How’s this for a double-life plotline: ESL teacher by day, cocktail queen by night. Hollywood material? South Beach? Try New Rochelle. That’s where Arlen Gargagliano plies her improbable trades, the more titillating one at the Puerto Rican restaurant Don Coqui (115 Cedar St 914-637-3737; doncoqui.com).
Actually, the dichotomy isn’t that far-fetched; for Gargagliano, they’re symbiotic. Coming from a food-centric family and having lived in Spain and Peru, she returned to Westchester to teach English to Latino restaurant-kitchen workers. Immersed in their food and drink culture, she ended up co-writing a cookbook with star Latino Chef Rafael Palomino, which led to six more books and the mixology classes she now teaches at Don Coqui.
“Classes” may be putting it mildly; they’re more like fiestas. Based upon her books Mambo Mixers and Calypso Coolers, how could they be otherwise? Ginger lemonade with Prosecco; Caribe Cocktail Punch with passionfruit nectar, pineapple, mango, gold rum and Cointreau; Kiwi Mojitos with mint, light rum, and club soda: you’ll make them all and more, and prep them all, too. Ginger needs to be peeled, minced, and simmered in sugar syrup for the lemonade. Pineapple and mango need to be cut for the punch, kiwi needs to be diced and mint correctly muddled (muddle too much and the mint turns bitter) for the Mojitos. You’ll learn how to choose the fruit too, to tell if it’s fresh and ripe. And how to adapt ingredients: to use mango nectar, for instance, if your mango isn’t sweet enough.
And you’ll eat. Not fried bananas or rice and beans, but cumin-scented skewered beef to go with your pisco sours, and cilantro-potato pancakes with mango salsa alongside your açai Margaritas. It’s all ingredient-driven, delectable, and beautiful. “I use as many pure products as possible,” says Gargagliano, who likens her cocktail philosophy to cooking. “Drinking, like eating, begins with the eyes, then the nose, then the mouth. My philosophy is to keep it colorful—let the flavors complement each other—and keep it fun.”
At each monthly class, fun is a given. “It’s a festive atmosphere,” says Don Coqui’s event specialist Alison Orlando. “There’s a trend toward people entertaining at home a lot more, and at Arlen’s classes you can learn about cocktails in a fun and exciting way.”
If you take to mixology well, you might consider enrolling in the 40-hour certification program at New Rochelle’s Academy of Professional Bartending School (363 North Ave, 914-813-8660; ezbartending.net). “People take the course for their own enjoyment,” says instructor Geneva James, who agrees that the economic downturn has propelled the trend toward home entertainment.
Downturn or not, either option will provide a lifetime return on your investment.