Cocktail artist Matthew Biancaniello concocts unique recipes from foraged and farm-fresh ingredients in his Playa Vista home
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 — blood orange, sweet potato, celery root — and exotic ingredients like Tahitian vanilla beans and dried St. Lucian sea moss.
His twin three-year old boys taste-test his nonalcoholic beverages, 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 organic farm-fresh ingredients, Biancaniello is working overtime this spring, contributing his unique skill set to L.A.’s tech community. He’s leading a series of corporate events for Snapchat and hosting multi-day classes for the public through Airbnb’s experiences portal, which allows knowledgeable locals to design themed group classes.
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 used to operate his own bee colony, until somebody sprayed it with pesticides. At the Cooks Garden on Abbot Kinney Boulevard, he keeps a patch of Cuban oregano and a 75-foot passionfruit vine. Lately, he’s been visiting farms that supply local farmers markets in order to purchase directly from the source.
“I really like to explore,” says Biancaniello, former head bartender for the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel’s Library Bar. “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 the Roosevelt hired him in 2008. He was given the freedom to work without a menu and 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 spring.
This month, Biancaniello has two new drinks in in the works. The first is shitake mushroom bourbon with bergamot mezcal, Meyer lemon and hummingbird sage picked fresh from the Santa Monica Mountains. The second
is tequila infused with that dry St. Lucian sea moss and mixed with curry leaves, cucumber and Santa Barbara pistachio milk.
His creative process has no specific set of rules.
“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 three-day Liquid Chef Experience at airbnb.com/experiences/97.