Words by: Ian Cameron
Slovakian Ladislav Piljar, 28, on kick-starting his career by chancing upon Sean Muldoon in Belfast, learning from Nick Strangeway, and how difficult it was to leave the Savoy's American Bar for his new role as bar manager at Bam-Bou in Fitzrovia, London.
My mother was a pharmacist and I originally wanted to follow in her footsteps. Now I realise I didn't stray too far, there are so many parallels between bartending and chemistry. I was often in the lab as a kid, watching my mother preparing solutions, selling medicines across the counter. People come to us both to seek help, we are selling drugs, we're alchemists of a sort. Just last week I had a conversation with her about measuring abv.
I played professional volleyball for eight years and was just about to sign a contract when I injured my back and knee aged 21. Luckily, hospitality was my other passion, so then I committed to it as a career. I'd spent several summers working in France but then I thought I should improve my English. I didn't want to come to London at the time as I was scared - I come from a small town of a few thousand people and a city of 12 million was too much - so I went to Belfast.
No one warned me about the Northern Irish accent. When [Merchant Hotel bar manager] Sean Muldoon first called me to arrange an interview, I didn't understand a word except 'Sean', 'Monday' and '2pm'. The day before I had also given my CV to the Belfast Hilton and it was there that I went for the interview. By coincidence their bar manager was also called Sean, but he said he hadn't called me, so I ran to the Merchant and was 20 minutes late. That two-minute phone call from Sean turned out to be one of the most crucial moments in my career. Sit me next to Sean for half an hour now and I can talk like I'm in Belfast again.
I didn't really appreciate anything about cocktails or the bar industry at the time. I remember telling Sean I knew how to make cocktails, I was saying all this rubbish, and then on my first day I saw Hayden Lambert making drinks, and Sean was talking about drinks, and at that moment I realised I knew nothing. Sean said 'We are going to make this the best bar on the planet,' and I thought 'yeah right, I just need a job', but the more I worked there, the more I was drawn into it, the Connoisseurs Club kicked off and I was hooked.
That first Connoisseurs Club, when we received the Guinness World Record for the most expensive cocktail, I realised this could be big. Salvatore Calabrese was there - I suppose I didn't really know who he was but it quickly dawned on me that we were hosting pretty big names at our bar: Simon Difford, Audrey Saunders, Stanislav Vardna, Jeff Berry, Dave Wondrich, gaz regan, Robert Hess, Jim Meehan. It impressed me these people came and we could still surprise them.
My first year in London was the worst year of my life. I was sleeping four hours a night with the intensity of it all. In Belfast I had had my own car but here I had to get the night bus. And the pressure of important industry people coming in every night - you had to be on your toes! I thought about going home, but one day I just saw everything differently. I just realised I was happy.
I had met Nick Strangeway only briefly at a Connoisseurs Club meeting. My initial impression was that he was something of an enigma, he would storm in, storm out: storm is a good expression for Nick. But he is a true gentleman and something of a genius. He taught me that hospitality always comes first: if someone wants a shot, give them a shot; if they are here to have fun, don't bore them with explaining how you infuse your whiskey. At the Merchant everything was measured to within 0.5ml, and now suddenly Nick was telling me if someone wants a drink fast, give them a drink fast! When I got the job at the Savoy it was tough to break the news to Nick. He'd invested in me and I only gave him one year. I felt guilty at the time but it's the nature of the industry.
I can remember the smell of the American Bar when I walked in. The Savoy was still a building site and you could see it was going to be glamorous, amazing, but it felt like the air hadn't changed in the bar, you could practically taste the history. I had to go through seven interviews for the job, including psychometric testing - I beat 368 applicants to the position. On opening night, there was a two-hour queue to get in all the way downstairs to the lobby. That night will stay in my mind forever. The Savoy says its main ethos is turning moments into memories. I'd say the four seats at the bar are probably the most magical.
The moment I walked in to Bam-Bou I was like 'wow'!, it reminded me of Milk & Honey a little, I could see its potential, it's got real history and character - all those stairs and the crooked floors. I could really see bringing all four elements of my career together - from Hix, the Merchant, the Savoy - and bringing my personality here, putting a stamp on it. The main thing was that everyone seemed so happy, despite all those stairs!
One of the first steps I took was to change the menu. The cocktails were a bit out of date, they used a lot of purées, not fresh juices, and now I'm trying to bring more house-made ingredients, just simple infusions, and to make the drinks approachable. Next, I really want to link the history of the building into the drinks. I am building a great Japanese whisky collection and am working on creating some great theatrical serves, maybe connecting Japanese tea ceremony with whisky.
I'm not a celebrated bartender and I don't chase exposure but everywhere I work I dedicate myself and give it my best. What I'm trying to implement here is a more guest-centric approach. Everybody here is already very friendly but I'm trying to bring 'more': how to approach tables, how to talk to people, upping our spirits knowledge. It's a casual place and guests should have fun and we shouldn't be too strict, but we should also deliver high quality. It's not about making drastic changes but a longer-term project - I think we can make this one of the best bars in town.
Photograph by Alys Tomlinson