Words by: Jane Ryan
Gareth Evans has a much more serious job than his dry humour and penchant for word play suggest. Responsible for the beverage programme in each of the fourteen sites that make up Jason Atherton's global empire, for Gareth no two days are the same. diffordsguide has come to meet him on the morning before the official launch of City Social, which is perched on the 24th floor of Tower 42. It's 10am and already the place is alive with chefs, bartenders, serious-looking managers and the odd tradesman still lurking about.
While he may have put his bartending days behind him and moved into a managerial role, Gareth is still known for his bartending prowess. It was only last year, in 2013, that he represented the UK in Diageo's World Class Bartender competition. But today he is very much on the other side of the bar, surveying his creation. "Everything beyond those stools," he says, gesturing to the row of chairs that hem the bar, "I decided all of that, I'm practically given a blank canvas."
The site looks wonderfully impressive, and the views of the City are panoramic. However, Gareth didn't start in such lofty places, he describes himself as emerging as a bartender from 'crappy bars' in 2000 whilst studying at Leeds University. The first place he names was Life Bar, a step up in the bartending world, but still not great. "It wasn't very good, one of the last of the super clubs which used to play Yeh by Usher over and over again."
Gareth then managed to get a job at Townhouse, starting on the day that Jake Burger left. Totally convinced he knew everything about cocktails he stayed a year before being sacked. The humbling experience brought him back to basics and worked at Oporto for the next two years, honing his craft and learning under the big Leeds names of the day.
"When I graduated I wanted to get a proper job, so I started writing contracts for a boiler company - it was even less exciting than it sounds. During my year working in a 'real job' I did the things I needed to do. I ran a marathon, renewed my driver's licence and sorted my life out."
After a year's hiatus Gareth went to Brass Monkey in Nottingham but it took one phone call with Ali Reynolds, the then manager at Pollen Street Social, to uproot his life again, and ten days later he moved to London as Assistant Bar Manager. The rest came quickly, a few months later Ali had moved on and Gareth was promoted first to Bar Manager and then Group Bar Manager.
Of the 14 Jason Atherton sites, which are spread across four countries, ten have a dedicated bar. Gareth explains his role as one integral part of a structure, all working together to make a complete experience for the guest: service, wine, food and drinks. Under that remit he's in charge of the drinks, hiring the right people, making sure they know how the company works and what Jason expects of them. "For example the classics have to be made the same across all the sites, and even tiny details such as the lemon twists must be uniform. The only difference would be the spirit used - a more expensive gin in Pollen Street Social for example."
So what's it like to work for a celebrity chef? "I see or speak with Jason every day if he's in the country. He's very exacting, he has a clear idea of what he wants and is incredibly open-minded about the drinks. In a management meeting I suggested a drink in a metal briefcase and everyone just said, 'yes, go for it'. I am amazed at the creativity afforded, I don't think anyone has said no to anything so far."
So long as Gareth's ideas are profitable and in line with the food offering he says Jason is happy to let him get on with his job. He'll want to meet the managers before they're brought in and at the end of the day he is still the boss, but the working relationship is easier than you might expect of a high profile chef and business owner.
When a new site is chosen Gareth will be brought in as soon as the bar needs sorting. He spends four months developing a site and one and a half months opening it, so to say he knows his sites well is an understatement, Gareth knows them all inside out.
"I've been asked before which is my favourite, and I have a fondness for Pollen Street, it was the hardest job I've done but I love going back and seeing how Monica has the place locked down. I designed the stations and the menu in Singapore and when I'm there I think, this is really cool, but for me, I suppose I lean towards Social Eating House, which is probably the most different, possibly because it's actually a separate bar."
In three major London sites, Pollen Street Social, Social Eating House and now City Social, Gareth has established a team of managers beneath him all of which come with impressive credentials. Kyle Williams, who heads up the team in Soho, Gareth described as 'a revelation'. Monica Berg, at Pollen Street, was a fellow World Class contestant who made the move from Norway to London to manage the site, and now Matt Fairhurst and Adam McGurk have joined the ranks in the City.
"I may get accused of hiring my mates," says Gareth, "but when you've known someone for years you know their work ethic and their temperament and you know they won't get upset when you have to reprimand them. For the guys abroad, I'm not there every day so I really have to trust them."
Increasingly known for his witty drink names, some of Gareth's most famous puns include the best-selling Dill Or No Dill, as well as In-Cider Trading (that's the one in the brief case), Rum DMC and Greencage Mutant Ginger Murtle. But it's an identity he's not overjoyed about.
"Am I known as the pun man? I don't think I've tried to be that, Jake Burger was doing that long before me. People think I want to see puns but I'm ok with a serious named drink too. What I don't want is boring names. If the drink is a twist on a collins with grapefruit and elderflower I don't want it to be called Grapefruit & Elderflower Collins. Something like the Hemmingway Daiquiri is not just a great cocktail because it's a good drink, it has a story behind it. Classics are remembered for a reason."
Gareth has a lot of respect for Jake Burger's style of bartending and he considers himself a very sociable person when behind the bar. "I would say Jake has been the biggest influence on me but I've never worked for him and it's not that he taught me anything per se. I try to be accessible like Jake but he's never been my mentor or sat me down and explained the way the world worked. Since I realised I wanted to bartend I've been looking to people my own age, I think someone like Ryan Chetiyawardana is doing great stuff, so is Matt Whiley."
Gareth is also humble enough to turn to his own bar managers for inspiration, and is aware of each of their strengths. As a manager he has an eye for detail and is constantly aware of what's occurring around him. Half way through our interview he's up and out of his seat, dashing behind the bar to make a snap decision with a tradesman. In an instant he's back, having dealt with the issue, and is straight back on topic. We didn't even see the tradesman enter.
Apart from the puns, the group is known for its commitment to fresh ingredients and a chef style approach behind the bar. As he explains, past a certain level most bartenders are doing the same thing so instead he's based his work on product seasonality. "The chefs are miles ahead of us," he says.
"I'd made syrups before but now all our recipes are really exacting, they are measured in grams, we have a dehydrator and a micro scale. We have a guy working for us who's a pastry chef and does a lot of garnishes, which is possibly where there is the biggest cross over between the kitchen and the bar."
If the chefs are miles ahead of bartenders though, does he think they'll ever catch up? We quote an interview diffordsguide did with Dale DeGroff, where King Cocktail said "The drinks revolution hasn't happened the way it did with chefs. Chefs do things that people love. They're asked to work at charity events, to cook for kids. The media is a beautiful place if you're a chef."
Gareth's response is considered and thoughtful. "This was something Adam [McGurk] was saying to me yesterday, the main difference between food and cocktails, and chefs and bartenders is that food is a necessity, no matter how much you dress it up you can always say we need to eat. Drinks are a luxury - we provide a frivolous service.
"I hope it's not true that we won't ever be esteemed in the same way that chefs are - I think people like Tony Conigliaro are famous now. If you go back 15 years, to chefs before Jamie Oliver, you had Gary Rhodes and Delia Smith, it wasn't a great era for celebrity chefs. I don't know if it's a great goal to catch up though, the problem with celebrity chefs is the more time they spend on TV the more they are accused of being out of the kitchen."
The future for Gareth is looking pretty peachy. The group is expanding with partnerships into Australia and America, although not faster than they can handle, he is keen to stress.
"I'm really happy the way things are progressing, I'd be mad to give up this job - no day is the same as the last."
As for opening his own bar, despite having successfully launched sites around the world, Gareth maintains he's not ready. "I think everyone wants their own place. I'd like to, one day, maybe even open something with Jason. I wouldn't be ready now though. Every bartender does a few years and says 'yes, I'm ready to open my own place up' but I'd be useless. I think if I just grabbed a place in Shoreditch it would be a massive failure, I have no idea about getting a licence or anything like that. I still get to do the fun stuff now."