An interview by Syft’s Simon Forester:
Greg Almeida has been a London-based bartender for the past 8 years and worked in some of the best bars in the world. After managing the bar at Pollen Street Social, he went on to lead Scarfes Bar at Rosewood London hotel to great acclaim. After a successful stint at the 5* hotel bar, he moved on to open Tayēr + Elementary with Alex Kratena and Monica Berg. His 16-year-long career and his love of travels gave him the opportunity to work and guest shift around the world, including NYC, Singapore and Athens. He shares with us some of his experience, thoughts about the Hospitality industry and the current situation.
Where did you begin bartending and what was the turning point for you where you decided to turn your passion into a career?
I am not sure there was one turning point, but more a series of clues along the way.
I grew up in France, in a very large family (think 7 uncles and aunts on both sides of my parents, plus kids, partners, etc.!) where eating and drinking was always very much an occasion. We would meet for birthdays, holidays, or just visiting each other, and there would always be time to share the “aperitif”. My Portuguese grandparents, particularly, would be the centre of large gatherings, they even ran a bar/restaurant for a few years. My grandmother is one of the best cooks I know, and thanks to my grandpa always growing vegetables wherever they found themselves over the years, I got into the “delicious” eating and a hunger for great flavours grew pretty fast.
Fast forward a few years, I am about 14-15yo and I find myself with my football teammates in the park enjoying a few beers after practice. I was too young to be drinking, and to be fair I did not care much for the taste of the ale, but I just loved the social aspect of sharing a drink with friends.
There was one particular afternoon when, for some reasons, we had 2 different brands of beers on hand, and I remember being intrigued as to why they tasted so different! It really triggered my curiosity (remember, I knew nothing at all about booze at this point) and I started tasting more liquids: wine (a big thing in France), beers, but different aperitifs and spirits too.
Right around the same time, a few friends and I started organizing parties in their houses, and I realized not only was I pretty good at it, I really enjoyed it too! Getting the food and drinks, cooking for a lot of people, hosting friends and more… It was great and some of my fondest memories come from that time.
A couple of years later, my uncle who was in the restaurant business hired me on weekends to make extra money. I was working for birthdays, weddings, company parties, everything. It was a lot of fun, as it was always light, happy occasions and people were super nice with me, and I get to be nice to people AND get paid for it! Absolute win-win.
So I guess all of it just prepared me for a career in hospitality and bars. Even though my parents had other plans for me, I have now started 16 years ago, I keep on learning every day from people around me and do not regret it one bit!
In your opinion, is it worth attending bartending schools and what would be your advice to people starting out?
I am a huge advocate for education. I strongly believe creativity comes from knowledge; it also boosts your confidence which leads to a better service to your guests. And chances are if you are as curious as I am, the more you learn, the more you will want to discover.
So I will never tell you that attending a school, no matter the subject, is not worth it.
What you make of it is very important too though: it is not about attending classes and passing tests. It is about making something of that knowledge whether it is a delicious cocktail, a great spirit selection or an amazing menu for a special occasion. Using what you learn for others to appreciate and enjoy is, I believe, a responsibility all of us have, and we are lucky to work in the industry of flavors and service to others. Plus, we do it in fun places!
Now, that does not mean you absolutely have to go to a school to start working behind the bar. I went to chef and bartending schools back in France, but I know plenty of amazing people in our industry who started at the bottom and climbed their way up. We are also full of amazing mentors out there, people like Agostino Perrone at the Connaught, who strive on helping others to succeed.
No matter what you decide to do, I would say you have to keep an open-mind, be hungry for more knowledge. Go to that seminar, even if you feel a bit down today. Try and visit the bar shows and attend the conferences. Read every book you can put your hand on. And visit other bars in your part of the world! You will learn so much extremely quickly, and you get to meet amazing people along the way who will teach you even more (which is by far my favourite part!)
But the most important part is to keep in mind why you are doing all this: making sure your guests are having a great time, feel welcome and maybe even better when they leave your bar.
You’ve worked in high-end independent bars, to top hotels such as The Rosewood to groups such as Jason Athertons’s The Social Company. Do you find there’s a huge difference between working in bars that are independent to those in hotels or groups?
Every workplace has its own advantages and inconveniences, which aren’t necessarily related to who owns or pays your salary at the end of the day. Sure, you might serve in fancier glassware in so-called high-end bars, or have newer equipment. But in the end, I found that the only way to really enjoy what we do, no matter where we work, is to keep a positive, can-do attitude.
I tend to choose the places where I work based on whether or not I will have an impact on our industry, small or big. I need to believe in the project to fully commit to it. As I evolved, so did my idea of the kind of impact I wanted to have or taking part in, but I always have one constant factor: I need to be inspired by the people I will be working with. During my years at the Social Company, and at Pollen Street Social especially, I worked with a team so passionate and driven. We created amazing experiences for our guests while having fun and no matter what was thrown at us, we would take it with a laugh and make it happen.
There are hurdles in all companies, you just have to surround yourself with like-minded people, whom you learn and share a laugh with.
You were the UK champion for Patrón Perfectionists Cocktail Competition in 2017/18 and made the top 6 in the Global Finals. How was this experience for you and what effect has it had on your career?
Fun fact, I did not want to take part and it is Karine Tillard, the Patrón U.K. brand ambassador, who convinced me. I am grateful she did!
The Patrón Perfectionists Cocktail Competition has been an amazing experience. I had not taken part in cocktail competitions in quite some time before that one, but somehow it felt right in many different ways: we had just launched our new caricature menu at Scarfes Bar, we were nominated in the top 10 best hotel bars in the world at the Spirited Awards at TOTC, and I was on a mission to show the world what an amazing bar and an amazing job my team was doing. Equally important, I finally had the confidence and started finding my own style of cocktails, and I actually had a shot at it. The fact that it is a competition about my favourite spirit and the winner gets to go to Mexico did not hurt either!
I was very nervous, as I always am when talking in front of people. But with the Scarfes Bar starting to get recognized, it felt like even more pressure was on. Andrea Melis, a very good friend of mine and my roommate at the time, was in the finals too, and he won the last competition. Plus his drink was delicious and amazingly simple!
Anyway, I somehow managed to win both regional and national finals, which felt great and a massive relief
The global final gave me the chance to finally visit a country I have been in love and admiration for so long, alongside talented bartenders from all over the globe, who became real friends. The whole experience was life-changing, and it gave me even more thirst for travels.
After that, both the bar’ and my personal profiles really grew. I ended up winning the Imbibe Personality of the Year award (Hot Stuff, for the youngsters!) and be part of the 30 Under 30 list from the Code App the same year.
We started getting more recognition, which was good for the business and the confidence of the team, as more people came to visit us. It also took us to many different countries, meeting loads of new people, tasting new flavours and discovering new cultures in every country we visited. We went to have guest shifts at Saxon&Parole in NYC, the Norman Hotel in Tel Aviv and The Clumsies in Athens.
I can now say, I have friends all other the world (you know who you are!).
The Covid-19 Crisis has had a huge impact on Hospitality over the past several months. What would be your advice to bartenders across the industry at this time?
In these trying times, it is very difficult to give advice as we are all affected on so many different levels. People have lost loved ones. The loss of a job is nowhere near that but it still has a massive impact on our mental health and mood.
The Hospitality industry, like many others, has been sick for quite some time now, relying on an insane amount of physical, mental and financial stress. We were all exhausted, stressed, disconnected from our close ones. The true cost of running a bar or restaurant was not reflected correctly, with guests asking understandably always for more and prices being driven down, despite the costs, especially rents, always increasing.
Salaries were not always mirroring the level of skills, hours spent and creativity needed to run a successful place.
Despite all that, we have to stay positive, and make the most out of this exceptional situation. We have to use that extra time to do what makes us, us. Learn new skills, whether it is drink related, like fermentation or distillation, or just something else, like a new language or instrument maybe. I have been reading a lot about business management (Simon Sinek being one of my favorite authors) and fermentation thanks to the Art of Fermentation book. Brush up on our knowledge. Organize your life: I tend to take tons of notes on scrap paper, and I have been compiling them. I also (finally!) organized all my pictures for the past 6 years.
Create yourself a pattern that takes you closer to who you want to be when this is over. Exercise with your girlfriend, cook for your roommates, call your grandmother! Whatever it is, do that thing that connects you to yourself and others. Because we are all in this together, and we are all dealing with it the best we can. It is just easier together.
And when all this is over, hopefully we will all live better, with a return to genuine hospitality in our industry.
What are your best recommendations for a lockdown cocktails and mocktails?
MARGARITA. EVERY. DAY!! Straight up, with salt, please.
I love agave spirits, my favourite being tequila. I only use 100% agave tequila, which are much better. So exploring the different options out there is always fun.
I tend to make mine with MUYU Chinotto Nero liqueur and a dash of agave syrup for extra depths of flavor, but a good quality triple sec like Cointreau is perfect too. And fresh lime, always.
It is sunny right now, and we have plenty of fruits and vegetables at the peak of their flavor on the stalls of our local grocery stores. Buy local and seasonal as much as possible. Quality ingredients make great cocktails!
Right now, I love using strawberries. Because the season is not that long, I buy really good ones and turn them into syrups, cordials, jams or shrubs so I have all my needs covered for the year. Try using soda water, or kombucha with those: always delicious.
Did you ever consider going down the Sommelier route? And did you ever consider an alternative career all-together?
I consider the bartending role as the most complete in the hospitality business, as it combines so many different aspects. You get to produce and create drinks, very much like a chef does in his kitchen. You look after and serve guests, the way hosts and waiters do. You have to learn about wine, beers, spirits, classic cocktails; so like a sommelier you have to be knowledgeable and have a varied flavor library at hand. You have to know your local area, like a concierge in a fancy hotel, because for sure that guest from out of town will ask you about where to get the Thai food around here. And we get to do ALL this in front of people, at the bar, no safety net, while having fun!
So I was pretty sure from the start I wanted to work at the bar.
Now, even though I do not consider leaving the Hospitality industry anytime soon, and because nowadays our job is more varied than ever, I still have in mind my love for research and writing. And I have been told a few times I would make a good lawyer. Must be because I start talking, and I go on, and on, and on, and on…
You joined Tayer + Elementary which seemed like an exciting collaboration. How was it being involved in a new concept? Have you got any other exciting projects planned for yourself in the future?
I was getting restless at my position at Scarfes Bar when Monica Berg approached me to join the team at Tayēr + Elementary. Alex Kratena and she have been people I have been looking up to for a long time, and Monica and I worked together back at Pollen Street Social for a few months. So when they finally got the keys to the site where the bar is now, I did not hesitate and joined the project.
The whole thing has been an incredible learning experience. Like Alex used to say, most bartenders have no idea what opening a bar means! The amount of work and thoughts put into the bar is crazy, which created something I believe unique. From the everyday changing menu at Tayēr based on seasonality, to the Taptails system (cocktails on draft), through to the creating of a work philosophy where everyone is on the same level so everyone is responsible: Alex and Monica are looking to break the status quo and be innovators within the industry.
I was fortunate enough to see Tayēr + Elementary being literally built from the ground up and be a part of it. I have now left Tayēr + Elementary just before the lockdown, and I like to think a part of me will still be there once it reopens.
I am now using this period to work on various new projects, who will allow me to have the impact I want to have on this industry which gave me so much, and help people become better versions of themselves. Stay tuned @gregalmeida_ to know more!