Interview with Keith Thomas LaBonte, Molecular Mixologist of Four Lounge

Posted by    |    January 19th, 2011 at 10:17 pm

Keith sits down with me, and in his undeniably rich Boston accent, divulges the essence of Four Lounge.

It’s kind of funny, everyone [says], “just make me up something”, and you never want to be rude to your clients, you always want to blow them away. But if you were to go to a fine dining restaurant, would you say, “hey, have the chef make me up something”?

No way.

When I’m not busy I can actually go through and find out what someone’s palate is, whether they like the sweets, or the sours – just like wine – you can pair everything together. When I’m busy, the menu’s right there. There’s 40-something items. You will not find anything else like it in Dallas. When I went in the direction that I went with Four [Lounge], I wanted to bring that fine dining experience and five-star service with off-the-hook cocktails. A true cocktail lounge. When somebody sits down and they’re overwhelmed when they see the menu, I tell them that we are a cross between Ben & Jerry’s, and Cheesecake Factory.

Looking at your menu, I would agree with you

[Laughs]

Because if you look at Cheesecake’s menu, it’s so extensive, you don’t know what to pick

[Nods in accordance] But then the craziness comes from Ben & Jerry’s. I do a menu of childhood memories. Things we loved to eat when we were younger. If it’s Twizzlers, which are my favorite treat, I always have a bag at home because I just love them, why not make a martini out of it? And obviously, women love red velvet, and cupcakes, and I said, “well, I want to be the first one.” I always look at something, and if someone’s done it, it’s a turn off. Right? But nobody’s ever done a caramel buttered popcorn martini. I did. I’m the first one to do a cupcake martini.

Yes, which I really want to try

So I look at items, and now the cotton candy crazy is going, and that’s actually almost dead in my eyes, you know, because I did it so long ago.

Because you were so ahead of the curve then

Yeah. One of my customers actually came in the other day and said, “you know, Fridays is doing [cotton candy] now.” Like, are you kidding me? “They just kind of clump it together, and they don’t really do what you do.” When I look at something, I always look for the next big thing. When I write a menu, I kind of lock myself down. I’ve done menus in little as three days, and I’ve done a menu as long as a month. The current menu that’s available now took me a month to develop. It just comes out of my head. I don’t understand it. When I actually write a menu, it just works. A lot of people don’t realize, I actually write the menu when I envision it, and almost go to print without trying one item, or making one recipe.

You’re that sure of yourself?

Yeah. I understand how spices work, and I have a strong culinary look on things.

Did you go to a culinary school?

I was accepted to CIA when I was 22, but I had already been in the industry since I was 14. I was working in New York at that time, already making the money and doing what I love, and I turned it down. And sometimes I look at it and say, maybe I should have… but I wouldn’t be where I am now. And I wouldn’t have had the experience in the industry, so I believe I made the right decision.

Why martinis?

Martinis, Bellinis, it can be any cocktail. It’s not just martinis. But the perception of martinis…most women are turned off by martinis.  Even myself, I’m turned off when you start drinking vermouth and olives. Why can’t we try to dress this up a little bit? So I started experimenting with what I was doing with fusion, with sugars and herbs, and I changed people’s perception about martinis. A traditional martini, back in the day, was always gin. Gin you can only do a few things with. Vodka?  It’s endless. And women started being more chic about it, more excited about martinis.

Are you trying to cater to women with Four Lounge?

No, I was trying to capture an educated drinker, and an uneducated drinker. Educated drinkers are always great because they know what they want. But I love the challenge. If someone comes in and says “oh, I’ll just have a scotch on the rocks.” Really? I bet you I could change this. I pull out honey, pull out cherries, and people will say, “what are you doing?” and once they drink it they say, “this is amazing.”

So it’s that easy huh?

It really is.

Put something in front of [an uneducated drinker] and they’ll take to it?

You gotta put the [theatrical] effect to it. And curiosity. You know when you’re a kid you’re always like, “I won’t try that.” Until [it’s] fun.  I make drinking fun. I make it an experience.  I make all of my own creams; I make all of my own caramels. The difference is, [if] you buy store products, you don’t know what’s in it. If you actually prepare it yourself, and your recipes, you know exactly what you’re giving your customer. I shop from farmers market to farmers market, I use everything that’s actually the very best for you. Except for cotton candy. That’s a little on the wild side. But you’re not going to have a headache in the morning.

Where does all this passion come from?

I think a lot. I’m a heavy thinker. When I’m in a store, I’m always thinking, Hmm, interesting…I love that fruit, or I love this item, what can I do with it? And my mind starts going. I gotta run with it.

So this is a true talent.

It’s a passion. Most bars in Dallas look at one way of doing things, where I look at the total opposite. Create a small place, great vibe, amazing music. A New York style with killer drinks. That is what Four [Lounge] is all about. 

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