Ran Duan, 35, is a cocktail legend: He transformed his dad’s Woburn Chinese restaurant, Sichuan Garden, into a mixology destination by creating the moody Baldwin Bar within: picture flaming golden swans, tinctures, potions, foams, and smoke, all served in a lounge straight out of “Clue.” Along the way, he earned James Beard nominations, “30 under 30″ nods from Zagat, and even the cover of GQ.
He also runs Brookline’s Blossom Bar in another one of his family locations, with a focus on tropical drinks with a Latin base, fueled by rum, tequila, and mezcal. Ivory Pearl Bar, also in Brookline, pairs high-end cocktails with a mashup of caviar, tater tots, and tentacle hot dogs. This summer, he’ll open Birds of Paradise cocktail bar at the Speedway in Brighton, with a Pan Am vacation vibe.
Tell me the backstory of how you got into the restaurant business. I know you have an interesting family history.
My parents moved to America when I was 3 years old. My dad went to LSU; he got a full ride to sing opera. That forced us to move from China to the United States. We actually lived in Baton Rouge. Then my dad transferred to BU to get his master’s for opera, and we lived in Somerville.
Obviously, opera is not the most popular genre in America. We were forced to do what a lot of Chinese families did, and that was to just kind of sell Chinese food. Blossom Bar was the original Sichuan Garden. That was their first location, and we’ve been there for almost 27 years.
Did you always know you wanted to work in restaurants?
I kind of cut my teeth in the restaurant industry by running takeout up and down, helping my parents out whenever I could when I was a kid. I’ve been in restaurants since I was about 10 years old. I remember just hanging out in the kitchen, doing homework, and all that stuff. Blossom is probably one of my most important locations, because it feels like home to me.
I didn’t expect to take over my family’s business or anything like that. After I graduated from high school in 2005, I went to Johnson & Wales and actually studied hotel management. After I graduated in 2009, there was a big recession where no one could find a job. That was around three or four years into when my dad opened the Woburn location. Monday through Thursday I went to school, and then Thursday through Sunday, I worked at my family’s restaurant, just helping manage.
My dad had another bartender, but things don’t always work out with every employee. He was kind of stuck without a bartender, and we had a bar there. So, once I graduated, I was like, ‘You know what? I can’t find a job. I’m just gonna kind of pick up where he needs. It’s better than nothing.’
I started bartending, really getting into cocktails. I started going to Eastern Standard and Drink. I remember the first cocktail I ever had, like a proper cocktail, was a whiskey smash, fresh muddled lemon, fresh mint, sugar. It was the simplest thing, but I’d never tasted a cocktail with fresh citrus before. Eastern Standard was like my home away from home. That’s the bar that made me fall in love with cocktails.
How’s the new place?
The new place is called Birds of Paradise. It kind of developed through the pandemic when everyone was stuck at home. No one was traveling. Everyone was just getting FOMO and really miserable. So, you know, we really found a niche with, once again, providing escapism. We got approached to do a concept at the Speedway, which is where Notch is, Koji Club, all these small boutique spots are opening up. They had an awesome space at the old jail, which is on the basement floor. So we have 45 seats inside, and we also have a 12- to 15-seat patio outside, pending final construction. But the beauty of this space is it’s right outside and right across the street from their event center, Garage B. When there’s concerts or events, we’ll be a big component of offering cocktails there.
And the whole concept behind Birds of Paradise is traveling and escapism. The menu is going to be based on plane tickets. Think of Pan Am. You’re going from Brazil to Japan, right? Each cocktail is going to be based off of plane tickets from one location to the other, and the cocktail’s ingredients are going to be inspired by those two locations. We thought, especially with the timing of the pandemic, the space, and everything that’s been going on, it was the perfect concept with the perfect timing to get people to travel somewhere they miss.
What role do you think cocktails play in a COVID world?
I think cocktail bars have definitely become more and more popular. In 2015, we were kind in the golden era of cocktails; all the classic cocktail bars are staggering a little bit. The cocktail community obviously has been hit so hard with the pandemic. So finding staff is hard right now, finding talent, and continuing that lineage is almost impossible. I think the pandemic caused a lot of people to realize, ‘Hey, I can make all these cocktails at home. I can make myself Old-Fashioneds and Negronis.’
I think the cocktail state needs to be more creative, more advanced, and provide guest experiences and cocktails they can’t make at home. I mean, I was across from Applebee’s other day, and they had an Old-Fashioned on the menu. They had Manhattans. They had a mixology section. … I think one of the biggest reasons that we’ve lasted this long but been able to survive through the pandemic is because of the cocktails we do. It’s really hard to get our cocktails anywhere else, because it’s all about the whole package that makes people feel excited. You know, it’s about escapism.
Granted, there are more and more bars opening up right now that are incredible. I love Offsuit. There’s another bar called Next Door, and Hecate, and they’re doing more esoteric garnishes and more adventurous garnishes. I love seeing people push the boundaries, because we were doing the same thing in 2015 with the banana leaf wraps, with the dry ice, with the foams and presentations. It means a lot to me, because it shows we’re doing something right.
I love Indian food. I’ve been eating a lot of Northern Indian food, and one of my good friends owns Royal India Bistro in Lexington. I kid you not. It’s one of the most slept-on Indian restaurants in Boston. Either you know it or you don’t. His ingredients, his spice rub, everything’s a family recipe. During the pandemic, I got a lot of takeout there. I wanted to support my friend. A lot of people don’t realize this, but he has some of the best cocktails in Lexington. They’re classics, but he’s using fresh ingredients. I see a lot of myself in this location, which is why I love it so much. It’s a family business. I ask what’s fresh, what’s new, and he omakases me with some of the best things I’ve ever had. I try to go there at least once or twice a week.
I’ve been on a crazy pizza kick lately. I’m a big fan of Prairie Fire and Jinny’s. They have some of the best pizzas in the city. Something about their dough, hot oven, the fermentation. One’s a sourdough, and I think the other is more of a slow fermentation, with flour. I’m so lucky. It’s within a 10-minute drive when I’m at work.
Last but not least: When you’re home, what are you snacking on?
So I’ve actually been on this crazy health kick since the pandemic started; I’ve probably lost about 70 pounds. My favorite snack, when I get tired and I can’t cook, is I have pre-cooked chicken breast, a sweet potato hummus from Wegmans that I love, and these pre-sliced carrot chips. That’s honestly my favorite snack. And I’ve been eating dates. I’m trying to get in shape. Not just that; I want to be healthy for COVID so I can perform the best and not get sick. On my cheat days, I eat pizza and Indian food. Other days, I eat super-clean.