll be something simple like a Manhattan or anything with [Amaro] Nonino in it. I'm a sucker for amaros. Usually if I go out, it'll be bourbon straight, like at a place like 1602 Dundas West and try their scotch list or their bourbon list to taste the alcohol on its own. I think its important as a bartender to taste alcohol on its own and know its properties.
I never go to a spot to try something. Usually, I'll go to see friends or for the food. Making cocktails every day of the week, when I'm going out, I just want to be served by someone and enjoy it, and have a good time. Me and my girlfriend have a tradition of going to Enoteca Sociale and doing their cheese board--cheese is my favourite thing in the world--and pairing that with a really nice bottle of wine. That's all I need. Just give me cheese and I'm a happy man!
Photos by Jesse Milns