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15 Minutes with Joey Ryan

February 2018
15 Minutes with Joey Ryan

From crafting cocktails with tongue-numbing spices to pairing wines with “cheese ice,” the co-owner of Xiao Bao Biscuit and new restaurant Tu fills us in on the latest

CM: Have you always lived here?
JR:
I grew up in Charleston, and then I moved out West for a little while, living in Idaho, Montana, and California. When I ran out of money, I’d come back here to work in restaurants and bars, save up cash, and then leave for the mountains again. I moved back to Charleston permanently about 10 years ago.

CM: So how did you get into beverages?
JR:
I covered my costs in college by working in restaurants, and while doing so, I found myself behind the bar often. Drink making is fun—you can get creative with infusions and ingredients, and you get to talk to people. I helped open The Belmont on King Street in 2010. A little later, I met my future partners, Josh Walker and Duolan Li, who had this cool vision for Xiao Bao Biscuit (XBB). They wanted me to come on to run the bev program.

CM: What was your process in making that menu?
JR:
At XBB, it was very literal. I used the same ingredients that were in the food items on our menu. The “Sichuan Sting,” for example, has Sichuan peppercorn-infused gin and fresh lemon, and it acts like a preview of the spice found in our Sichuan-style pork and chicken dishes. Other drinks feature chili peppers, citrus, and ginger, all of which we use regularly in our food there.

CM: Did you approach Tu’s beverage program differently?
JR:
At Tu, I wanted to create cocktails that honored each “mother spirit” more traditionally. My goal is for diners to truly understand what the base spirits are. A rye cocktail should taste like rye; all of the other, subordinate components should highlight that base, not mask it.

CM: How would you describe the food at Tu?
JR:
The whole Earth influences the menu at Tu. There’s a Middle Eastern dish with spiced lamb and labneh [cheese made from Greek yogurt] as well as a Southern chicken-fried steak. We definitely broke some rules—we top our crudo with “cheese ice,” or frozen shards of Manchego cheese. It’s really weird, but tastes amazing; it sort of melts in your mouth. Nobody said you couldn’t put cheese on crudo.

CM: What’s a can’t-miss cocktail on your menu?
JR:
So far, our most popular has been the “Harlem Rose”—it’s an aged mezcal-based drink with rose liqueur, fresh lemon juice, and a Plantation pineapple rum floater. 

CM: Tell us about your latest drink experiment.
JR:
Dirty martinis have always been my least favorite cocktail to make, because I don’t like bar olives—they gross me out. The salty-savory drink category, however, is needed in any beverage program, so we made our own brine mix with rye berries and barley. Our “Desolation Avenue” is basically a grain-based dirty martini without the olives.

CM: What’s the biggest mistake a bartender can make?
JR:
Having his or her phone out. Being present is everything, because we hold court in that third space, where people aren’t at home or work. Bartenders are responsible for facilitating interactions—talking one-on-one to people, introducing them to each other. If my staff members aren’t on their game, I’ll tell them to take the day off. You have to be engaged. 

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Photographs by Joey Ryan