The Gravy: In the Kitchen with Benji Lee of Supagroup

The Gravy: In the Kitchen with Benji Lee of Supagroup and The Saint. Photo by Elsa Hahne.

The Gravy: In the Kitchen with Benji Lee. Photo by Elsa Hahne.

“I grew up in Anchorage, Alaska. I came down to New Orleans because my brother Chris, also in Supagroup, was in college down here, and I got into Tulane and we were going to start a band anyway. So I followed him down here and we got the band going—haven’t been back much since. The last time I was in Alaska was in the middle of winter, and it was negative five. ‘I’m out of here, man! It’s too cold for me!’

I’ve been a bartender at the Saint, on St. Mary Street, for ten years now. It works pretty well for me to be a musician and a bartender; it’s the same hours. I go to bed around seven [in the morning]. I keep my schedule more or less consistent.

The mix at the Saint runs the gamut. We have lots of neighborhood people, professionals, older college kids, but the heart of it is a neighborhood bar. Most of the people have been coming for years. It used to be Jack and Lou’s, a mom and pop operation from the ‘50s. Our bar top, which has been there for maybe 40 years, it’s in terrible condition, but if we change it up and make it clean and slick, it wouldn’t be the same. We have wood paneling walls and low ceilings. It’s really comfy in there.

I discovered tiki drinks in New Orleans. I left Alaska when I was 17, so I wasn’t quite in the drinking realm yet. Drinking has definitely evolved since I’ve been down here. As a bartender, you want to keep up. The palate of the average drinker has evolved over the years too. People are more knowledgeable about what they’re drinking. They want quality drinks that are less worse for you. I used to use canned juices, but I don’t do that anymore. We use all fresh: pineapple, orange, lemon, lime—we juice every day. We also make our own syrups, with cinnamon sticks and vanilla beans. And bitters; raspberry bitters, ginger root bitters, to cut the sweetness. I use Campari sometimes too, and we use a lot of orgeat, almond syrup. You heat one cup almond milk and mix in two cups sugar, toast up about a quarter cup raw, whole almonds, and put them in there, let it cool. You leave the almonds in. People always wonder what it is, and it’s a good conversation starter. And I almost forgot; you add rose water and orange blossom water, about 10 drops of each.

I love a good dive bar where it’s just a beer and a shot, and that’s fine, but it’s nice to mix it up and have a complex cocktail once in a while, with more than three parts.

Tiki drinks was all the rage in New Orleans back in the ‘50s—basically, from the ‘30s into the ‘70s. Bali Ha’i on the lakefront was the premier Polynesian restaurant, rivaling Trader Vic’s. There was a need for it. Instead of traveling, people went on vacation to a restaurant, basically. That was the idea.

I took a trip to Asia with my dad, who’s Chinese—he grew up in Hong Kong—and I got really inspired by my heritage and that side of me. The more I learned about tiki drinks, the more I realized of course that it had nothing to do with Eastern Asia or any of that, but the aesthetic was there, and I felt there was a need for it in New Orleans and I felt like I could do it. So we started Tikioki Tuesdays at the Saint. Along with the Asian theme, I added karaoke. It took off and we’ve been doing it for four years now.

Nobody was doing tiki drinks when we started, really, so there was a void, and as a businessman, I’m always looking for a void to fill. And New Orleans was always about cocktails. The funny thing is that my dad put himself through school in Reno, Nevada, by working as a bartender at a Trader Vic’s, and I didn’t even know this about him until I started doing tiki drinks. He made mai tais and three kinds of Singapore Slings.

The drink I’ll be mixing today is one of my favorites; it’s called Dark Magic and has sort of a cider flavor. I like it because you can play with the recipe a lot, take something out, add something else, but I try not to have too much recipe drift.”


Dark Magic

1 oz Appleton V/X dark rum
1 oz Appeton white rum
1⁄2 ounce Kahlua coffee liqueur
1⁄2 ounce fresh lemon juice
1⁄2 ounce cinnamon simple syrup*
1 ounce fresh pineapple juice
crushed ice

Mix everything and shake with ice in a cocktail shaker for 10 seconds, strain and serve over crushed ice, with an umbrella.

*Make cinnamon simple syrup by boiling 1 cup water, add 2 cups of sugar, stir to dissolve, cool a bit, then add a few cinnamon sticks. Let cool completely and let sit for at least a day before using.