Do me a favor, will you?
Head over to your ice maker and grab a cube. Look at it. Really look at it. Is it clear? Can you see through it? If I had to guess, I’d say that it’s not.
Because ice, contrary to popular belief, is rarely clear. It takes work to get it that way. Really. It does.
What if I told you, though, that there’s a Frisco bartender who has completely mastered the art of ice? And, beyond that, he’s mastered the art of the cocktail so well so that he is aptly named, well, The Artist Behind The Bar. And if you don’t already know him, you should.
When you first meet Chris Norton, otherwise known as The Artist, you find him quiet, unassuming. An introvert who doesn’t love the spotlight, you would never guess the undercover creative genius rumbling beneath his demeanor.
That is, you won’t guess it until you are lucky enough to connect with this Frisco local from across the bar. It’s there that you see this creativity come to life. And it all starts with the ice.
But first, you have to know a bit about the man behind the ice, don’t you?
A 30 year restaurant industry veteran, Norton is a man who knows this business. He’s been with big names (PF Changs, Edoko Frisco) and small, newer ones (like his newest venture at Frisco’s Snookered Bar and Grill). He’s done it all, loving the industry from top to bottom, inside and out.
Working for so long in this restaurant world, though, he’s seen fads and trends come and go. He was behind the bar in the 1990’s when cocktails were mass-produced, artificial, and, if we’re being honest, just not very good. This is where the key clicked in the lock for him and he knew he could do better.
He understood, even early in his career, that the foundation of a good bar experience is hospitality, service, and creativity. Norton says,
I started bartering in the 90’s and remained in the industry as it turned into a job that I loved and gave me the flexibility I was needing. Once I began at Edoko, I saw how the sushi chefs created art with their rolls. I happened to watch a documentary called Jiro Dreams of Sushi and it inspired me to elevate the cocktail experience. I wanted the art of the drinks to match the art of the food. I created a take on the Kamikaze shot from the 90’s called the 2.0 that’s the same drink but with all fresh juices and ingredients.
And, on a more granular level, he knew that the foundation of a good cocktail is the ice. So let’s talk about that.
Chris’s creativity is beyond my wildest foodie imagination. His genius is impressive. And it’s all about the ice. No matter what bar he’s tending or where he is calling home, the ice is HIS, made at his house, with his own special technique.
He researched. He experimented. He worked and worked and worked. And what he found, well, it’s spectacular. Norton explains,
Ice was a part of elevating the drink experience. And after watching the art of Japanese bartending I realized that I could actually create the ice myself. It was a labor of love as it took 6 months of working to figure it out from double boiling water to using distilled water but it wasn’t until someone told me about directional freezing water did I finally get it.
It’s all about the art of the drink from the presentation to how it dilutes the drink and how the drink tastes. It’s always a work in progress that I’m continuing to evolve. It started out as one ice mold with a serrated bread knife and a mallet and evolved into now 6 molds, 2 freezers, a chainsaw, and a bandsaw to keep up with the demand. Next, it will be the klinebell machine. To me, part of the labor of love is never having it mastered but always evolving the process.
And trust me when I say that watching this process unfold in person was truly one of the most fascinating food experiences I’ve had in my life and the product is completely mind-blowingly amazing. And that’s not an overstatement.
The time and effort he put into perfecting the ice, the over-the-top attention to a detail that most of us take for granted, is one of Chris’s hallmarks, and as his regulars know and love, it doesn’t end there.
Because if there’s one thing that sets him apart, it’s his continual striving for excellence. He won’t stop until he’s reached perfection. This striving is his nature, something he casually defers, yet you can see it in his art, in his cocktails, and in every restaurant that he works. He expects perfection from himself and brings it out in others. He’s a master of it.
For Norton, perfection is in the little things. It’s hospitality. It’s making sure that you love your drink. Not just like it; that’s not good enough. He wants love.
He has a nearly photographic memory and will remember your name and face and family and job after just a few visits. He remembers these things because they matter and because he wants you to feel welcomed and seen when you’re in front of him. Because you matter to him.
Quality also matters to him. He grows his own herbs, makes his own Maraschino cherries, and insists on the best ingredients and liquors he can find. He puts the craft in craft cocktails.
So, let’s talk about the cocktails, shall we?
He’s known for his Old Fashioned. Famous, even. Well-traveled regulars insist that his is the best, beyond New York, Dubai. It’s smooth. Spirit-forward, slightly spicy, yet sweet.
Watching him create one is mesmerizing, as he muddles the sugar cube for what feels like ages (it matters), gently squeezes the orange peel to capture the essence without overpowering the flavor and then, pours it over one of those beautiful cubes of crystal clear ice. It’s art.
It’s an experience everyone in this town needs to have. And beyond.
And this is coming from a girl who, until this very drink, did not even like Old Fashioneds. I’m now a convert. But he doesn’t stop there. Every drink he makes gets the same level of attention, the same artistry. Anything you ask him to make, he’ll work tirelessly to perfect. It’s how he knows he’s fulfilled his purpose. It’s what drives him.
I love having a customer come to me and tell me the types of flavors that they prefer and ask me to make something they will enjoy. One recent example is when a longtime customer and friend wanted a take on the grasshopper she used to always drink when she was younger. I took that opportunity to tool with the recipe and replace any pre mixes with fresh ingredients until it tasted just right. And when she sipped that drink, pure enjoyment was expressed on her face.
At that moment, I knew I had accomplished exactly what she was looking for. That satisfaction is what fuels me to feel as though I’ve fulfilled my purpose…to serve others the best service with the highest quality drink that gives us both the feeling of gratification.
I believe that @TheArtistBehindTheBar is one of Frisco’s best-kept secrets. Well, at least it was a secret kept from this foodie. But the truth is that secrets are meant to be told and this is one person you all need to know.
So here’s my challenge, Frisco. Go visit Chris at his new restaurant, Snookered Billiards and Bar.
Bring him your biggest cocktail dream or that one drink you’ve never been able to recreate, the memory in a glass you want to taste again. He will work to get it there.
It’s his passion and his purpose and he won’t stop until he sees that look on your face.
And then, of course, please share the result with us so we can go get one ourselves.