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Mikey Kuntzman of the Cove

Bartender Mikey Kuntzman pours a drink for us as he shares his journey on how he went from a mischievous Catholic school student to a trusted barkeep at one of Memphis’ most renowned and enduring watering holes, The Cove.

My family lived right outside of Memphis, in Olive Branch, Mississippi. They put me in a Catholic school, until I got kicked out in fifth grade. I guess that was the start of my delinquency. It was a bunch of things — I didn’t like authority, I was seeking attention, I think I was just a bad kid.

Growing up I never really knew what I wanted to do. At one point, I wanted to be an actor. I was in a couple plays, but I didn’t like my voice, because of how strong my accent is.

I thought I was going to be a lawyer. But then I got in trouble a lot. So I didn’t go that route.

My parents would always take me out to eat when I was little. And I always liked the fancy restaurants. We had a thing where we’d take turns picking where to eat. My dad would pick, then my mom and then me. It was always a lot of fun. So my favorite memories growing up were of going out.

We were living out in Olive Branch back when there was nothing there, so we’d have to go out to Memphis to eat.

I remember going to Leonard’s and seeing all the old graffiti on the walls from all the old high schools. We’d go to Houston’s, Rafferty’s, shit like that a lot. We’d go to Hueys too, get some burgers and try to shoot toothpicks into the fucking ceiling with the straws.

And every time I’d get the ‘Steak on a Stick’ dinner. I still get it.

Anyway, I went to Olive Branch high school and ended up getting into some trouble.

I was 16 years old and some friends and I got pulled over with an ounce of marijuana in the car. In fact I’m still friends with two of the girls. I took the blame for the shit and I got sent to juvenile corrections.

I think they say a third of the people who go to juvenile detention end up in prison. I knew I did not want to go to prison, so I started studying and got my GED to start college a year early.

So what would have been my senior year of high school was my freshman year of college. I went to Ole Miss for one semester, flunked out, didn’t like it. Then I went to Northwest to study political science.

It ended up being that I just didn’t really like college. I wanted to party and shit, you know, have more of a social life. My parents were footing the bill, and I just really didn’t appreciate it and ended up flunking out.

It ended up being that I just didn’t really like college. I wanted to party and shit, you know, have more of a social life. My parents were footing the bill, and I just really didn’t appreciate it and ended up flunking out.

Since I wasn’t in school I had to start working. I ended up getting a job at Bonterra in Nesbit, Mississippi. It was an old French inspired bed and breakfast, but it was really cool.

I had moved back home, and it was like a 20 mile drive from my parent’s house. I was maybe 19 years old. This place was one of the nicest places I’d been to.

Now, my family had taken me to some nice places in Florida and up in Chicago, where my aunt lived and stuff. My aunt was real wealthy, and so was the rest of my dad’s side of the family. So I’d been to nice restaurants a whole bunch. And I’d always liked going out to eat. It’s always been fun to me. So I liked working there.

I started subscribing to magazines, started to read more about food, drinks, nightlife, music, and so on.

I worked at Bonterra for maybe six months. I went on to open Mesquite Smokehouse in Southaven. I worked at Felicia Suzanne’s, Pasta Italia, so on. But, I was kind of jumping from job to job every six months or so.

At 25, I helped open Central BBQ downtown and was there for three and a half years. I kind of just did a little bit of everything. One day I would be in the front running the register, the next day I’d be running food , and another I’d be working expo.

Since it was a more casual, hourly job that wasn’t based on tips, you didn’t have to kiss people’s asses. But, I’ll tell you one thing. I learned more about restaurants, from Craig and Roger, the owners of Central BBQ, and their systems than anywhere I had worked before. I also probably made more money than I ever had as well. Their BBQ is just the best.

I guess I just wanted to switch things up, so I applied for a kitchen job at South of Beale. I lied on my resume when I applied, by telling them I had more kitchen experience than I actually did. I think they figured out that I had lied within the first few hours when they saw me scrambling. I got burned a whole lot those first few days, but kept at it. I was pissed with myself, and I didn’t want to go backwards, so I humbled myself and kept at it.

I got my ass kicked, but I learned how to cook. I was there for maybe a year and a half. I think I got a DUI and never went back. I don’t know.

But, I saw that the Cove was hiring cooks. A friend of mine, Davis Thomas, who was a sales rep for Wiseacre at the time was the one who told me that they were hiring. He’s a super nice dude, the best, and I owe him big time for helping me get this gig.

I went in, applied, got the job and went in on my first shift on a Friday night. Immediately I could tell how easy going it was. I had never worked somewhere like this before. A guy who was working in the kitchen at the time, Chad Pike, told me, ‘All you gotta do is come to work, do your job, and leave.’ It was as simple as that. So, I came in and learned everything I could.

Eventually, one Wednesday they threw me behind the bar to help out. That’s back when David Parks and Jeff Hicks – both legendary Memphis bartenders – were manning the bar.

I worked with Jeff for about six months before he went to open the Gray Canary, and with Parks for a year after that.

I soaked up everything like a sponge. I learned all the classic cocktails. I watched how he did everything. I took it seriously. Honestly, it was probably the first time I’d ever taken anything seriously in my life.

I soaked up everything like a sponge. I learned all the classic cocktails. I watched how he did everything. I took it seriously.

Honestly, it was probably the first time I’d ever taken anything seriously in my life.

I’ve never been super educated, and I come from a pretty blue collar background. But learning about food and cocktails became a way for me to feel more cultured.

I realized that you have a lot of responsibility as a bartender, but as long as you can hold court and do a good job, lock the doors and keep everybody safe, you can make great money.

And not only is the money good, but it’s fun. I used to go out for that social life. Now, I just come to work for it. Now, I don’t get drunk and stuff like I used to. Don’t get me wrong, I can still act a fool sometimes, but I have a lot more self control these days. I think a lot of that comes from being on this side of the bar.

Bartending can be like herding cats, babysitting grownups. You have to keep everyone safe, even from themselves. No one wants to be told, ‘No, you’re cut off.’ And I don’t want to tell people, ‘No, you’re cut off.’ But sometimes you have to do that stuff. And trust me, I know I’m not the most polite person, but I try to do everything as respectfully as I can, while still being myself.

Mary, the owner of The Cove, has also made me chill out. She opened this place as somewhat of a hobby, but it’s really become my life. And she’s helped me really become who I am today.

The key to bartending, in my opinion, is keeping everything in its right place – keeping it tight and precise. You should be able to go anywhere in the world, order a drink and it tastes how it should, assuming the bartender is doing their job right.

I don’t typically like to put my own spin on things. I like stuff that’s been proven – the classics. And while everyone is focusing on putting their own spin on cocktails, I try to maintain the basics. Though I do take some liberties on drinks.

I love The Cove. I love Broad Avenue. These past six years have been the funnest of my life. I’ve gotten to watch as this neighborhood has changed over the past six years.

I’ve watched it become a destination for people, a place to walk around, eat and shop.

The Cove is its own little escape and experience. And that’s what makes it cool. It’s like its own little world. There’s only one TV, that’s usually playing movies. There’s no windows to the front, so you can’t see what’s going on on the street. It’s like a little vacation from the real world. A little pirate vacation.

Paper Plane

Mikey's Take

The Paper Plane is a modern classic that was first made in 2007 at a New York City bar called Milk and Honey. It’s sweet, sour and bitter all at the same time and has this perfect fiery orange color. I typically use Meletti when I make Paper Planes, instead of the classic Amaro Nonino, mainly because it’s a lot more cost effective. Also, I add just a splash of Amaretto when I make them, I think it rounds it out a bit, makes it just a bit sweeter. It’s a trick Jef Hicks taught me. It’s a great year-round whisky drink. It’s easy to make and even easier to drink.

  • .75 oz Sazerac Rye Whiskey

  • .75 oz Aperol

  • .75 oz Amaro Meletti

  • .75 oz lemon juice, freshly squeezed

  • a splash of Amaretto

Add all of the ingredients into a shaker with ice and shake until well-chilled. Strain over a large ice cube, and garnish with a lemon twist.


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