Words by: Ian Cameron
Divy Chauhan is head bartender at Meat Liquor in central London - the pop-up turned permanent venue embodies the new phenomenon of upscale but blue-collar casual dining, and takes a no-nonsense approach to cocktails. In reality, its graffiti-covered setting and pretension-free name belies some innovative and tasty original drinks - and some great burgers.
There's definitely an appetite for this lack of pretentiousness, to have bars and restaurants that are very simple conceptually, or that specialise in one thing. In Asia it's common for somewhere to be known for a single dish. Maybe it's an economic thing too - we are less interested in places with three Michelin stars and it's just as acceptable to go to a food stall or a bar in a car park.
We get guests who ask: 'can I have a wine glass?' I say no, we don't do that. And we serve a lot of our drinks in jam jars. It's what's in it that counts. If you want fanciness, go to Nightjar, or Worship Street Whistling Shop and you'll get theatre and presentation. The current trend is aging cocktails - we don't age them but we do put Old Fashioneds and Sazeracs in demijohns. For us, it's more of a talking point and about speed of service than anything else.
There's nothing wrong with being a restaurant bartender but, ironically, when I was a bar-back at Hawksmoor I handed in my notice because I didn't want to work in a restaurant (though I get to put on my CV that I worked under Nick Strangeway). Now I know restaurant bars are no less fulfilling, and restaurateurs are finally investing in their bars. In a restaurant setting customers stick to the list so sometimes the best thing to do is take the menu off them, and find out what they like to drink. Meat Liquor is almost the antithesis of Hawksmoor, but a lot of our customers go there too. They rave about us and vice versa.
I am definitely a geek - but that's OK, it's how I got my first job . I used to work in Ikea but would drink in Dusk, when Ago Perrone worked there and it was run by Nidal Ramini. One night they were a man down and I put my hand up. I was nervous as hell. Looking back at it, it changed my life. I only did the one shift there - on a small bar serving Mojitos, beer and wine only - and I got to put Dusk on my CV too!
I go from jam jars to crystal Martini glasses because I like to drink in Artesian, Milk & Honey and the Connaught Hotel. It's not because I am trying to be pretentious but because I used to drink in these places before I was a bartender. And I only drink cocktails when I'm out - I don't drink beer and wine, or tea and coffee, except in Vodka Espressos - and I can never fault the drinks at these bars. I also like Cafe Pacifico, Rules, Nightjar and Happiness Forgets.
I gave my CV to Kevin Armstrong one night at Sosho, and it's through him and Match Group that I've learned my most valuable lessons. The knowledge they teach you, the prep and mis-en-place, the small things that get drilled in like getting your juices right and checking your ice. It takes time and training, discipline. They taught standards with a stick, even punctuality. At Match, you had to up your game: read, learn, drink.
There's no single way to make a drink You can't be a purist if you are trying to sell a drink - you will only appeal to one in 100 people. But there's definitely a wrong way to make a drink. If you can make a bad Daiquiri I don't want to drink any of your other cocktails. Handling drinks by the rim bugs me. So does floating ice. I think my Sazerac gets a few raised eyebrows though - I don't think a Sazerac looks good on its own in a glass so we serve it on a large rock of ice, though I would argue it doesn't dilute. The first bite is with your eyes - there's nothing wrong with that.
What I would love to do in the future is to open a one-room bar, like one of those tiny little places in Tokyo - though I don't know where I would find that space in London. Right now I am happy riding the burger and hard booze wave at Meat Liquor.