Words by: Ian Cameron
Corsica-born Thierry Brocher, new bars manager at Sanderson hotel in London, on the rigid procedures that keep the hotel looking fresh, the problem with London bartenders and why he thinks catering schools still provide the best hospitality staff.
Working here is a dream come true. I've been coming here as a customer for more than ten years and it feels like a privilege to be in charge of the Long Bar and the Purple Bar. Boutique hotels didn't exist before [owner] Morgans Hotel Group and Ian Schrager invented the term. It's incredible to see how everyone works here -amazing team work and family feel.
There is a diagram, to the millimetre, indicating the placement of literally every object in the hotel according to Philippe Starck's original design. When you see a guest bump into a table someone will come and move it back, just so, and the same goes for the way the bar must look. It can sometimes feel restrictive as we can't have tools or glassware or bottles on the bar. The Long Bar is 80-feet long and, in fact, there's no back-bar. That means our bartenders are constantly on stage, more so than other bars.
The hotel has had some brilliant talent in the past - Erik Lorincz worked here, so did Giuseppe Gallo, but I don't think it's had its day at all. And frankly I've never seen so many high-profile guests. But there is always room for improvement. We have mystery drinkers at least once a week, and there's a 22-point service standards which every member of staff must apply to every interaction with a guest. I also train the bar staff twice a week for an hour each. My goal and what I've been employed for is to make sure the mixology remains up to date. In the last ten years so many techniques have emerged - smoking, bottle-aging etc - so there's a matter of working out what is appropriate for a high volume bar like the Long Bar and what might be better in the Purple Bar.
I've run my own bars since I came to London ten years ago, most recently Coquine and the Valmont Club, and to many people it is a surprise that I have gone to work for a 'big corporate'. Most bartenders do it the other way round. But after the stress of running your own business - I didn't have a day off in the 2 years before I joined here in April - there are great advantages to working somewhere like this. There's great security too and lots going on - we have two new hotels opening in 2014 and '15 and lots more overseas.
As a bar manager you can't lose touch with your creative side. I try and stay on the floor almost every night and I still spend time researching and creating drinks. I'd say I still create drinks on a daily basis. In general I don't think the level of bar management in London is anywhere near where it should be. I've been interviewing bar managers for the last five years and haven't employed one - they all have some baggage. I think the problem in London is that a lot of people have been promoted to bar manager too quickly, they don't have any idea of what the job entails and don't think the priority is customer experience. With bartenders too, I see them taking product knowledge so seriously and it's like they've forgotten who we're making drinks for.
I'm concerned London is struggling to find the bartending talents like we had in 1990s. I still prefer to employ bartenders who have come through catering schools in Paris and Switzerland, give them internships, take them on as a trainee and build up a long-term relationship. Sometimes you stay in school for six years before you start working. I'd like to bring one of the catering schools to London to create a bartending school. I'm amazed we don't have one. In France they are late on the mixology side so maybe something in London can provide the answer.
The quality of fruit available in London is still poor. There's nothing like the choice or quality like when I was in Corsica, where fruit would explode with flavour in your mouth. Here there's often only one variety or source available and that means it can be difficult to produce what you would really like to. I think that's one of the reasons why there has been such a backlash against fresh, fruit-driven cocktails and why bartending went back to vintage formulas. We used to muddle whole rooms of fruit before there were purées. I wouldn't say I miss those days, I'm glad to see the evolution of cocktails going full circle, but I would have thought in a city like London things would have improved on that front. Today, a lot of drinks have become so complicated you need a glossary: most of the time, customers just want a nice cocktail, quickly, that hits the spot.
Photography by Alys Tomlinson