An interview with Richard E. Ocejo author of Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy
What led you to study and write a book about cocktail bartenders, craft distillers, upscale men’s barbers, and whole animal butchers?
Like with the project for my previous book, this project started because I walked into a bar. I was studying the impact of downtown nightlife scenes on neighborhood and community life in New York City, and some of the bars I went to were specialized, speakeasy-style cocktail bars that had opened up. They had hidden doors, were filled with remarkable aromas, and offered unique cocktails with unusual ingredients. Most importantly, the bartenders, who wore uniforms of shirts and ties, vests, and even arm garters, used very precise techniques to make these drinks, were very knowledgeable about what they were serving, and clearly loved what they did. I learned that these bars were anchors for a global community of cocktail professionals and enthusiasts, and cocktail bartenders were among the main participants. They were dedicated to making cocktails the way they were made in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Furthermore, I loved the drinks. I was hooked.
After studying this community for a couple of years, I became curious about the craft distilling industry. Cocktail bartenders are always searching for new flavors to use in their recipes. Over the past two decades many small distilleries have opened up throughout the country and introduced a broad array of new products to the market. Cocktail bartenders were snatching them up and using them. I decided to become an intern at a craft distillery just north of New York City. During my time there I became very interested in the actual distillers and why they chose this job. Around then I also realized that out of everyone in the cocktail world, it was the bartenders—people who were committed to bartending and cocktails—who fascinated me the most. After a few years of collecting data without much of a focus, I decided to make the project a study about people who are transforming common service and manual labor occupations into “cool” jobs. After some thinking, I rounded out my cases with upscale men’s barbers and whole animal butchers. They both met the criteria I had established, and gave me new industries to study.
So, I never intended to write about these folks, what they do, and why they do it. A series of happy accidents and following my own curiosity led me to them all. Plus, along with yielding important insights about the nature of work today, the research was a lot of fun.
How are these jobs different from the more common versions everyone knows?
They differ from them in a few key ways. First, they all require these workers to regularly perform technical skills based on a sense of craft, to understand and communicate the culture their work is based on, and to have a philosophy about what is “right” and “wrong” in what they do. That’s a little vague, so let me give some examples. Cocktail bartenders, for instance, practice mixology, a classic approach to making drinks that entails precise measurements and specific ingredients, like large chunks of ice and freshly-squeezed juices. The aim is to achieve balance in cocktails, or to have every ingredient work in harmony, and drinks that do not reach that goal fall outside of their definition of what is the “right” way to make cocktails. They then use specific techniques to carry it out. Similarly, butchers in artisanal shops hold a meat philosophy toward what is and is not “good” meat, which includes how the animal was raised and slaughtered and how far it travels to get to the shop. And they also use specific butchery techniques to break down whole animals, trying to use every piece of meat, fat, and bone. One need not know anything about the wide range of flavor profiles in rye or how long to shake a drink to achieve the right level of dilution to be a common bartender at most bars, just like one need not know how to break down a whole animal or talk to customers about rare cuts of meat to be a butcher at a supermarket or even at most neighborhood butcher shops.
Second, these workers all work in businesses that promote their craft and give them the resources they need to perform. These work performances are not accidents. People design these businesses so that workers can make and provide special products and services for consumers. A barber at a neighborhood shop, for instance, can’t work on the fine details in a haircut that give it style if they only have ten minutes to work on it. That’s why the shops I studied provide at least a half an hour for haircuts. And these shops won’t get the clientele they want—professional, creative, culturally savvy—if they don’t promote themselves as places where men can get the style they need in a place that doesn’t threaten their manhood, like a women’s salon does.
Obviously some workers in more common versions of these jobs perform the same technical skills, are very knowledgeable about their work and products and share this knowledge with consumers, and have a sense of “right” and “wrong” in their work. But the combination of these technical and communication skills, sets of knowledge, and philosophy do not define them, nor do they usually work in places devoted to these special crafts or do they get recognized as cultural producers or innovators.
Who decides to pursue these jobs?
That’s what fascinated me the most from the start of my project. It’s mostly people who have other work options who choose to pursue these jobs as careers. I started with the cocktail bartenders. In New York City, the big question bartenders and other people in the service industry often get is: what do you really do? It’s common for students, actors, musicians, artists, and folks who are pursuing some other career to bartender or wait tables until they “make it.” But what I learned early on with the cocktail bartenders was that they wanted to bartend. They were pursuing it as a career in itself. They were mostly college graduates, or they attended college and/or were working in a different career, and they had a lot of cultural capital. These patterns repeated throughout my research with people in the other jobs.
These jobs provided these workers with feelings they either weren’t getting or didn’t think they would get from other types of work: meaningfulness and satisfaction, specifically in a job that required learning a craft, being creative, pursuing passions, sharing knowledge, and being respected. Furthermore, in the new versions of these common occupations these workers saw opportunities for flexibility. In other words, being a butcher means you cut meat. But being a butcher at a whole animal butcher shop also means you teach classes and give demonstrations on butchery, work at special food events, and consult for major chefs and restaurant groups. You also get exposed to the food world and build social networks within the industry in a way you wouldn’t if you worked at a supermarket. The other jobs offer similar opportunities. Young people destined for college and college students learn that work should be meaningful and fulfilling and allow you to be creative, and that you must cultivate marketable skills and be flexible in your choices. The jobs I studied meet these criteria.
Why have jobs like these become popular, and why now?
These particular jobs all happen to be in industries—nightlife, beverage production, men’s grooming and style, and food—that have become very popular in today’s city. These businesses are all key attractions for young, well-educated urbanites with disposable income. Today’s urban economy is based on knowledge, culture, and a wide array of services. These jobs interestingly offer all three. They have emerged to provide very specialized products and services for people in search of unique consumption experiences.
Another big reason why they’ve become popular now is because of changes in how many people in our society consume, how they see themselves as consumers, and the important role consumption plays in their lives and in the life of the city. An important concept over the last twenty years or so among many sociologists who study culture has been the idea of “cultural omnivorousness,” or the idea that today people with highbrow tastes consume, rather than shun, low- and middlebrow forms of culture without compromising their status. But they usually only consume these lower forms of culture when they can intellectualize them in some way and distance them from their lowbrow roots. These workers play a key role for these types of consumers and for urban culture. They basically help to construct and distribute the ideas behind the lowbrow products and services. To give an example, a hot dog is a pretty commonplace, not very distinguished, food. But when it has been filled with local, ethical, and sustainable meat that has been butchered with artisanal techniques as part of a philosophy of using the whole animal, and when it gets topped with a homemade kimchi relish, it becomes a “good” food that gets discussed in the city’s elite foodie circles.
Finally, I would say these jobs also allow people to work with their head and hands as well as interact with others in a public setting. In other words, they get recognized for the work they do, by their peers, consumers, and the media. Electricians and plumbers, for instance, who also use specialized knowledge and a sense of craft and work with their hands, do not work in front of an audience. I think that’s a key difference.
What did you do to write this book?
Like I said before, the research was a lot of fun. I primarily use ethnography in my research, which basically means I hang out with the people I’m studying in their own settings to learn how they see their world by analyzing their interactions, behaviors, and attitudes. Researchers who use this method try to spend a lot of time with the people in these settings to really discover patterns of meaning. They observe, and even participate in whatever activities are happening there to better understand them. So to study these folks I got to do and learn a lot of cool activities.
For the cocktail bars and upscale men’s barbershops I was simply a regular. I went to them very often, sat in places where I could observe the most action, got to know their employees well, and wrote down notes about countless interactions and conversations I saw and had. The bartenders gave me drinks to try, and answered my questions about their creative process, and the barbers let me stand next to and even photograph them as they worked, and also answered my questions about cutting hair. I didn’t become a bartender or barber, or work in these places in some other capacity, for a few reasons. These businesses would only hire people with experience, and I had none. And doing so would’ve distracted me from my data collection anyway. Bars and barbershops are also social places, where people regularly go to hang out and talk. What I was doing is therefore normal.
Studying the craft distillers and whole animal butchers was a different story. Distilleries and butcher shops really aren’t social places where people go to hang out. There is no equivalent of a bar to sit at or a waiting area. But they are both businesses with a lot of little tasks that have to get done, and it’s common for these businesses to hire interns to help out in exchange for learning how these places run (and for discounted meat and the occasional free bottle). So I became an intern at a craft distillery and a whole animal butcher shop, working alongside the distillers and butchers. Those experiences were great not just because I got to learn the basics of a craft, but also because they informed me about what it means to actually do these jobs.
Along with being informative, the people I met and activities I did were just a treat. I’ll admit, I was emotional when the project ended.