Barside Sessions w. Alessandro Palazzi

How starting small can lead to a big career behind the bar...

The power of people has driven the hospitality industry for centuries, and it's the power of people that will keep it turning for many, many more years to come.

That's why we've taken a moment to celebrate some of the finest names in drinks, lifting the lid on their craft and exploring the journey that has brought them to stand so proudly behind the bars that they tend...

...because everyone starts small before they make it big.


What was the most complex serve you ever made?

It was actually a beer and tomato juice! This happened at what was probably my first 5* hotel back in ‘78. It was the Excelsior and because it was the only 5* hotel near Heathrow, it had quite an international clientele. One day, a gentleman and his wife walked in. They were a really classy couple and quite unusual. The gentleman asked me for a half of lager and a half of tomato juice. At first I thought that I had misunderstood...so I asked “You want a beer and you want tomato juice?” but he said that he wanted them together. So I went back to my station where my manager and the people sitting at the bar were asking me what on earth I was doing. None of them could believe that was what he asked for, but he must have liked it because he gave me the fattest tip I’d had at the hotel at that time...£50!

 

My time in hospitality started in Italy and it was all because I wanted to buy myself a motorbike

What was your first big break?

There have been a few times when I think I’ve had a big break. Obviously, my time in hospitality started in Italy and it was all because I wanted to buy myself a motorbike. I was crazy about them because when you’re a teenager in my village, no bike meant no girls. My mother said there was no way I’d be able to get a bike, so I told her I would work for it.

One of the first places I worked was a hotel in a beautiful villa, run by two stingy guys and their 86 year old mother working in the kitchen. It was there that I got in trouble for swearing at a group of Catholics who were staying at the hotel and as a punishment I was taken off the restaurant floor and put behind the coffee bar. It was probably the first time I touched alcohol because we served grappa with the coffee and things like that. There, I noticed how the staff behind the bar talked to customers differently to the staff working in the restaurant. It made me curious about that side of hospitality, which is why I went to catering college to build up my experience. That’s where I saw brands like Beefeater and Gordon’s for the first time with English all over the labels. It made me want to learn the language. I originally wanted to go to Canada, but I was too young to get a visa so I went to England instead. That’s how I came here.

 

“It was a good lesson, because it taught me that everyone is important in hospitality”

My first break in London was as a kitchen porter because I couldn’t speak English yet. It was a good lesson, because it taught me that everyone is important in hospitality. I’m glad I got to experience that because it woke me up to the reality of hard work straight away.

From there, I ended up working in Spaghetti House at the age of 17. I didn’t really want to work in an Italian place, but I got to make coffees, which I enjoyed because I would stand right next to the bartender who would be making drinks all the time. That’s how I found out about The Fairmile near Cobham, because the bartender did some extra shifts there and he told me they needed staff. At first, they gave me a job as a commi and after six months I eventually got behind the bar. It was an elegant place, with a Mȃitre D and aperitifs, lots of style and that’s where I really learnt how to talk to customers. There was a lot of old money, ministers and big, big names that we would need to talk to as if they were a friend. For the first three months I watched and cleaned glasses and then I was moved to the Excelsior where I eventually became a bartender.

All of that happened at a time in my life where I believe everything happens for a reason. I learnt how to watch and listen and try to be my own person, that’s all you can do. The thing is, making cocktails is not difficult. It doesn't matter what department you want to be in, you have to learn to be diplomatic, acrobatic, charismatic. If you manage to understand those three things, then hospitality is for you.

George V, Paris

Did you ever make a sbagliato-style mistake...when something went so wrong it ended up being so right?

Well one example would be when I came back from working at George V in Paris. It was an amazing experience, but when I returned to London to work at The Savoy I was fired after two weeks! This was another good lesson for me because it taught me that everywhere is different. In Paris, George V was like family, but at The Savoy, it was more serious. I would try to talk to everyone, but we had a lot of customers from high society where there were rules not to talk to them. But I wouldn't shut up! This is why you must always do your research. It doesn’t matter where you are, you need to take time to understand how the place works. So, as an Italian, I had to learn how to shut up. After Paris, I thought I knew everything when really, I needed to be ready to relearn everything from scratch.

 

“When I came back to London to work at The Savoy I was fired after two weeks”

Another time wasn’t so much a mistake, but it was a problem that I had to solve. When I worked at The Ritz in Paris, there were always models and other people from the industry coming in during Fashion Week. One time Mr Versace had finished a show and because it was such a hot day everyone wanted to be outside in the beautiful gardens. Then Mr Valentino walked in and there wasn't a single table available to sit at. He came over to me and said “Are you seriously going to make me wait?”, so I had to think quickly. I went into the bar, which was empty because everyone was outside. I took a table and chair and carried them to a space by the front gate. I said “Mr Valentino, you’re the only one with the special table”. So it turned into something that made him happy rather than disappointed and that is the magic of hospitality. It’s not the money or the tips, it’s overcoming obstacles to make your customer happy and knowing that they appreciate it. Mr Valentino came back the following day with a beautiful tie to say thank you.

The Ritz, Paris

“That is the magic of hospitality. It’s not the money or the tips, it’s overcoming obstacles to make your customer happy and knowing that they appreciate it”

What is the serve that you’re most proud to make?

Well obviously the martini is a very important one, but I would say that I’m the most proud to make the truffle martini, which I created by total accident. It was at Aurora in The Great Eastern where I was the bar manager and also the unofficial spirits buyer (because the wine and spirits buyer didn’t have a clue about anything but wine). At the time, the main restaurant was trying to get a Michelin star so the chef was doing crazy things like a white truffle seven course menu, which is criminal! It was far too rich and because the chefs were mainly French, they didn’t know how to cut the white truffles properly. So I picked up all of the offcuts they had wasted and at first I wanted to take them home to make on Sunday with a risotto, but I thought that would be stealing, so I took it back to the bar and put it in vodka bottles. I completely forgot about it until months later when we were doing some cleaning. One of my colleagues found it and we decided to see what would happen if we used it to make a white truffle martini. That’s how it started.

 

What is the serve that you most look forward to at the end of a shift?

It would probably be about 30 or 40ml of whisky. One from Islay, especially a 16 year old Lauguvalin, which is my favourite. I like to drink it neat, although sometimes in the summer I take it with Coca Cola, which is something David Broom once told me to try and it’s fantastic!


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