Bartender of the Month - April 2019: Austin Tyler Rogers, Gaf West
Austin Tyler Rogers isn't just "that guy who won Jeopardy 12 times" -- nope. He's a damn good bartender with a sense of humor and a love for trivial. You can still find the down-to-earth Gaf West employee behind the bar (where most people recognize him in some capacity). If you're lucky, maybe he'll pour you a Guinness.
We're big fans of ATR, and not just because he made game shows cool again and because he hates working at a desk. Read on for our chat with our April 2019 Bartender of the Month.... you might learn something cool.
What’s your drink of choice (to drink)?
Guinness for beer, Laphroaig for scotch, Tullamore Dew for whiskey shots, Fernet Branca for other shots.
What's your drink of choice (to make)?
I know it’s a little bit cliché, and I know it’s steeped in marketing and corporate nonsense, but I really do enjoy pouring a pint of Guinness properly. I mean, we all know it comes from the transition from cask pour to pressurized kegs, and, in essence, it’s a marketing ploy, but the two part pour, the visual of the cascade, a proper crown on top: it’s pretty satisfying. And, even though we know it’s sort of gimmicky, the properly poured pint of Guinness in the proper glass is the hallmark of a pub that cares about their beer. Their lines are probably gonna be cleaned more frequently than others, they’re probably using nitro - which we also know isn’t really necessary due to modern container technology - but these little things add up. I guess what I’m saying is: I’d rather drink at a place that shows that attention to detail to the pour because it means they probably care for the rest of their beers and scotches and stuff.
How did you start your career?
I sorta fell into bartending by circumstance. I had been drinking at my bar The Gaf for like 16 years or thereabouts when I started bartending. I was laid off from a corporate job and my savings were dwindling. I thought, always, “Hey the next job’s just around the corner.” It wasn’t. I spent I guess two years less-than-fully-employed until one day the boys at the bar: Pete Smith and Pat Heenan, put up on Facebook, “Anyone want the Sunday shift?” I texted them immediately and Pete responded ,“Cool but we’re not the Old Gaf. We don’t give away the bar. Regulars get a set discount. No drinking for free, and no drinking behind the bar.” At that point in time I wasn’t drinking, so I responded “I’m not drinking at the moment so that’s not a problem, and I hate people so charging them full isn’t a problem either." Then it was like “Ok cool. Here are the keys - start Sunday.” Drinking at the bar longer than Pete and Pat owned it, it was just one day I was on this side of the bar as furniture, as a patron, and the next day I was on the other side of the bar serving people whose regular drinks I knew anyway, behind taps I had poured myself, countless times when other bartenders just said “finish your own pint.”
Tell us a highlight (funny story) from the past year.
So, I’ve not had the typical bartending experience in the past year. I mean, I’m Googleable. Type “Austin Rogers bar” and Gaf West automatically comes up. So, Jeopardy fans can come find me and hang out with me. I like it. It’s firstly like the new normal, and secondly I guess, I’m sorta a natural at it. I guess there’s not one solitary story that stands out, but instead, a general theme. People will come into the bar, sorta look at me a couple times, tilt their head, stare a bit, because they recognize me. They’re just not quite sure how or why. So, people will inquire with an inquisitive look what college I attended, did I ever bartend at blah blah blah, was I in such and such broadway show, etc. etc. Sometimes they’ll glimmer as the recognition calcifies and they get from where they know me. Others I let play 21 questions and just keep answering as they dial it in. Once a girl came in and said, “Get the fu**k out of here - you’re Austin Rogers from Jeopardy! And you’re the reason I’m gonna lose an Emmy." Turns out she was a game show producer, and she was convinced that her show was going to lose because of my appearances on Jeopardy! Well, we both lost. To The Price Is Right: a show that hasn’t refreshed its set since 1973. Oh well. Liz and I became very good friends so it was worth it.
So... this Jeopardy thing. What's your secret?
Jeez. It’s not one secret. It’s a bunch of things. First, you gotta know the stuff. Knowing the stuff gets you on the show. It’s how you get through the online test then into the in-person audition. Next, you gotta have a good story. Be it job, hobby, anecdote: you gotta have a good audition and that’s done with a good story. Now here’s where the hard work starts: buzzer, buzzer, buzzer. It’s all about the buzzer. Or “signaling device,” per the parlance of the producers. So, to make it on the show itself, it’s a given that you’ve got the chops to answer all the clues. Everyone up on that stage knows 85% of the content so the only way to win is to either A) know the extra 15%, or B) excel on the buzzer. You can’t answer clues if you can’t ring it. So, to practice I watched back episodes of the show with a thumb exerciser. I guess it must’ve worked because I can ring in pretty OK.
Is it weird to be recognized? Do you ever tell people, "Nah, I'm not him"-- as in, you?
It is strangely natural being recognized. I mean, it happens 3-5 times a day when I’m not working, 10+ times a day when I’m behind the bar. I don’t mind it. In fact, most of the times I like it. I don’t do the “Nah I’m not him” thing but I do end up doing the, “Wait I was on TV? When?” response. I think it’s cutesy but it’s probably annoying. I can’t tell when I’m being annoying.
How did your colleagues at Gaf West take to your overnight fame? Has anything changed for you behind the bar since?
Sometimes they’ll just answer the phone “Austin works Fridays and Sundays” knowing that most of the phone calls are “When’s Austin working?” But everyone took it in stride. The bar’s been pretty popular because of my F+ Level Fame. D-List? F-List? I don’t know. Whatever is lower than a moderately well-selling crime novelist. I’m like somewhere in the Martin Cruz Smith range of brand recognition. Ouch to Martin Cruz Smith. But, other than being recognized, not much has changed. Our regulars still treat me with disdain and skepticism and I still treat them like dray horses engaged solely to turn the grist stones. J/K I love our regulars. Except for REDACTED. I can’t stand REDACTED.
When you have a night off, where are you drinking and what are you ordering there?
Night off drinking is usually at Gaf East, our formerly sister bar, now friendly cousin bar, or Biddy’s, both on the Upper East Side. At both I’m usually drinking Guinness with Tully or a Laphroaig water back. If I have shots, I’ll shoot Tully or Jamo. But I really really really really really love Fernet lately. So much so that I’ve got a couple bars to start carrying it just for me. I don’t let them down. I consume copious amounts of that herbal goodness. If I’m out for dinner, it’s usually a red wine. I’m not too picky when it comes to red wines. But in general, I’m a basic bartender. I like my Irish pubs that properly pour pints, have a decent scotch list, and no histrionics or fanfare. I actually don’t really like going to new places. They scare me. Also, I then have to explain to the bartender what I want rather than having them say “another” or “the usual.”
We dig your approach to not working in an office and the attitude that it's not worth anyone's happiness. What's something that makes you smile no matter the time, place or day?
Yeah, it’s not worth it for me. But, you know, some people: it makes them happy. Or at least they say it does. I don’t think - no, I KNOW - I could ever be happy being an analyst for some rapine bank or marketing dronery. Dronery is not a word, I think. But I’m sticking with it. But, if it floats your boat and you have a dubious moral compass and lack of ethics and little to no empathy for humanity, go work for JPM or Goldman. (Says the guy who has accounts with both. I’m nothing, if not a hypocrite.) One thing that makes me smile temporal circumstances notwithstanding is a special woman who always makes me happy. She makes me laugh so much. And cat videos. That s**t’s hysterical. Oh, and puppies on the street. And there are a couple friends who are very cat video like or puppy exuberant who you just see and you’re like “that’s a good guy/girl! They’re always in a good mood!”
Tell us about some people in the industry who inspire you. What makes them unique?
So ,I’ve got the great fortune to have my own podcast called A Lot to Learn with Austin Rogers. In the past couple months, I’ve traveled the world more or less taping episodes. One of them was with Tobin Ellis, founder owner of Bar Magic, a bar consultancy, design, architecture, and equipment company. He is quite an intellect and interviewing him was fascinating because he has this confluence between art, science, and commerce attitude towards the service industry. He’s like: the cocktail is the art, the science is how to train and set up a bar with proper ergonomics and best practices, and the commerce is how to make it profitable. He was such a great interview and such a great story. Honestly, I’m having a hard time articulating how cool he is, so I guess you’ll just have to listen to that episode of my podcast.
Anything else you’d like to add about bartending/mixology and what you’re excited about in the industry?
I used to totally rag on the mixologist. I’m a bartender. I like beer and scotches and shots. I mean, don’t get me wrong: I used to like the good cocktails but not in the “I have to wait for it” kind of way. But my conversation with Tobin - amongst others - changed my opinion of the mixologist. They’re doing something that meets a niche and the people who enjoy those craft cocktails really enjoy it. And I’m learning to enjoy it too. What Tobin does though is democratize it by introducing mass-market bars to cocktail culture and implementing the tech to make it possible: like serving bespoke cocktails on draft. I like the idea of getting those crazy good cocktails with immediacy and having it just as fresh as if it was labored over for 13 minutes.
Gaf West is located in Hells Kitchen. Who are your favorite neighbors (eateries and non-bars included)? And why?
Well our sister bar, The Waylon, is around the corner on 50th and 10th Ave. It’s a country-western bar/restaurant, and I host trivia there on Wednesdays. That’s a really solid place. I’m a huge fan of Deacon Brodies, a tiny little hidden gem on otherwise touristy Restaurant Row of 46th between 8th and 9th. Rudy’s is a neighborhood icon. Oh also a new pizza place opened on Tenth and it’s absolutely fantastic: Baker’s Pizza. It’s f**king dope.
If a drink was named after you, what would it be called, what’s in it and why?
I guess it would obviously be called “The Quizmaster” and I don’t know what would be in it, because I can’t make cocktails for shit, but it would look a little out there, maybe with like an umbrella or pineapple wedge, but it would have a huge kick and be smokey and maybe a little bit bitter.