We had the good fortune of connecting with Leah Pupkin and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Leah, how has your work-life balance changed over time?
I must admit, finding a work-life balance has never been my strong suit. As long as I can remember, work has always taken precedence. I could chalk it up to being a Capricorn, or to the fact that I work in such a male-dominated industry where I feel I have to work twice as hard to be taken as seriously as any man doing the same job. But really it’s just who I am. Ambitious, driven, and goal-oriented. I run a sustainability-driven cocktail program, and it helps that I’m passionate about the work. To feel like you are making even a small difference is gratifying. But it’s a slippery slope, and I think we need to acknowledge the toxicity of “hustle culture.” I know many people in the service industry don’t have much of a work-life balance, and it ends up burning you out…especially chefs and beverage directors. When I first opened the bar I’m at now, I was working 12-hour days, seven days a week. While it was satisfying for my Capricorn brain to think “hell yeah, look how hard I’m working,” it was not sustainable for my mental health. In the past couple months, I’ve managed to figure out a work-life balance where I have a four-day work week. Granted, I usually end up putting in a few extra hours and spending that extra day off working on side projects, but that’s my time, and it feels great to be able to choose what I want to do with it. Not to mention having time to do all the wonderfully mundane adult things that keep our lives running, and of course, allowing myself to relax and have a social life. As much as I am constantly thinking about work, I’ll be the first to say, balance is key. Take pride in your achievements, but you are not your job. You deserve a break.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
I grew up playing music, singing, doing theatre, and basically any kind of artistic expression I could get my hands on. I studied vocal jazz performance and started working in the service industry to put myself through college. Like so many performers, I got suckered in and never left, but I mean that in the best way. Creating a cocktail is an art, and when I’m behind the bar, that’s my stage. As corny as it sounds, it satisfies the creative and the performer in me.
I don’t think getting to where you want to be is ever easy, but being a woman in a competitive and male-dominated industry definitely presents additional challenges. It’s something I’m constantly working at, and something I think men should be equally aware of, but I think it’s a combination of confidence without cockiness and showing your worth through the work that you do. My problem with a lot of male bartenders is their ego. Sometimes I just want to yell “dude, we just sell legal drugs. We’re not curing cancer. Get over yourself.” This might sound combative, but what I really mean is, there’s no place for ego in a bar. People come to us to forget their woes and have a good time, so lose the ego and have fun. Of course, do the job and do it well, but lighten up. Running a sustainability-driven bar program has really helped me with that. I’m sure in my early days I thought I knew it all, but now I’m striving every day to learn more culinary and scientific techniques that can help my bar, and other bars, get as close to zero waste as possible. This feels like I’m working towards something that’s bigger than myself. And if I can preach the gospel of sustainability and get other bars and restaurants on board, then that’s what I want the world to know about my brand and my story.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
I would unabashedly take them to my own bar, Bathtub Gin, because I’m super proud of what we’ve got going on here! It’s the first LA location of the New York bar of the same name. Burlesque, live jazz, and sustainable cocktails in the setting of a Prohibition-era speakeasy nestled above our coffee shop. Yes, we do make the best espresso martini in town.
I’m from New York, so I’m not much of a hiker, but people in LA seem to love it, so I’d suggest hiking up to the Griffith Observatory. Gorgeous, sprawling views of Los Angeles and an array of space and science related displays. But I’m way more of a beach person, so maybe a day trip to the Venice Beach Boardwalk or Santa Monica Pier. Come on, you’ve gotta do some of the touristy stuff.
I love stand-up, so we’d have to take in a show at The Comedy Store, or maybe a movie at the iconic Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. We’d also have to browse some records and various outdated media at Amoeba Music.
Beyond that, it’s drinking and eating, my two favorite pastimes. In my humble opinion, the following establishments are a must:
Horses on Sunset, where The Pikey used to be. Led by an incredibly talented team of chefs, and a badass bar manager, my good friend Steve LaFountain. The food is some of the best you’ll find in LA, and you won’t find a harder-working, more hospitable bar team.
Jones – very “Old Hollywood Martini Bar” vibes. Apparently Sinatra used to hang here, hence all the bottles of Jack Daniels adorning the bar.
Across the street from Jones is Formosa Cafe – another Old Hollywood staple and definitely super haunted.
The Dresden in Los Feliz – an institution that you might recognize from the movie Swingers. Always a good time.
Bar Claxton downtown is great if you’re keen on shooting pool.
And you can’t go wrong with a Drag Brunch at Hamburger Mary’s.
My visiting friend should be sufficiently entertained and probably hungover after this trip…don’t forget to stay hydrated!
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
I would not be where I am today if not for the one fateful summer I decided to take a job on the east end of Long Island, where everyone and their mother leaves the sweltering city to summer in beach towns on the North and South forks. I left my job in the city, thinking I’d work a summer out there and then finally take the LSAT and go to law school. But I met two folks in the bar industry who had taken bartending to a level that, at the time, I didn’t know existed. One of them had used the power of social media to market himself as a brand and essentially become a celebrity bartender. The other was the beverage director who hired me; he oversaw three properties and had run bar programs all over the country. That’s the abridged version of the many successes of these two gentlemen, but they made me realize that bartending is not just a means to an end until you figure out what you want to do with your life. There are entire careers to be made in this industry in addition to slinging drinks behind a bar. I learned so much from both of them that summer, and completely abandoned the idea of leaving the industry. Since then I’ve helped to open many bars and curate cocktail programs in New York, Portland, and LA. I’ve done pop-ups in Miami. I’ve spoken on panels about women in the industry. I’ve worked in collaboration with countless liquor brands to create content and spearhead sustainability initiatives. If not for the inspiration of that summer, who knows where I would be right now. But for all its faults, I love this industry and I’m grateful to be a part of it. Of course, I have to thank my parents…even though they don’t understand what exactly it is that I do, I’m blessed to have their support and encouragement. And I would be remiss not to mention my fiancé, Luke Felando, who is my best friend and the most supportive partner in the world. He’s a phenomenal bartender himself and makes me want to be not only better at my craft, but a better person.