Joe McCanta, Cocktail maker: 'A dash of bitters - orange, lemon or celery - changes a whole drink'


McCanta started out bar tending in New York and went on to work for Saf raw food restaurants, opening Saf Restaurant and Bar in London in 2008. He has devised the cocktails for the Grey Goose Winter Ball to benefit the Elton John AIDS Foundation tomorrow. For tickets, go to

What are your most and least used pieces of kitchen kit?

It would probably be my Vitamix. I use it in the morning to make juices or shakes. And then I use it for work – to create purées for drinks or to grind up spices. Least used? I'd say a measuring cup. I hate measuring things. I like doing things by touch and sight.

If you had only £10 to spend on food, where would you spend it and on what?

Cheese, definitely. Probably a nice Burgundian-style one. If I could afford a bit of bread, a French baguette, say, to put the cheese on, too, that would make me very happy.

What do you eat for comfort?

The olive in my martini. The martinis are quite a comfort as well, but I find something very attractive about a boozy olive. I think it comes from living for a time in Istanbul when I was working for Saf. The olives and oils you could get there were on another scale; I grew to love them.

If you could only eat bread or potatoes for the rest of your life, which would you choose?

I would go with bread. There is something amazing about the alchemy that comes when wheat is turned to bread. I spent a few days with the bakers at Soho house and they taught me how to make all these different types of bread – I was rapt.

What's your desert island drink?

A simple vodka on the rocks, preferably Grey Goose. If you had to have something over and over again you'd want something you wouldn't get bored with. If you'd let me, though, I'd take a range of bitters with me. A dash of bitters – orange, lemon, celery – changes the whole drink.

What's your favourite restaurant?

It's called Au Fils de Saison, and is a little anonymous place in Paris, on a backstreet. But I adore it nonetheless. It's small, approachable and serves traditional French food of an impeccable variety. It's a gem.

What's your favourite cookbook?

I like cookbooks and have quite a few of them. But at the moment I'm quite into getting the new food magazines and taking recipes from those. Things like Lucky Peach or Ferran Adrià's magazine – you don't have to invest as much, but you get really cutting-edge ideas from them.

Who taught you about cocktails?

I sort of taught myself. I was originally just in wine, but wanted to learn about cocktails, and everyone said read Dale DeGrof's book, The Craft of the Cocktail. I still have it now and every page is highlighted and triple underlined.