Devan Mercurio, Opera Diva in Training
I had the pleasure of sitting down with the amazing Cat Cannon, who currently is the bar manager of the newly opened Federal Galley in the North Side of Pittsburgh. For those of you not familiar with Federal Galley’s concept, it is the second “restaurant incubator” allowing chefs to open their own restaurant concepts in a low-risk and low cost environment, following in the footsteps of its sister restaurant Smallman Galley, where Cat also was part of their very unique bartending team. Aside from both galleys, Cat has bartended all over the city, and currently is the Secretary for the Pittsburgh chapter of the United States Bartending Guild (USBG).
How did you get into bartending?
At the time I was a server in New Jersey and wanted to try bartending, but the restaurant I worked at was BYOB. So I got a $100 Groupon for bartending school. When I came back to Pittsburgh in 2013, the bar manager at Union Pig and Chicken, my first burgh big, asked me what I knew about Whiskey (since they were a primarily whiskey bar), my answer was “I like to shoot Jameson.”
How is the bar program at Federal Galley different than that of Smallman Galley?
Smallman Galley just happened. No one was paying attention to us, and everything happened organically. First it was a rap album theme cocktail menu, and then we did a Pittsburgh Pirates pun theme, because anyone who knows me knows my obsession, and most of the other bartenders like Matt Zelinsky, Will Groves, and Tim Garso are mutually obsessed. Then it just suddenly became us! Currently our Federal Galley cocktail menu is a bank letter, because Federal Galley was built in an old PNC bank. The bar itself was built out of the bank vault. It’s addressed to Mr. Deacon Phillippe, who was a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates, (again no one is surprised about me using a Pittsburgh Pirates theme) and then manager of the Pittsburgh Filipino Baseball Club in 1912. Our bar director, at both Galleys, Tim Garso (also a huge Pirates fan) looked up all of the baseball info for the cocktail menu! Half the menu is House Cocktails, which are inspired by flavors of the Philippines and the other half is Classic Cocktails “exploring and unearthing recipes lost to time.” This is just to start them off, because just like what happened at Smallman, I want the bar to reflect the bartenders working there. I want it to be THEIR bar.
What is your vision for your bar at Federal Galley?
Since so many people gave me a chance, I wanted to give some chance back. My staff is all seasoned vets with different levels of experience. I wanted to create a friendly neighborhood bar atmosphere, but with high volume service. My entire cocktail menu is seven ingredient drinks, but only takes three touches to make. This comes from skills I learned from places like Tales of the cocktail and Camp Runamuck, where I wanted to absorb as much as possible. I also stocked the bar with brands that supported me and have a personal connection to every bottle behind the bar. For example my dad’s favorite drink is a Grey Goose martini, which is the first drink I learned to make, and therefore there will always be a bottle of Grey Goose behind my bar. I also want my bar staff to have a personal connection to the bar. If there’s a particular brand or drink that they feel strongly about having and make a case for it, I’ll put it behind the bar. I just want it to be a “giving back” bar.
Do you think strong women influenced you on your path to becoming a badass bartender?
Absolutely! Pittsburgh’s bar community is dominated my strong women, which is unusual if you look at places like New York or Chicago which are male dominated. Here in Pittsburgh, the president of USBG is a woman, and there are tons of female bar managers/bartenders winning shit and being so badass. Federal Galley is also predominately female bartenders! Today there is an article in The Incline about the Bar Maid Act, because 50 years ago women couldn’t be bartenders because it wasn’t moral or proper.
Do you think it is sometimes harder to be a women bartender or manager than a man?
Absolutely! I feel that sometimes we all let sexist experiences on the job roll off of us a little more than we should, and I’m trying to stand up for myself, and my staff more to not normalize this behavior. There was one night at Smallman Galley when I was bartending with my six-foot tall, male barback who was in ROTC (now in the naval airforce) and a customer yelled over the bar as to why I, the female, was making the drinks, instead of washing the dishes. Sometimes it can feel like a circus act being behind a bar, as your job is to set up, host, AND clean up a party for each and every guest, trying to make the most out of their experience. But when patrons start making sexist comments or demanding an employee’s phone number or when the completely cross the line and get physical, then it should be about the well being of the bartender. It’s not always that obvious either. Since I’ve become bar manager here, a lot of times someone will come in looking for the manager and asks if they can talk to “him.” Sometimes they even directly ask me where “he” is. Then I get to stick out my hand and introduce myself as the manager. I have been very fortunate to have a lot of strong women bar managers who have set examples for me on how to deal with these uncomfortable situations. If a customer crosses the line, I’ll make it known that things are inappropriate, but still in a professional way. I just make an effort to be more vocal for both myself, and my staff.
So you regularly refer to yourself as “aggressively mediocre,” where did that start as your catchphrase?
I’m not really good at taking compliments. When I started at Union Pig and Chicken, I got really good at my job, really fast. I started to be like. “Yeah I’m a rock star!” whenever people complimented me. It was somewhat a joke, but I was also trying to be my own number one fan. It wasn’t until I started getting involved with USBG, that I realized I had been in my own little bubble, and that everyone outside of my little bubble were actually rock stars. If you think you’re best, than you can’t get better, like Kanye West. It’s better to be humble and stay humble, because there is so much more room for personal growth that way. I can’t remember who or when exactly the term “aggressively mediocre” was born, but I know that it was someone at Smallman Galley who originally coined it.
Federal Galley is such a unique and cool space. As mentioned in the interview, the bar itself is carved out of an actual bank vault, and the cocktails served out of it are amazing! When I visited I chose, from Cat’s Cocktail menu, the “Panda Express” which is Herradura Blanco Tequila (my fav!), pandan agave, pineapple, and lime.
I also indulged myself in a “Packard Pepperoni” Pizza from Michigan & Trumbull, which has red sauce, mozzarella, pickled chiles, pepperoni, and hot honey (YUM!).