Bartender Chat: Sean Beck of Caracol on Keeping Things Fresh and Seasonal
Welcome to Eating...Our Words' Bartender Chat, in which we sit down with local bartenders and get to know their style. Whether they're slinging beers or mixing complex cocktails, bartenders are our buddies and confidants, but we're turning the tables and the camera on them to find out what they're passionate about and what makes them some of Houston's best.
Photos by Kaitlin Steinberg Sean Beck at the bar at Caracol.
Sean Beck has been at this for a while. He started as a server at Backstreet Cafe nearly two decades ago, then worked his way up to becoming a sommelier and the beverage director of all three of Tracy Vaught's and Hugo Ortega's restaurants: Backstreet Cafe, Hugo's and Caracol.
Today, he divides his time between the three, stopping by all of them on any given day and working behind the bar or training employees. When we meet to talk about the drinks at Caracol, he's already been to the other two restaurants, and he has plans to return to Hugo's again before his day is over.
Unlike many bartenders who are all about the creativity of crafting new drinks, Beck takes an intellectual approach to his endeavors, particularly where wine is concerned.
"Wine has always appealed to me because it's the study of history, time, environment, personality, and to a certain extent, English, because you really learn the vocabulary of wine as you're studying it," explains Beck, a former English and History scholar.
He loves taking his knowledge of all aspects of drinking and spreading it around--whether that's through training new employees or having a chat with a curious customer at the restaurant.
"The goal is always to raise the bar for what we do and raise the bar for what Houston does," Beck says. "Any time we can be an inspiration, that's great."
How long have you been with the group?
Is there a name for the group of restaurants owned by Tracy Vaught and Hugo Ortega (Backstreet Cafe, Hugo's and Caracol)?
No. We don't know. We've never gone in for any sort of kitschy name for the restaurant empire.
How did you start in the restaurant industry?
When I started at Backstreet, I was waiting tables. Tracy noticed I knew more about wine than any of her other staff members. I'd ask more questions and sell more wine. So she asked me if I'd help buy wines for the list. Prior to that, when I was a freshman and sophomore in college, I'd worked at a microbrewery and helped make beer.
What made you interested in working at a bar or restaurant?
I don't know that I was interested, per se. But when you're in college, and you're trying to maximize your time and the return on your time, then there's probably no better job than bartending and waiting tables. The effort you put in is what you get out. So if you're really good, you make a lot of money in a short period of time. That's always appealed to me. Any job I do, I can see a direct return on my investment of time and energy.
If you weren't doing this, what would you be doing?
I was probably on the path to becoming either a lawyer or...at one point in time I dreamed of becoming a professor of African American literature. I love the works of Zora Neale Hurston, and Langston Hughes is one of my favorite poets of all time. It was a very unique perspective for literature, and I don't think you can say that for a lot of modern literature. African Americans had to develop education under really extreme circumstances, and they had a unique voice to add. Even if they got to study our classic literature, they were looking at it through a radically different mindset. I don't think there was any group that had that unique a voice.
When you're not at work, where do you go out to drink?
I don't really go out and drink. When I'm not at the restaurants, I spend time with my daughter. She and I go out for places that do brunch, and I don't usually drink. But I like to go to places where I have a better-than-average shot of not running into a customer. It's supposed to be family time.
If you are out drinking, what do you order?
If I am out drinking, it's usually because I'm meeting somebody, and then I have to be up early in the morning with my daughter, so I'll be very traditional and drink a Campari and soda. I never lose my bearings while drinking it, and it never hurts the next day.
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