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Willem Van Leuven Shakes a Great Cocktail and Dishes on What’s New on the Menu

Written By: Tamara Philips Herb & Wood
Photographed By: Josie Gonzalez

Name: Willem Van Leuven
Credentials: Lead Bartender
Across the Border: Willem loves to head down to Tijuana for the food and bar scene.

Willem Van Leuven has been managing bars and consulting on cocktail programs in Los Angeles and San Diego for the past six years. As lead bartender at one of Little Italy’s newest Brian Malarkey restaurant creations, Herb & Wood, Willem is eager to continue creating bright and refreshing drinks. With his herb inspired cocktails to pair with Brian’s rustic dishes, you’re in for a treat from the start to finish of your experience. And if you’re lucky, maybe Willem will snap one of his infamous selfies with you upon your visit.

Question: How did you get started in bartending?

Willem Van Leuven: I’ve been in the hospitality industry for the past 17 years, working every position from host, server, to general manager. My first bartending job was at a wine bar in Pasadena, and I helped run a cocktail bar attached to the back. The restaurant hired Ben Browning as a bar consultant, and that’s when I really caught the bug to focus on well-crafted cocktails. I’ve been managing bars and consulting on cocktail programs in LA and SD for the past six years.

Q: How did you form the variety of herb inspired drinks offered at Herb & Wood?

WVL: I’ve had a bit of experience using herbs as infusions with spirits in the past, so I had a good idea of what flavors would work well when Brian and the team asked me to incorporate herbs into cocktails. I tend to like creating bright, citrusy, refreshing cocktails, so I worked on flavor combinations that would pair well with specific herbs.

Q: And the dessert cocktails?

WVL: For the dessert cocktails, I wanted to focus on those classic dessert flavors, coffee, chocolate, cherry, orange, cream. The three featured cocktails are all great combinations using those flavor elements.

Q: It’s been said you are well-versed in agave spirits. How did you make the transition from this style to herb inspired cocktails?

WVL: The transition was very easy. Herbal elements are usually used as modifiers in the form of infusions or syrups, while agave spirits are almost always utilized as a main ingredient. Pairing the two in a cocktail is just about finding the perfect balance through trial and error.

Q: Can we expect to see new drink additions coming to the menu anytime soon?

WVL: Absolutely! I’m continuously coming up with new flavor combinations using different fresh juices and unique ingredients. We’ll most likely run a special for a while, and then switch out the cocktail menu offerings seasonally, usually every three to four months.

Q: What is it like working with celebrity Chef Brian Malarkey?

WVL: I’ve always enjoyed working in a restaurant with a passionate chef. Both Brian and Shane helped inspire my creative process by setting a high standard for flavors and unique combinations. I really admire what they’re doing in the kitchen, and I want the cocktails to match that same caliber of passion.

Q: How did managing restaurants previously prepare you for this lead bartender role?

WVL: To me, managing restaurants is all about balancing different personalities to achieve a unified goal. Having worked in hospitality for so long, I’ve learned that it’s important for me to lead by example in everything I do behind the bar. From how to talk to guests, constantly having a positive mental attitude, to how to talk to other team members.

Q: So, you’re the SD chapter President of the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild. What does this entail and how did you land this exciting opportunity?

WVL: When the previous president, Jen Queen, left to go travel to Asia, she left the position open. I stepped into that role at the beginning of 2015, and I worked on helping restructure the guild with a new fresh focus. I was officially voted in by the chapter members for 2016, and my term will last until the end of 2017. Along with the rest of the cabinet, we plan monthly events focusing on education, philanthropy, and just good, clean fun.

Q: When you’re not mixing up your own drinks, where do you like to grab a cocktail and a good meal in the SD area?

WVL: I tend to stick to my favorites, Bracero for the lamb taco and a mezcal paloma, Lion’s Share for the tartare and Bacanora, Turf Club for the Delmonico and a Sneaky Tiki, and Cantina Mayahuel for the mole and Fortaleza reposado with a can of Modelo. You can usually find me at any of those places after work or on my nights off.

Q: What makes a great cocktail?

WVL: A great cocktail isn’t just about the ingredients. It’s a combination of things, including the person making it, the ambience, and usually the company you’re with when enjoying it. When all those elements are in unison, it turns into a fantastic experience that people tend to love and cherish.

Q: Have you created any concoctions that sounded great, but just didn’t work out?

WVL: I’ve been tinkering with trying to get some sort of cheese into a cocktail, but I have not yet been successful. Stay tuned!

Q: Tell us a Fun Fact about you!

WVL: Tijuana has a blossoming food and bar scene, I try to make it down there at least twice a month with a group of friends. I tend to snap a selfie with all my friends in front of the Mexico sign before we cross over. They’re pretty famous. #WillsFamousSelfies

Night Off

On Willem’s nights off he likes to get out and experience these SD eateries:

  • Bracero
  • Lion’s Share
  • Turf Club
  • Cantina Mayahuel

Herb & Wood
2210 Kettner Blvd
San Diego, CA 92101
619.955.8495
Shake It Up