You'll find this article in the June 2017 Issue of the Arizona Foodie Magazine. Want a subscription, so that you'll be the first to get the next issue coming out Sept. 1st? Go here: Arizona Foodie Magazine Subscription
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Photography by Chanelle Sinclair
Robert Porter is sitting alone at the bar on the patio of Richardson’s. It’s one of his favorite restaurants. I shake his hand and sit next to him on a tall, heavy stool. The outdoor weather is perfect this time of year. Cacti, rustic woods, and natural stones decorate the space giving it an inviting and warm feeling.
I thank Robert for meeting me, and without hesitation, he goes right into telling me his story from start to finish as if prepped for a deposition. I don’t want to stop him, but I know that there’s another story in there and I plan to wait for it. I’m looking for something different, the meat of his story. Finally, while we’re eating and talking as friends, his story reveals itself. What he shares, takes me back to a similar experience I’ve had in my own past.
I’d love to jump straight to that part of the story but let’s get acquainted with this mixologist. Robert used to be a graphic designer but after realizing staring at a computer screen was not for him, he began his journey to becoming a bartender. He’s won a couple of local competitions and now even has his own cocktail mixer called Cocktail Artist, which you can find at Walmart, Sam’s Club, Costco and Fry’s nationwide, you’ll see his face right on the bottle.
He talks to me about how he went to the Bartending Academy in Tempe to increase his knowledge on booze and to become a bartender. His first job out of the two-week program wasn’t quite what he expected but it got him into the industry. Porter had his first gig at the Holiday Inn in Midtown, which has since shut its doors.
“I worked in a small lounge area taking tickets for wine or beer. When the European tour bus would show up on their way to the Grand Canyon, I helped serve them their free drinks.”
He stares at the TV screen in front of us. Lost in his thoughts, he continues.
“Then I moved into serving and ended up becoming the floor supervisor, then the manager of the restaurant soon after. After two years the Holiday Inn closed, and I transferred to the Sheraton at the Airport. After a month, I met someone in the lobby who was hiring for medical equipment sales. He offered me a lucrative position, and I couldn’t refuse. I did that for about two years and realized it wasn’t the job for me.”
“Did you get back into the hotel industry?” I ask.
“I got back into bartending,” He said, smiling. “The first place I applied was Hotel Valley Ho. Trader Vic’s was looking for bartenders. They were one of the first to do these crazy Hawaiian drinks. They had like 5-9 ingredients per cocktail, tons of different glassware and ice. This was the place I started to seriously bartend. The people there were on the ball. I didn’t want to embarrass myself, so I did a lot of studying and flashcards until I got everything down.”
I start to feel the familiar rumblings in my stomach, and I call the waiter over. I order the tenderloin benedict, which sounds drool worthy with two grilled beef tenderloin filets, served high on English muffins, topped with two poached eggs and smothered in jalapeno hollandaise, with a large side of hash browns.
After we order, Porter tells me more about his time at Trader Vic’s.
“What I really enjoyed about it was they let us shape the menu. As a designer that freedom tapped into my love of being able to see what I can create. I like the instant gratification from making cocktails. I can create art, have you try it right away, and get your feedback. That experience helped shape me into the bartender that I am today.”
After four memorable years at Trader Vic’s, the restaurant closed, and Porter was quickly hired by another local resort.
“I went over to The Sanctuary, and this was the time when all the powerhouses were there. The Sanctuary is all about mixology. They were picking herbs and juicing everything and doing things that I didn’t expect to see in a cocktail. I broke open every bartending book I had and started reading and studying again. If you want to be a great bartender, you must understand the balance between sugar and acid. Jason Asher told me that, and it’s helped me throughout the years. I’m able to taste a drink and right away, know if it’s balanced or not. It’s about multiple ingredients working together, and when you can do that, it keeps you drinking and wanting more.”
He shifts in his seat and turns to me.
“I was there for four years. I worked long hours, and I started to feel burnt out.”
He tells me how he left The Sanctuary, and how he left town for a month to recharge. He returned to work at Chelsea’s Kitchen for a brief moment before finding his way to The Phoenician. Now that The Phoenician has been acquired by Marriott, he’s excited for the opportunities that could arise and doesn’t plan to leave anytime soon.
We nibble on our food and have some small talk, that’s when he begins to loosen up, and we happen to slide right into the meat of his story, almost by accident.
“I’ve been in Arizona most of my life. My mom graduated early and went into the air force, that’s where she met my father.”
Porter’s voice quiets. “Growing up, my real father was an alcoholic and quite abusive. My mom ended up leaving him for that reason and then she remarried. The new husband was a Navy guy, so we bounced all around. We relocated back to AZ when I was 11 years old, and I’ve been here ever since.”
He takes a bite of his breakfast, “I mentioned that I don’t drink much earlier in our conversation. That has a lot to do with my real father and being around his alcoholism. That kept me from wanting to go that route.”
He starts to tell me a part of his story that strikes a familiar chord. I lean in not wanting to miss a single word.
“It took me awhile to realize how much that relationship and experience with my father was holding me back. I didn’t want to get into a committed relationship, and I didn’t want to have a family. When I was 39, I got a call that my father was sick and didn’t have much longer to live. I hadn’t been on good terms with him, and we didn’t speak much.”
I sense the sadness in his voice as he recalls his painful past.
“I decided to fly out and see him one last time and say goodbye. I remember seeing him and thinking how frail and sickly he was. Something about that last time I spent with him, opened my eyes. I didn’t know it then, but I was able to begin the healing process.”
I have all these things I want to share with him, but I bite my tongue not wanting to interrupt his train of thought.
“My father passed away a couple of weeks later, and I’ll never forget the funeral. The military did a beautiful funeral at Rosencrantz in San Diego. All the tombstones there are lined up perfectly, and my mom and I were in military garb. They were playing taps, and the wind was blowing on my face. I had a life changing experience as I put my dad’s ashes in the urn. I can’t explain it other than I could feel forgiveness and this ability to let go, flowing through my body. I felt changed, I’ll never forget that feeling.”
Goosebumps covered my arms as he spoke. I felt like he was telling a part of my story. “I knew at that point in my life, my greatest fear of becoming my father wasn’t ever going to happen. I didn’t need to worry that I would make the same mistakes as him. I knew that I could be a different person.”
That quote could have come directly from my mouth.
“I left The Sanctuary around this time and really started to get healthy and back in shape. I got out of a long relationship and decided to visit my sister in LA. I was going through so much internal change, and I needed to try and reevaluate my life and what I really wanted to do. This was a time for me to reflect on who I was and what my purpose was.”
Porter sits up in his chair and smiles. I can feel his contentment.
“That’s when my life started to change. That’s when I started to work hard. I broke free from those chains of my past, and I finally felt confident in my abilities.”
I box up the rest of my breakfast, and we wrap up our conversation. As we part ways, I can’t seem to stop thinking about what he shared with me. It wasn’t even a story he was planning to tell, and he probably has no idea how much I related to it. Everyone one has issues in our past that haunt us, but can we break free of these chains as Porter has?
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