Words by: Ian Cameron
Alex Kratena, is head bartender at Artesian at the Langham Hotel in central London, where he's worked since it opened in 2007.
I've been at Artesian a long time. I fell in love with the place when I first visited. I remember sitting on this very stool, looking around, I was like 'wow'. It's possibly the most photogenic bar out there, a classic hotel bar with a high ceiling, where the bar is a real centrepiece. When I started it was all very serious and formal but over the years it has evolved. I've stayed because I realised that you need consistency if you want to be successful.
The challenge of running a five-star hotel bar are that expectations are so high. We have so many performance indicators and targets, there's a guest satisfaction index and a guest emotion index. You'd go crazy just with that, but then there are auditors, mystery shoppers, and Leading Hotels of the World check us four times a year. They analyse everything from the way you answer the phone, and you get a spreadsheet, a second-by-second account of their visit. The culture's not for everyone: if you want to change your house vermouth you have to present facts and numbers. But it can be very rewarding. I can take a room if I have a bad roster: last year I stayed here for about two months, all meals provided.
As long as we make our targets we are given plenty of freedom to be creative. I don't provide equipment to my bartenders so they all have to have their own set. We rework cocktails all the time and are always looking for the next thing to do. Some techniques are great for guests but don't excite us as bartenders quite so much so I try and read up on the more basic things, such as how to host, trying to do it better every day. And I still shake in front of the mirror at home every day.
It was never my goal to become a bartender. I never managed to study effectively, and thought hospitality school was crap. When I first came over from the Czech Republic in 2005 I didn't have a job and was staying at a friend's. I got a job working on the Thames on a boat - I worked out you take the first job then look for the second - and within two weeks I was working in a Michelin-starred restaurant. At the beginning no one knew who I was so I entered every competition I could, I learned to smile - we're not renowned in central Europe for smiling - and I wore the Artesian silver waistcoat. People on the Tube would ask if I was going to a wedding.
Before I came to London I worked in Japan. I bought a return ticket with a friend and we thought we would give it a month: if we got a job, fine, but if not, we'd go home. I did a bit of working flair and after a week-and-a-half I got a full-time job at a nightclub. I made good money and there were girls all around. After Japan I went to America to learn English. I started in Maryland, washing dishes - for the first two weeks I would cry - but I made it to upstate New York.
Bartending fulfils my dream of travelling. You sit down in a bar in a foreign country and straight away you have fifty ideas for serving cocktails. It's where I get lots of ideas for service and rituals - after all, they are the things that people remember. Even if you serve a flip in a metal goblet it blows people away. I've just commissioned some silver-plated Martini glasses for our signature Langham Martini. They separate from the stem. Hopefully we can spread them around other Langham Hotels around the world. I'm really captivated by Korea at the moment. I like the culture and I've been doing some training with Diageo in Seoul: it's the culture in general that I like: the entertainment, lifestyle, crazy music, great cuisine.
The worst aspect of being a bartender is the effect on your lifestyle. You never get enough sleep, you're always drinking, you need to sacrifice parts of your private life as you need to spend time at work and at conventions. Over the last two years I've had a big lesson health-wise, almost collapsing from being exhausted. Now my in-flight biggest excitement is a spicy tomato juice. In order to perform you need to look after yourself.