The man serving drinks behind the Bar Hemingway in the Ritz Paris is Briton Colin Field, the world’s best bartender according to Forbes magazine. His name will appear in the next issue of France’s Who’s Who (probably the first barman to have the accolade) and after his efforts, bar staff are taking part in the Meilleur Ouvrier de France contest this year. We joined the likes of Bruce Willis in having our own cocktail designed by him
How does a Briton come to be the head barman? Were your predecessors French?
Yes, they were always Frenchmen. When I was 18, I wrote to the Ritz and asked if I could work for them and they sent a nice letter saying, “No, you can’t.” I presented myself at the door when I was 19, in a suit, but they said they were not looking for anyone. In my twenties, I started to make a name for myself. I won silver in the Scott Cup [for France’s best barman] and went in for the world title, in Italy, and came second again. That happened in five years of contests in England, France and Italy. They called me the Poulidor of the bar [after the French cyclist famous for regularly coming second in the Tour de France].
Where were you working before?
I did a short apprenticeship at a hotel in Bedford, then went to Paris and started in a small three-star hotel, before going to a four-star one, the Westminster. I got the position of bartender after a few months. Then I became assistant head bartender at the Scribe, a lovely hotel. I did a lot of competitions and I managed to scrape up enough money to attend hotel school. It was 17.00-2.00 at the Scribe, then 8.00 at the school. I was always late, but the teachers were very diplomatic about it.What was bizarre was that I was already second-best barman in France and assistant head at the Scribe, which is what you are supposed to attend hotel school to one day obtain. My teachers are in their eighties and they still come to see me and have a drink. Now I go into hotel schools myself to try to motivate young people.
How did the Ritz job come about?
They called me in 1993. I was manager of a bar and restaurant near the Moulin Rouge. They said they had been looking for me; they had this Hemingway space and didn’t know what to do with it.
Originally, they weren’t offering a job as much as just asking my opinion. The ironic thing was I had been winning all these cocktail competitions, but they had pulled out my old CV and liked the fact I had an A-level in literature. They were thinking it would be a kind of library serving a few drinks, one gin, one vodka, one beer, one wine. The idea was to make it very Hemingway-esque. The bar dated from 1921 and had been the bar the author drank in. There had been a fantastic head bartender from the 1920s to 1970s, but after that people had gone less and less. Then it had closed and had been eternally under renovation.
We did an opening night sponsored by Havana Club and there were many people there (it’s been a phenomenon of the bar: in most places, if you want 100 people, you invite 150; here, you have to invite 50). When I saw everyone enjoying cocktails, I realised the public really wanted a cocktail bar at the Ritz and that the original idea was wrong. I spoke to the management and they said, “So be it,” and this is one of the most marvellous things that’s happened to me. From the next day, it was a real cocktail bar with all the bottles I needed: the greatest things, old Chartreuse, old Cognac... Inside a year, The Times called it the best kept secret in Paris and it was voted the best bar in France in 1996. It was a marvellous example of the Ritz’s flexibility. If they have confidence in someone, they will let them go for it.
And it has gone from strength to strength?
Yes, though I thought the smoking ban was a potential catastrophe, because this was the most famous cigar bar in Europe. People came from England and Switzerland to get their cigars. Fortunately before I committed suicide like Vatel [a 17th-century royal chef who killed himself after a delivery of fish did not arrive in time for a banquet], I realised the bar was still full, even without the cigars.
We used to have 20 or 30 people waiting outside every night to come in; now I have that on a Friday or Saturday, but fewer the rest of the week. I had a “capital” of clientele that kept us afloat.
What is special about French bartenders’ training?
It’s unique that you go to hotel school to be a waiter or bartender. It takes two years, plus one year of specialisation, whereas in England you can go for one year and then come out and start calling yourself a manager.
People here are trained to reflect and to be personalities, which to me makes French hoteliery the best and the most interesting. Maybe some people like everything to be clinical, “Yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir”, but what about a bit of personality, or a lot of personality?
Anyone will go back to a beautiful hotel once, but for the third time they go back for the people.
If you are going to make a cocktail, you must understand the man who made the alcohol. The average person measures the quality of alcohol according to the price, which is not necessarily right; you need to know who made it and why. Take a master blender such as Richard Patterson [of Whyte and Mackay], who makes fabulous whiskies on Jura. He is an artist and is trying to say things with his alcohol, trying to create an inherent quality of the island and balance between bitterness and sweetness.
Then you get people who work behind a bar for the summer and call themselves a bartender, and they grab this bottle he has been working on for 20 years (he’s devoted his life to it, like master distiller Willie Tait) and they rip off the top and mix it with pineapple juice and grenadine.
For me, it is a relay race. I grab that baton from Richard and have to win the race for him. It’s about respect of the Earth, the distiller, the products, the alembics, the thickness of the copper, the way it was heated, everything, otherwise you can’t make a cocktail.
More to it than people realise?
Yes, so much so that this year bartenders are included in the Meilleur Ouvrier and Meilleur Apprenti de France [Best Worker and Best Apprentice] exams, which is a degree-level qualification accredited by the Sorbonne. You have to have been working in France for at least three years, and this will attract people from all over the world who want to obtain their MOF award: the red, white and blue on your collar means you are worth a million dollars. All the best chefs are MOFs, but you can be an MOF bricklayer or a MOF plasterer. The finals will be in May and the results will be announced at the National Assembly by the education minister (possibly by Sarkozy himself).
I understand you played an important role?
It was my idea about eight years ago and it took a lot of battles. When I approached the authorities, at first they said, “You can't have a degree in serving pastis,” but after I showed them our expertise and what we do they said, “Oh, we hadn’t realised.”
What kind of skills will the bartenders demonstrate?
They will have to know the history, geography, meteorology and distillation, fabrication and distribution of every alcohol in the world, with a stress on Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados, that’s to say eaux de vie and liqueurs of France, because it is after all the Meilleur Ouvrier de France. They will be tested on that and then asked to make classic cocktails such as Manhattans or Gin Fizzes, and they will have to make them several times in a row, perfectly. There will be an oral, where they will be asked something like: “Make me want this gin and tonic.” I like that one, because it is easy to make something sound good if it’s got a lot of exotic ingredients. We can talk about the ice cubes, the gin, the temperature of the gin and of the glass, the size and thickness of the lemon and lime, or both, and who makes the tonic, how much you put in, and how tall is the glass and how many bubbles? Until the person thinks, “Oh God, I want that gin and tonic.” They will also have to know about all the main French wines and their grapes. The last part of the exam with be legislation: how old do you have to be to come into a bar, what’s the drink-drive limit in grams of alcohol in the blood and what do they represent in terms of drinks?
Does the approach of British bartenders differ?
British ones are interesting in their inventiveness. French bartending is very intellectual, based on understanding soil and Ph and all these things. We try to make you like the cocktail, but also to get you to appreciate the original alcohol, like a chef who takes beautiful red mullet and translates it onto the plate. I will make a cocktail from [exclusive Cognac] Louis XIII if I’m allowed to, but, if so, you will taste the Louis XIII, not pineapple juice and grenadine. If I use a single malt, you will love the cocktail, but you are going to taste the whisky, too, and with a bit of luck you will say, “Let me taste that straight” as well. The English bartender, bless him, does not have the same constraints, so he’ll say, “Let’s try mixing fresh banana and Armagnac.” I think that’s a terrible shame. Perhaps that’s just me as a French-trained bartender, and my generation, but I would ask, “Can you really justify that combination?” If so, then fine. You should be trying to communicate something.
You also like the challenge of trying to suit a cocktail to someone’s mood?
Every one I do is absolutely for that person, their style, their feelings, their age, the way they are dressed... We are all on a psychological pilgrimage. We start out liking sweet drinks, and then at 40 we are on dry martinis, but it depends on your job, too. A 28-year-old stockbroker likes dry martinis. An architectural exterior designer, who works outside, probably drinks long-drink cocktails instead. One thing about leading bartenders is that we tend to have a personal style, like great chefs. Mine in general, not always, is to have never more than three ingredients.
Which celebrities have you made drinks for?
As a rule, I don’t drop names, but I recently did one for Bruce Willis. He’s a pal and we’ve known each other for many years.
He told me he thinks the best jobs are bartender and actor, and he has done both.
There are few Hollywood stars like him who walk into a bar and it goes silent. He embraces me and we talk; he’s a marvellous chap. For the next three days, people come in hoping he might come back.
We made a cocktail with Sobieski vodka, which he is an ambassador for, and lots of other ingredients.
Now this year you are appearing in the 2011 French Who’s Who?
Yes, there has been a sommelier and many chefs, but no bartenders, as far as I know. I am jolly pleased. You don’t apply; they just call you up and say they have chosen you. You feel dead chuffed to get a letter from them.
THE CONNEXION COCKTAIL
This Anglo-French combination mixes a high-quality English gin with Benedictine from Normandy, and is perfect for our readers. It should ideally use Beefeater 24, made in London. This, apart from Plymouth gin, says Colin, is one of the rare easily available English-made gins.
1/10 of Benedictine
9/10 of gin
4 drops Angostura Bitters
Stir in a mixing glass with lots of ice for 11 seconds and then pour out into a cocktail glass.
Other Franco-British alternatives:
5/10 Beefeater 24 gin
3/10 Cointreau (from Angers)
2/10 Lemon juice
Shake with ice for 11 seconds and pour into a dry martini glass.
8/10 Plymouth gin
Two sprigs fresh French mint
1 tsp white sugar
2/10 Perrier, from Vergèze in the Gard
Take an old-fashioned glass and add gin, mint, sugar and mix together, add ice and Perrier. Drink from the glass.