From touring with The Grateful Dead to co-founding the beverage consulting company Behind The Wood, Mashia Baldwin tells us about her unusual journey to becoming one of New York’s finest cocktail connoisseurs.
Where are you originally from?
I’m originally from San Francisco and then I moved to Los Angeles. I lived in LA for eight years.
What led you to move to LA?
I was ready for a change. I’ve lived in a lot of different places: Toronto, LA, London, San Francisco.
I was dating a guy at the time who wanted to become an actor, so we moved to LA together. I was the head bartender at Skybar there for six and a half years. When I started there in 2003, it was the happening spot on Sunset Strip. It was great and gave me a lot of experience. But even though I had some great times there, it was really hard for me to acclimate myself to Los Angeles.
What was the disconnect?
I was used to living in cities that were more metropolitan, like Toronto and London. LA is so spread out and the people are really different and I wasn’t used to that.
It just took me a good three years to acclimate myself. There were a lot of positive things that happened there; I met my husband there. I met so many great people, and that created an environment where I wanted to stay until it got to the point where my husband and I were looking to move out of Los Angeles.
I was the beverage manager for Soho House West Hollywood, and then Soho House here in New York needed a beverage manager. That’s how I actually transitioned to New York.
How did you get into this industry?
I love to travel and I always loved being in different places. Getting into the hospitality industry was a sure way for me to make enough money so that I could live that lifestyle and travel how I wanted. I actually left home when I was 15 years old and traveled with the Grateful Dead.
Really? How did you travel with them?
I carpooled and met people along the way. We’d occasionally sleep outside—one time we slept under a freeway!
Yeah, pretty crazy. We once bum-rushed a fence in Chula Vista, California. I still have scars on my hands from a Jerry Garcia show that we snuck into.
How long did you travel with the Grateful Dead?
About two years. Then I moved to Toronto, went back to high school and I started working at this place called Peter’s Backyard, which was a family Greek-owned restaurant. They served breakfast, lunch and dinner and then they turned into a nightclub at 9, so I got a lot of experience.
How old were you at this time?
I was 18 and worked there until I was 20. Then I went back to California and took my GED. That’s how I graduated. Then I went to school to get an associate’s degree in music.
What does that entail?
You play, you learn theory, do music training. A lot of it was for vocal.
I did. I don’t really sing that much anymore, but I wrote songs on my guitar and a piano. And then I got that extra step of education by going to school and I really loved it. I loved the science and language behind music.
Did you want to be a singer?
Yes, that was my first passion and love. I wanted to be a musician; I recorded an album and was working with different bands to try and make it work. It wasn’t that I lost the passion for music, but I lost the passion to make it my career.
The drive it takes to make your passion your full-time job is really tough.
I had also really started taking on the love of hospitality. I had some great mentors who showed me that being in the hospitality industry was very creative, as well. I hadn’t seen that aspect of it before, because when I first started I was a cocktail waitress and a server, and when I went into bartending it was real nightclub bartending. We were slinging drinks, and picking up four or five bottles at a time to make Long Island Iced Teas. It was very fast-paced.
I hadn’t yet seen the creativity in the industry and the history that comes with making cocktails. Being a bartender allows you to have a special relationship with your guests, you can really change their day by the conversation that you have or the cocktail that you make them. You can change people’s whole outlook.
You’re creating an experience.
Yeah. I really fell in love with that.
Was it a certain job or a certain person that made that change for you?
There were people at Skybar that I worked with for a very long time who were in managerial positions. When I worked for Soho House there was a man named Chris Ojeda who was basically my first big mentor in the bartending world. I also became friends with Nick Jones, who was the owner of Soho House.
Along the way, you meet these people who haven’t come from much and have carved out a really successful career. I looked up to that.
Had you been to New York before you moved here?
Never. But it was definitely more my pace. I felt like it was where I needed to be.
How long have you been in New York?
Five and a half years. Obviously, New York is a hard place. You’ve got to have thick skin, so it took me a little while to get used to it. But I was also so immersed in my job, which took up most of my time. The Soho House in New York has five bars in it, so it was a lot of work. It was a very large staff and very challenging.
What led you to where you are now with Behind the Wood?
Well, I was always teaching and creating cocktails and menus. When I was working at Soho House, all of the beverage managers went to this really cool bar summit in London for about two weeks. While we were there, we created a worldwide beverage program for Soho House called House Tonic.
Basically, all the Soho Houses would have signature cocktails that you could order from. If you were in New York or Los Angeles or London or Chicago, you could get that same cocktail. We sat there at the summit and talked about everything: How would this be perceived? How are we going to teach this? How are we going to have incentives for our staff? All that stuff.
That really catapulted me in the direction of being a teacher and creator. I began to see people I had trained as bartenders go on to do truly amazing things. I felt like I was starting to become a mentor and that was really exciting.
Then, Behind the Wood came about with Scott Scaffidi. We both have a love and passion for food and cocktails. We were literally on the subway one day, and we were like, "We need to start our own beverage consulting company."
How did you meet Scott?
We worked together in another restaurant here in New York and we thought, "Let’s put a business plan together and brainstorm about what it is that we want to do and what we want to evoke.” That’s how Behind the Wood came about. Our first client was Pachanga Patterson in Astoria. We redid their cocktail menu and a lot of it was really well received.
That’s how it started. We would have these really fun kitchen days where Scott and I would hang out in my kitchen and make up different recipes, syrups, cordials and things like that to incorporate in our cocktails.
What exactly is beverage consulting?
Beverage consulting can be anything from somebody just saying, "Can you help us create a new cocktail menu and maybe do a staff training?" to, "I’m redoing a bar from scratch and I need the whole package.”
The client always has a concept of their restaurant and bar, so we create the cocktails to go with that theme. It takes a lot of time to do that, to be creative and then get everybody on the same page.
We did a pop-up bar recently, which was so awesome. This last summer and through the fall, it was out of Venturo Osteria in Sunnyside, every Friday and Saturday night from 10pm to 2am. Basically the owner would shut down the restaurant at 10 and we took over the bar. We did a different punch every week that people really loved.
We were written up in a few local magazines and blogs, which really gave us the legs to feel like, "This is our own thing." That was a big turning point for us.
What are you working on right now?
I’m currently the General Manager of The Hideaway Seaport. Scott and I completely redid the cocktail menu here. This is really going to take me to the next level because I’m in charge of an entire establishment. It’s truly given me the experience to find out what I need to open a brick-and-mortar Behind the Wood.
How do you even go about creating a cocktail menu for someone?
I think about what’s in season, first of all. Also, I consider the location. We have a huge patio here and we’re by the sea. I wanted to think about drinks that would be refreshing to people. For us, it’s always about seasonal items on our menus. We really want to be in tune with what’s happening outside.
As somebody who goes out and drinks cocktails myself, that’s what I want. If it’s cold outside, I might want a twist on a hot toddy or I just might want an Old Fashioned. If it’s a beautiful day outside I might want a tiki-inspired drink with crushed ice, bitters and pineapple.
Is your long-term goal to open a brick-and-mortar Behind the Wood?
That would be amazing. We’re also starting to move into manufacturing our syrups and cordials.
That’s awesome. It sounds like it’s going really well!
It is! It’s exciting. It’s something that we just thought was a pipe dream and it’s turned into full-blown reality. We’ve been so blessed to have a lot of opportunities that have come our way. We’ve also worked really hard to get some of our clients and accounts.
Things are smooth right now so we’re ready to take another plunge.
You live in Astoria, Queens. What do you love about it?
When we first moved to New York, we were living in the East Village. It’s a great neighborhood; everything is at your doorstep. But the older I got, I felt like I didn’t want to live right in the party scene. I wanted more space, I wanted to pay less rent, I wanted the sidewalks to be a little bit bigger. My business partner lives in Astoria, and he would take me to these really great restaurants and bars that I didn’t even know existed. So we moved there.
One of my favorite bars is Dutch Kills; it's really special. It was a Sasha Petraske bar. He passed away a few years ago. He kind of started the revitalization of classic cocktails in New York. They don’t have a menu but these bartenders are some of the most knowledgeable bartenders I’ve ever met. You just say what you feel like and they’ll make it for you. Or you can say you want a Penicillin and they’ll make you one. All the ingredients are fresh.
I like The Bonnie a lot. Il Bambino is also one of my favorite places to go. It’s on 31st Avenue, as well. They have this great patio and you just go outside and order a bottle of wine and get an amazing panini or a salad. It’s a really neat place.
I suppose everyone asks you what your favorite drink is?
My favorite cocktail would be a Manhattan. I like smooth, spirit-forward cocktails. I like an El Diablo, too, because I’m a big tequila person. If somebody can make me a great El Diablo, then I’m a happy girl.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
My husband gave me a piece of really great advice that I now say to a lot of people: If you’re not doing something that you’re scared of every day, you're not living.
That’s good advice, but also terrifying!
It’s really gotten me through a lot of scary and hard times. To remember these are challenges in life, and I have to show myself and the people that love me that I can do it. I try to remind myself that I’m a strong woman and that I can get through this no matter how scary and daunting it looks from far away. Jump in and give it your best.
That is good advice, especially in New York. Because even little things that should not be scary can be very scary here.
Crossing the street can be very scary. [Laughs] It’s very competitive. I feel like it’s more competitive than any city I’ve ever lived in. We’re always on the go. It can be hard to stop.
What does New York mean to you?
It’s home. There’s nowhere else I can see myself living at this moment in my life.