Being a bartender is hard work y’all. The general public is not easy to deal with and great bartenders manage to keep a pleasant demeanor, a smile on their face, and a positive attitude even through the busy times. I discovered this month’s Bartender Spotlight during one of those busy times – Southern Decadence. I met Spencer Smith at Couvant during a Southern Decadence event. I had been at Spenser’s bar prior for another event and found him professional and funny with lots of personality. He is also a very big LGBT+ Ally which is important.
I know our society is very progressive, but I find it’s important for our community to feel accepted, safe, and comfortable when we go to a non-gay establishment. New Orleans is a hospitality driven city, but you would be surprised at how many places do not believe that term applies to everyone. Couvant is one of those fabulous places that has an exquisite bar and restaurant and is welcoming to all. Located inside the Eliza Jane Hotel, Couvant is a factory-turned-brasserie serving reimagined French-Southern cuisine with delicious craft cocktails. Inspired by the region’s abundance, eclectic influences, good wine and high spirits, Executive Chef Ryan Pearson creates a menu that gathers people to the Southern table like only this city can.
Now that I’ve set the scene, let’s talk about Spencer. He grew up in a town called Florence about seven miles south of Jackson, MS. His decision to move to NOLA came three years ago because New Orleans was the place as he puts it “I could live my happiest life.” He has worked at Couvant since June and can be found there most evenings. But he does say if he is not there, all of the other bartenders are all really good and will take fantastic care of anyone who comes in. Before starting at Couvant, he worked at Flambo on Decatur for a little over a year which was a great place to practice and hone his craft.
Spencer is a whiz behind the bar and how he works a cocktail shaker (or two) is just magical, mesmerizing and somewhat erotic all at once. I asked him what does he like about being a bartender. He said, “What I enjoy most about being a bartender is when I make a drink and someone says ‘Wow, that’s really good’; I love watching their faces when they taste something they really like and know I made it. Growing up in MS there wasn’t much of a cocktail culture so I love playing with new ingredients and recipes for people to enjoy. My favorite thing about bartending at Couvant is that I truly believe in everything we have on the menu. All of our food items are absolutely delicious and our wine list is chock full of winning selections. The guys in the kitchen do a phenomenal job and our management team has worked very hard to deliver a wonderful variety of options.”
Spencer also puts his talents to good use creating a few specialty cocktails and constantly tweaking existing recipes. One of his absolute favorite drinks is a French Gimlet. It’s a wonderfully chic little cocktail using gin or vodka and St. Germaine. “We add cucumber to ours and garnish it with a mint leaf so that we hit a lot of those fresh notes,” he said.
The French Gimlet is not one he can claim to have originated but it is one of the ones he tweaked and added his own little Spencerisms to. He can take credit for the SF1 (short for Spencer Favorite 1) which is a mix of smoky Mezcal, Banana liqueur and Grapefruit bitters. This drink makes Mezcal accessible to people who normally don’t like it because the sweetness of the banana liqueur and the brightness of the grapefruit turn the smokiness from the mezcal into a nice accent flavor that isn’t overpowering. This drink is also available at Couvant but it’s not on the menu so you would have to ask for it.
A true professional at his job, Spencer is fast and efficient in dealing with patrons. “I think the most valuable skill for any bartender to have is to keep a swimming attitude. The job can be really challenging at times and you never know when you’re going to get absolutely rocked so I think it’s very important for anyone behind the bar to just kind of have that mentality that no matter what happens we aren’t going to give up and we are going to give people the absolute best service that we are capable of giving. Also communication and teamwork are very important when it’s busy, having someone that’s gonna cover your back and help you while respecting your personal system can make all the difference between having a challenging but fun shift or a hot mess that you just throw glitter on and go home after.”
Glitter always makes things better, but one can see how hospitality is his true calling and it is enhanced when doing a job you love. I always like finding out what is the strangest thing someone’s experienced as a bartender. Spencer confides that random nudity is generally the weirdest thing for him when bartending because it always catches him off guard when it happens. “One time when working at Flambo this girl came in and kept saying she wasn’t going to show him her boobs [which he did not ask her to do] and then right before she left she just pulled them out right in front of god and everybody,’ Spencer said.
“Another time a guy I was serving received a message from his wife which turned out to be a picture of her nude; which he then showed to him. That was really weird because I would never show something like that to others but to each their own.”
The industry has changed since Covid and a host of other trials and tribulations, so I always like to get the people I interview’s take on how it affected them and where they see the industry going in the future.
Spencer said, “Covid was interesting for me because in some ways I got really lucky and in others I didn’t. I was unlucky because I didn’t know enough about my rights during the pandemic and so I actually only received the unemployment payments for 5 weeks. After that, I had to work throughout the rest of the pandemic which I would have rather not done but the bills kept coming so I did what I had to do. I say I got lucky because I was just finishing up my version of a quarter life crisis when the pandemic started so I was actually well-positioned to maneuver through a lot of the challenges that came with it. As for the future of the industry I think a lot of bars and restaurants are going to have to take a look at their business models and adjust. Many are still having staffing issues and with the rise of inflation and the descent of the economy I think a lot of business owners will have to rely more on efficiency. What I mean by that is if I am a business owner and I have 2 employees to cover 14 shifts I’m either going to have to work those 2 people to death or I’m going to have to cut out my least busy hours of operation so that I can retain my employees while also maintaining a standard of service. We are already seeing this happen with many gas stations and fast food places now closing around 9 or 10 instead of midnight or 24 hours. I don’t expect this to be resolved by the Holidays and as such I think that we will likely see similar changes made to many businesses across many fields of practice probably for the next few years.”
So come check out Couvant and get a SF1 cocktail from Spencer. Couvant is located at 315 Magazine Street.