Creative mixologist Matthew Biancaniello crafts unique libations from farm-fresh and foraged ingredients
By Andrew Dubbins
Like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, cocktail chef Matthew Biancaniello’s Playa Vista home is filled with all manner of brightly colored juices and exotic ingredients. Tahitian vanilla beans and dried St. Lucian sea moss share space with extracts of blood orange, sweet potato and celery root.
Biancaniello’s twin three-year-old boys taste-test nonalcoholic versions of his beverage concoctions, which he often freezes into popsicles for them.
“I like seeing what they like and what they don’t,” he says. “The biggest way to stay creative is to always feel like you’re a beginner again. Like you’re tasting something for the first time.”
Known for his adventurous cocktails utilizing farm-fresh organic ingredients, Biancaniello was busy this summer leading corporate events and hosting public classes through Airbnb’s experiences portal, which allows local tastemakers to design themed group events.
To find the freshest local ingredients, Biancaniello visits as many as three farmers markets each week and forages for local aromatics in the Santa Monica Mountains. He even used to operate his own bee colony, until somebody sprayed it with pesticides. At the Cook’s Garden on Abbot Kinney Boulevard, he keeps a patch of Cuban oregano and a 75-foot passionfruit vine.
His current Airbnb experience offering takes guests on a six-hour tour of his usual haunts: shopping the Santa Monica Farmers Market, harvesting herbs at the Cook’s Garden, foraging at Solstice Canyon and, of course, mixing the day’s finds into libations along the way.
On his own time, Biancaniello has been visiting farms that supply local farmers markets in order to purchase directly from the source.
“I really like to explore,” he says. “Right now I’m playing around with celery root. I like taking things that are ordinary and seeing what I can do with them.”
The busy bartender’s first TV series, “Good Spirits,” debuted on A&E in February. In it, he traveled to 10 countries on a Carnival cruise liner to collect native ingredients for his cocktails.
Biancaniello says the show expanded his palate and reignited his creativity, but it could also be a logistical nightmare.
“Try getting $800 worth of Tahitian vanilla beans past the TSA,” he says with a laugh.
A self-taught bartender, Biancaniello was working in landscaping when he became head bartender for the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel’s Library Bar in 2008. They gave him the freedom to work without a menu, and he used his own money to purchase organic ingredients from local farms. He quickly gained acclaim for his unique organic infused cocktails, including a 25-year aged balsamic vinegar and strawberry cocktail called the Last Tango in Modena, an Heirloom Tomato Mojito, and a Fresh Arugula Roquette that’s still his personal favorite.
“It’s really about finding the highest-quality ingredients you can,” he says. “They might be very, very simple, but they taste so damn good.”
After leaving the Roosevelt in 2012, Biancaniello began hosting small private pop-up events across the city, serving liquor-infused foods such as alcoholic oysters and Surinam cherry cocktails. These innovations culminated in his first book, “Eat Your Drink: Culinary Cocktails,” published last year.
One of his newer concoctions, developed this summer, blends shitake mushroom bourbon with bergamot mezcal, Meyer lemon and hummingbird sage picked fresh from the Santa Monica Mountains. For another, he infuses tequila with the aforementioned dry St. Lucian sea moss and mixes in curry leaves, cucumber and Santa Barbara pistachio milk.
Biancaniello’s creative process does not adhere to a specific set of rules and rarely fixes on any particular outcome.
“I don’t think about making a cocktail,” he says. “I think about creating things on their own. I’ve been pickling a bitter almond liquid for six months and have no idea what I’m going to do with it. But at least I’m making that. And one day it’ll hit me how I should use it.”
Find out more about Biancaniello, including how to hire him, at matthewbiancaniello.com. Sign up for his current cocktail creation experience at airbnb.com/experiences/25518.