Rebel with a cause

He didn’t have the easiest start in life, but Jesse Vida turned himself around. He tells Hamish Smith his story

Jesse Vida is preparing his station at the Bloomsbury Club Bar in central London ahead of his guest shift. The Black Tail head bartender says he’s lucky to be here. And not just London. If something hadn’t stirred deep inside of him back in juvenile jail, he might not be here at all.

Vida’s early life was a drift around the Bay area of California, mostly San Francisco and its suburbs. His father died when he was very young and Vida “grew up broke”, supported by his mother, who found work where she could to support her children. Despite her best efforts (“she never gave up on me)”, the teenage Vida rebelled.

“I had had a string of detentions and arrests for fighting and stealing. I got put on probation and under house arrest, which I ignored, and was sent to juvenile hall for a week. A month later I got sent back for two weeks for violating my probation. For the first three days you’re on 24-hour lock down. I remember having to eat in the cell and knock on the door to ask the security officer if I could go to the bathroom. At that moment I realised this wasn’t going to be my life – I’m not going to ask people to go to the bathroom.”

He calls it a “come to Jesus moment” but “not in a religious sense”. Immediately after getting out of detention, he changed. “I started taking school seriously, got good grades and got back into sport”. Vida saw sense just in the nick of time: “Of my two closest friends at that time, one’s in prison, one’s dead. I feel lucky. My mom was always dedicated to me – I didn’t like it at the time but in the long run she saved my life.”

As for so many, bartending was a makeweight job that slowly took grip. In 2007 he started bar backing in San Francisco at the likes of Beretta, eventually ascending to a bartending position at Delarosa. He’d got into classics through the seminal books Imbibe! and Savoy Cocktail Book and had fallen in love with the Sazerac.

Things in Vida’s hometown were good, but with his 20s getting sight of his 30s, it was time to stick or twist and in 2013 he left for New York.

With a few connections and a decent reputation, Vida soon got shifts, not least at Booker & Dax. Before long he’d added Dutch Kills to his resumé, which was about to improve further.

Through a round-about connection with Jillian Vose, he landed a bartender role at what we would be later named the world’s best bar, Dead Rabbit. It is here, under the tutelage of Jack McGarry and Sean Muldoon, that his reputation has rocketed.

“My ethos is based on theirs. Jack is more operationally involved, whereas Sean is more the thinker and creative force with concepts – he’s a bit of a savant. You have to respect those guys – Jack and Sean are in the bar every day.

“When I first came to Dead Rabbit Jack would be hard at work scrubbing a spot on the wall. It dawned on me that when owners are that involved and care that much, everything trickles down. You respect it and you want to work that hard.”

They saw something in him too. When McGarry casually asked Vida if he’d be interested in joining the new Cuban American bar, he wasn’t thinking as head bartender. “I said I’d be interested in going over there but only in a leadership position. As I told him, I saw his wheels turn...”

Some months later Black Tail opened with Vida installed as head bartender.

Vida had simply asked the question – and it paid off. To think if his life had worked out differently, requests might have been of an entirely different nature.