Julius White, beverage manager and assistant general manager at Michelin-starred Vie, barely looks old enough to serve the craft cocktails that he develops for his beverage program. But White has a passion for and an in-depth knowledge of beverages, food and restaurant operations — he should not be underestimated.
Located 20 miles west of Downtown Chicago in Western Springs, Illinois, Vie, brainchild of Chef Paul Virant, is the first restaurant to serve liquor in the western Chicago suburb since Prohibition; and the town’s patience has been duly rewarded with White’s menu of libations — an extension of Vie’s seasonal Midwestern fare. White welcomes guests with genuine Midwestern hospitality, “When I’m back here, this bar is my home. When you sit down, you are my guest in my house and I treat you the same way I would if you were literally at my front door.” Hospitality is a skill White perfected years ago while managing a highly niche restaurant.
At first glance, a fondue restaurant may seem like an unlikely arena to grow as a food and beverage professional, but for White, being a manager at Melting Pot was the perfect springboard for cultivating his hospitality skills. “[Working there] taught me how to further tune into the guest and the guest’s expectations because it’s really a concept where you have to exceed the guest’s expectations on both service and being over-the-top hospitable. Because at the end of the day, [the guest is] cooking their own food, so it’s really about what we can bring to elevate the experience.” As an added bonus, White learned more about wine as fondue is a heavily wine-focused cuisine.
Missing regular interaction with customers, White transitioned behind the bar where his passion for beverage led him to develop a full skillset of wine, beer and cocktail knowledge making him the powerhouse beverage manager that he is today.
White blurs the lines of the kitchen and bar with his beverage program at Vie, “One of my favorite cocktails, I call it my favorite child,” says White, “is the Fennel Countdown. It’s a savory gin sour.” Made with Scottish celery gin and fennel that is smoked by the kitchen for 90 minutes and then coated with sugar and macerated by White until it emulsifies into a syrup that tastes like sweet smoked fennel. Another favorite is White’s Mexican Hot Chocolate that’s topped with Vie pastry chef Angelyne Canicosa’s marshmallows made with cinnamon, cayenne and ancho then brûléed atop the cocktail which is served cold.
"For me, my thing with cocktails is I want to create something delicious before I want to create something that hasn’t been done before,” White says. “I’m always for innovation, but I think sometimes we get so involved in trying to do the next thing that we miss that it should be a delicious enjoyable experience to have a cocktail."
Chicago’s craft beer scene also has White excited, especially the city’s culinary breweries. “I’ve done dinners with both Moody Tongue and Band of Bohemia and both of those companies are right on the cutting edge of incorporating things you would traditionally see in cuisine, into beers, and making these beautiful beers that are meant to be paired with food and are balanced so that you can take another sip. So I’m really in tune with those guys.”
When White reflects on his thoughts about black women and men in the food and beverage industry, he says he’d like to see more considering a career in food and beverage as a viable career choice. And he’s even recruited his younger brother to join the industry.
White shares that he’d like media outlets to make a stronger effort to include more black professionals in their coverage. But he was recently encouraged by Eater’s "America’s 38 Essential Restaurants" list where chef-partner Mashama Bailey’s The Grey in Savannah was awarded the honor of Restaurant of the Year. Two other black-owned restaurants were also included on the list (Bertha’s in Charleston and Compère Lapin in New Orleans). “There are talented people out there and the more of us that can have a face and have a voice and tell our story, I think it will encourage others that, ‘I can have a career for myself in this industry too.’” By following his passion for beverages, White is changing the face of what the beverage world looks like and showing the next generation of black food and beverage professionals that they do belong.