Chris Tucker grew up in Woodland and at one time had designs on a career in bioengineering. Then he landed a job tending bar at a Sacramento nightclub and never looked back. Tucker, who oversees the bar programs at Hook & Ladder and the Golden Bear, has grown up with the craft cocktail scene and has earned a reputation as one of the top bartending talents in town. He has also worked at Shady Lady and Centro, among other places. The Bee checked in with Tucker to get a sense of how his job behind “the stick” – or bar – has evolved with the tastes of the city.
Q: Do bartenders really hear stories about heartbreak and have to counsel people?
A: It’s true to an extent. You develop a rapport with regulars. At Centro, although it was a very busy restaurant, it was also a neighborhood bar, so there were regulars who built a confidence with me. You definitely have to wear that hat at times. The way I handled it was listen and lend support without offering advice.
Q: What happens if you’re having a bad day before you get to work?
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A: You have to check it at the door. I’m a fan of bartenders having plenty of outside activities to have a release. I also don’t like the staff to have too many difficult service shifts. I like the full-time staff to have about four shifts a week. The grind of having to be on that stage takes its toll. I’ve seen very few people be able to master that and regulate that.
Q: Is there a shelf life for bartenders?
A: I hope not. I’ve been doing this 22 years now.
Q: How does Sacramento rank as a cocktail town?
A: Sacramento is a fantastic cocktail town, almost to the point where Sacramento doesn’t quite know how good it has it. It’s an amazing cocktail scene and has its own unique spin. Being in a much hotter climate than San Francisco or Portland, we tend to drink longer drinks. We like more mix and more juice in our drinks, but they’re still balanced and refreshing.
Q: You’re known for coming up with terrific new cocktails. How does the creative process work?
A: You have to continually expose yourself to new flavors and flavor combinations. We live in close proximity to some of the world’s best produce. I’ll still walk through the farmers market and come across things I’ve never seen.
Q: What’s the best tip you ever got?
A: A pair of Niners-and-Pittsburgh Steelers tickets.
Q: When most people are having fun, you’re working. Is that hard?
A: I definitely wrestled with that in my career. I didn’t accept bartending in my life and wasn’t completely committed to it. It was a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses kind of thing. My friends had different hours and weekends off. For a good part of my career I was thinking, “I’m just doing this for now until I’m ready for my grown-up job.” When I turned that corner at about age 33. I became much happier. I got more serious.
Q: How have bar customers changed in recent years?
A: They are definitely much more educated and much more enthusiastic. You take a look at the boom of foodies and it’s directly tied into the boom on TV. People want to feel like they’re drinking and eating what’s current. Customers are coming in and are just as current as we are, and in some cases they have more information.
Beverage director, Hook & Ladder Manufacturing Co. and the Golden Bear