Words by: Ian Cameron
Esther Medina Cuesta, deputy bar manager at new Russian super-venue Novikov in London's Mayfair, on using vegetables into cocktails, her sixth sense and channelling Obi-Wan Kenobi.
I moved to England from Malaga, Spain, nine years ago. I just happened to get a job at Bar Madrid, a Spanish/Latin sort of party bar in Soho that's closed now, and I fell in love with the bottles. It came as a surprise, but I saw them like cooking ingredients. I remember not being able to understand why everyone would ask for three beers and five shots at 5-to-11, before I realised about last orders. Back home you go out late, but you drink sociably and take your time. It's definitely getting better here though.
Salvatore Calabrese told me he once made a drink with potato, but no one else ever seemed to use vegetables in drinks. I started by making a lot of herby drinks and from there I started making vegetables syrups and purées. Now I make drinks with parsnip, beetroot, celery, watercress and spinach. I really got into it when I was at Roast, above Borough Market. Some people are scared of trying something new, though others are really up for it. These days, I tend to ask if they have any allergies, and then surprise them. People ask, what is that amazing freshness, that amazing sweetness? The Honey Bunny, for instance, mixes gin with steamed celery purée, cream, rosemary-infused honey and Mozart chocolate bitters, for a twist on an Alexander.
If you are not a good host, you are not a good bartender. In 20 years' time we'll look back at this period and see it as fundamental in the battle between hosting and mixology. Being a mixologist is just part of our job: it's also about making people happy, so you've always got to be emotionally switched on, and when you get someone to smile, that's as rewarding for me as making them a drink they like. When we nail the ability to do both we might even get the same status as chefs. The public is getting it, slowly, that bartenders are not just out to get drunk.
When I started bartending I had no female mentor or role model until I met Angelika Anagnostou from Milk & Honey when I was at The Player. The head bartender at the time was Rich Hunt - he's now my boyfriend but as a boss he was really high maintenance. He'd give his Espresso Martinis a huge shake, creating a massive froth. But Angela told me it was more about technique than strength and showed me how a nice whisking shake could produce a beautiful froth. She proved to me you don't need to have muscles to make good drinks, though I still think you have to work harder to prove yourself as a woman.
I always have my 360-radar on. It's about paying attention to every little detail and anticipating our guests' needs before they realise what they want. It's like a sixth sense. If their glass is one third full, we should be offering them the menus. Is there rubbish on the floor? Who is looking lost? I started developing it as a technique when I was playing handball, becoming aware of everything that's going on around you. But it gets annoying sometimes - I can't turn the radar off!
This bar gets busy as hell. Every night is a Saturday night and there are three lines of people at the bar. It's massive here, with 170 seats and only a handful working the floor, but it's a magic feeling when the machine is working. To relieve the pressure, bar manager Andrew Pengelly, head bartender Antonio Simonetti and I came up with a tailor-made bottle service with bespoke mixers - more imaginative bottle serves than you'd get if you normally bought a bottle of gin or vodka: apple juice with elderflower, or cranberry with lime cordial, pomegranate and rhubarb bitters.
Every couple of years I think about chucking it all in and going back to teaching - I taught languages before bartending. But then I fall in love all over again, and I often feel I am still a teacher. One of the commis waiters here speaks English now and I love showing people how to create balanced drinks. I'm proud our new menu has quite a few drinks created by the bartenders here - I might be high maintenance but if you show me a better way of doing something, or transforming something, I'm all for it. I am also friends with a customer who actually named one of the drinks on the menu. He says he is my Padawan, which I guess makes me Obi-Wan.