This feature is part of a regular series called “How I Got Promoted,” spotlighting the stories of how top hospitality professionals took their careers to the next level. Today, we hear from Mario Castro, lead bartender of New York’s most exciting new cocktail bar, Gibson & Luce, on how he rebuilt his network in a new city and leveraged that to grow his career.
I’m originally from southern California, and I lived in San Francisco for about 12 years. The west coast is what I know. I launched my cooking career as a line cook at a restaurant called Butterfly on the Embarcadero. I needed to make a little more money so I talked to the chef, who pushed me toward bartending. He knew I was good at talking to people (we had an open kitchen), and so he told me I could pick up extra shifts at the bar. He was right: I loved it.
From there, I went to a restaurant called Prospect, and that’s where I really got the chance to explore bartending, give classes, and take control of my career. I found mentors who gave me books to read and taught me techniques I had never used before — making syrups, clarifying, utilizing only the best products, how to never waste anything. They taught me how to really raise the level on classic drinks. Soon, all that learning paid off, and I got promoted to bar manager.
While I was living in California, I would visit New York every once in a while and I always thought, Man, this is a beautiful place. I love the people here, and I love the feeling here. Back in San Francisco, the culture was changing because of the tech industry — the city didn’t feel the same as it used to. And I figured that New York was probably one of the best places to make a name for yourself as a bartender. So I moved there.
The biggest difference between here and California, I quickly discovered, is that in California, I had been around for so long that I had a lot of friends. Here, I only knew a few people. I started going to bar, and just chatting with the bartender — I’d eat, observe, ask where he or she was from. I am usually pretty open with people, and I’ve always thought the bar was a more personal experience — that’s the reason I love bartending so much. Between those meetings and the few friends I knew who worked at places like The Four Horsemen and Torst, I started handing out my resume and getting interviews at places.
A challenge, coming from San Francisco, is that people didn’t always recognize the places where I worked. If I told anyone back home that I worked at Prospect, they would have been like, “Hell yeah!” but here, people hadn’t really heard of those places.
But I managed to get a meeting with Henry at Life Hotel — they told me they were opening up a speakeasy called Gibson & Luce, that it would be a big part of the restaurant but also very independent, and a cocktail spot first and foremost. I think they saw in me my versatility as a professional — I had been a special education teacher’s assistant, so I was very patient. I had worked in retail for Apple, so I knew how to handle myself in a fast-paced environment. I love history and literature and I have always taken pride in being knowledgeable about the cocktail practice. But more than anything, they realized that I really love bartending. I have a passion for this. I have family back in Mexico who own bars — this is what I want to do. I even hope to open my own place, eventually.
So I got the job as a lead bartender at Gibson & Luce, and I’ve been incredibly lucky. I am given my independence, but I understand the responsibility that comes with it — restaurants are making most of their money off of booze, so I have to balance creating great, creative drinks with also being cost-efficient. Gibson & Luce is the spot where the majority of parties and special events for the restaurant are hosted, so it’s up to me to show the VIPs and influencers a great time. I am also in charge of building up our base of regulars. And that’s hard because we are in Midtown, trying to be a local speakeasy in a neighborhood that is not really a neighborhood. I’ve had to adjust to things I’m not comfortable with and constantly adapt and shift around to make sure I am maximizing the bar’s success.
The best value a bartender can have is humility. Be knowledgeable, but know that there is always something more to learn. Understand that there are people doing what you are doing all over the country — you’re not necessarily all that special. Don’t be afraid to try something and fail. Talk to people constantly. Don’t be discouraged if you make a drink and people don’t like it. Try another variation. Just keep exploring.