Xavier Herit and the Art of Hospitality

"Whether in high-end restaurants, a pub or a hotel, it’s the way you take care of people."

Photo above: Punch, Lizzie Munro

By Sasha Haines-Stiles

When Pointy Snout craves a cocktail, the image of Xavier Herit invariably pops into our head. We usually break out in a smile, too. Many know Xavier as Daniel Boulud’s esteemed longtime head barman…or as the enterprising genius who in 2013 transformed a West Village shoebox space into the chic bijou concept Wallflower, which he still co-owns...or as the creative force now shaking things up at the new NoMo SoHo Hotel. But we first met the French-born maestro years back when he was the newly-appointed head mixologist in New York for the Experimental Cocktail Group. (The Group has gone on to build a global hospitality powerhouse of clubs, restaurants, and a Paris hotel.)

But back to Xavier, and our succes fou. Along with his Experimental compatriots Coco and Chase and Vincent, he agreed to journey to the Hamptons to join us in the VIP tent at Bridgehampton Polo for six successive Saturdays in the summer of 2012. Each week, he brought hogsheads-sized containers filled with his own specially crafted punch to pair with bountiful tins of Pointy Snout Caviar. As the swells crowded around our bar, the guys ladled endless tots of punch and spoon-fed enormous gobs of caviar. Best of all, Xavier lent his easygoing charm to the scene, transforming what might have been mindless debauchery into a special atmosphere and ambiance of happiness. We’d recognize it anywhere. Bravo, Xavier, already then the consummate conductor of discrete hospitality.

Cocktails and caviar at the Bridgehampton Polo Club. Photo: Rob Rich

This kind of trademark performance—this synonymous blend of “excellence” and “hospitality”—was embedded in Xavier as a kid. “I grew up in a suburb of Paris and went straight to restaurant school to specialize myself. My first stage was at fifteen years old,” he says. “I probably broke more glasses than I served customers, but it was the old school restaurant business where you work the hard way, you struggle, you don’t leave until everything is clean, and you own your growth. I learned a lot.”

He went on to spend a year in London, where he learned English by frequenting pubs and mingling. Then it was back to Paris, for two years behind the bar at Plaza Athénée, the celeb-packed spot combining highest-end service with a trendy, must-visit vibe. Xavier worked alongside Thierry Hernandez, whom he still refers to as “my bar mentor.” Chef Alain Ducasse was also at Plaza Athénée. He asked Xavier to come to New York to help open the restaurant Mix. The skids were greased.

“At Mix, I was able to learn more about the New York culture and continue to fulfill my passion for drinks, cocktails, and food as well.” He began exploring the local cocktail scene with purpose—to see the handful of acknowledged masters at work.

After Mix closed, fortune struck. Xavier earned a chance to watch another celebrated chef up close when he landed the role of bartender at Daniel, Chef Boulud’s eponymous restaurant. At first, he wasn’t sure if it was the right match. He gave himself six months. He ended up staying seven years. Always learning, always growing, he continued visiting the dens of the city’s cocktail pioneers— “At that time, ten years ago, there were maybe five amazing cocktail bars”—to better understand their innovative approach to dilution, ice and fresh ingredients. He cites Milk and Honey, PDT, and Pegu Club as favorites from those days. Back at Daniel, he put years of passion to work, developing signature drinks like the White Cosmopolitan (which Chef Boulud famously called “the sexiest cocktail ever); co-authoring a book with Chef; and even changing up the bar’s music.

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Xavier at Daniel. Photo: Grubstreet, Amber De Vos/P McMullan

“It was an inspiration. The way you treat people. The way you anticipate, the way you read customers. It’s all about hospitality. I really made that bar my life, and we tried to reach a certain perfection.”

In today’s mixology-obsessed culture, he says, a great restaurant cannot not consider cocktails. “You want the best water service, you want the best coffee, the best wine, the best beer, and at some point you’re going to say I want the best cocktails because everything has to be at the top level. And a cocktail is the first impression as much as coffee is the last one. Every part of the dining experience is important.”

Xavier’s interests are eclectic and they are diverse. He’s especially passionate about music, and spends one night a week DJ’ing, usually in places with a cocktail or culinary connection, such as La Marina, Nico de Soto’s Mace Bar in the East Village, and Sanatorium, renowned mixologist Albert Trummer’s place. He also curates the playlists for Wallflower, and just started a residency over at Tuck Room at the South Street Seaport. In a way, he says, knowing the bar scene and customer behavior feeds his ability to get a crowd moving: “You really know what music to put on.”

It’s clear that for Xavier, the pursuit of perfection is quite literally a pursuit. Right now, this busy bar whiz is craving inspiration in the form of a bar crawl to taste and explore the goings-on in Brooklyn, London, Australia, Asia and elsewhere. “I love to see new things, to see what else I can do, how can I make myself better.” He reminisces about a recent trip to Paris and a standout visit to Le Syndicat, which famously works only with French spirits. Its homegrown ingredient list inspires Xavier, who returns to the southwest of France about once a year, and whose uncle produced his own Bordeaux, to mull over the dearth of certain items on U.S. cocktail lists. “There’s so many great spirits in France, but they’re underrated and we don’t see them much. I would like to see more French spirits on the menu in New York – more calvados, more cognac cocktails, more eau de vie cocktails.” In fact, he hints, that’s what he wants to do for the NoMo’s new spring list.

On a recent afternoon, we stopped by the hotel to see the man at work – a blur of activity in a blue sports coat, pinging from bar to restaurant to lobby. Here at the NoMo, where Xavier was brought on last year to bring his energy and unique perspective to bear, he is putting his years of experience behind the bar in some of the world’s finest establishments to good use, serving up spirits with a decidedly spirited sensibility. His dynamic drinks program, which shifts seasonally, is designed to delight hotel guests and cocktail-savvy locals alike, not just through expertly mixed, handcrafted flavors but also through an array of eye-popping serving vessels.

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The artist in his element. Photo: Sasha Haines-Stiles

At the moment, customers are gravitating toward The Eclipse, a tiki cocktail made with Absolut® Elyx, served in a large copper pineapple mug. They’re also sipping on Day of the Dead, a tequila-infused concoction with a mix of cucumber, lime, chartreuse and kaffir lime infusion, presented in a colorful skull mug, topped with an umbrella. (A rum and cumin-inflected number finished with a bar spoon of Greek yogurt has us wondering about the possibilities of cocktails accessorized with a long-stemmed, hand-carved camel bone spoon of caviar.) “People pay a lot of attention to the visual, they love taking pictures, so we wanted to get them attracted by the visual first. And we wanted to make the drinks easy to enjoy, with some unusual items but not too adventurous—they have to be friendly cocktails.”

While he’s created cocktail menus before—at Daniel as well as at Wallflower—the scope of this project is unique. In collaboration with the management, he has rethought all aspects of eating and drinking at the hotel from the ground floor up. “We’ve brought up a new cocktail program, a new wine program, beer, redid the mini bars for all 265 rooms, room service, banquet and private events – there’ve been a lot of things to set in place,” Xavier says. He adds, it’s a “fifty-fifty split between creating cocktails and creating a feeling. All the details, like lighting and music, complement the products we try to deliver and have to make you feel good. Whether in high-end restaurants, a pub or a hotel, it’s the way you take care of people – they appreciate that and that’s why they come back.”

No matter what he’s up to, Xavier’s creativity and drive are clearly in bloom. He’s effusive about his hotel plans, and reveals a longer-term wish to play a role in shaping the beverage program for a major hotel consortium. Talk turns to his former ECC collaborators, who are all likewise engaged in innovative, successful cocktail careers (see our previous “Pals” profiles on Vincent Marino and Nico de Soto). “It’s a mix of what we love and what we know how to do best,” he says. “This business requires a lot of time, long days. You really have to appreciate what you do. At our age, the next ten years should be the glorious years.” With that, Xavier heads back to his work. We are left with the sense that this is just the beginning of another splendid chapter, indeed.


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