Words by: Nikki Bayley
He’s been a fixture behind the stick in Toronto since before the CN Tower was built.
Bartender Joe Gomes has presided over Toronto’s Park Hyatt Roof Lounge since July 1962 after starting work at the hotel as a busboy in 1959. His domain is a cosy room at the top of the Hyatt, with a tiny patio boasting a killer city view. The room itself feels timeless with a roaring fire and squashy sofas. Slight with a bird-like grace that he credits to his youth playing football in Madeira, Joe is one of a rare breed of bartenders who’s been in the business for more than half a century. We sat down to chat and find out the secret of his success.
What did people used to drink back in the day when you began bartending?
We were always known as being the place for martinis– gin martinis of course, not vodka. A martini to me is gin, aromatic. In those days if you ordered a martini and the bartender asked ‘Gin or vodka’ you’d be shocked. Today I have to ask and I serve maybe four vodkas to every gin martini. That’s the way it is nowadays, but I’ll do whatever you want, straight up, dirty, whatever. We’re a classic cocktail place and that’s why people come here, I guess that’s why I’m still here, I fit in.
Do any drinks sum up a decade?
In the sixties it was martinis and sours. Daiquiris got popular in the seventies, in the eighties people got sick of the same drinks and wanted things like Singapore Slings and the Sidecar, sweet drinks. In the eighties, everyone changed drinks.
It was a dark time in bartending.
Yes, and there weren’t many places you could go for a proper drink. You really had to come here, and of course, there was that movie, Cocktail.
Did you do flair bartending?
(Joe laughs uproariously) No! No! When you’re in the movies everything’s possible, but when you’re in real life, no, I never tried to do flair bartending, the most is when I make a drink and flame the garnish, or if I flame a glass to warm it up for cognac, people love to see that, but nothing more. I have people in front of me, I don’t want to slip. In the nineties things start to change, people started to use syrups and juices. That’s the biggest change now, it’s the way that they mix; people want different syrups with the drinks and people want to try new things, but they want the classics still too.
How do you keep up with trends?
I’m Mr Classic. I’ve created a few cocktails but not many, for me it’s 100% about focusing on the customer and what they want, not my way, whatever they ask. Personally, I’d never shake a martini, of course, it’s terrible, but if you insist, I will do it. I just want the customer to be happy. I collaborated with the management and we made the Park Cosmo, this is my signature cocktail, we use orange vodka, Cointreau and Grand Marnier.
What’s your advice on maintaining a long career behind the bar?
Be disciplined. I think you choose the life you lead. If you want a good life, an enjoyable life that’s relaxing, for me the way I do that is I finish work and then I go home and sleep. I don’t go out after work. I don’t drink alcohol at work either, sure, have a drink outside but never on the job. You learn by listening and watching, don’t say too much. Become educated first. If someone wants to learn, watch me. Just watch. To be an expert hotel bartender it’s all about gaining experience by watching and learning: if someone never did anything, they never learned anything. When I first came here, I just watched the people, the way they talk, the way they deal with customers, I didn’t have that experience, I was just a nice person –I hope! My biggest advice: be nice.
What tools do you use?
I use the same old tools I’ve always used; my shaker which is glass and stainless steel, I like a big shaker because you can mix three drinks at the same time. I watch some people shake drinks and they shake with their whole body! Their arms, their head! I say, listen: if you plan to stay in this business and shake like that and you wont last very long. I just use my wrists, my hand doesn’t move. I never had a headache, I never had any aches, I just use my wrists.
I’ve noticed that you don’t taste drinks when you make them, how do you get a balanced drink?
I don’t taste, no, but my customers come in and they only want me to make their drinks. I’m not smelling or tasting it’s just all my experience. I know how to make the drinks. I’m very good at reading people, I’m good at knowing what they want.
Mixing a cocktail - you cannot put too sweet or too sour, it has to be in-between, you take it from there.
Do you think attitudes towards bartending have changed?
Before I think it depends where you work, I’m in a hotel, this has always been a high-class kind of place, in the old days you couldn’t come in without a tie and a jacket, and ladies weren’t allowed in wearing pant suits until the seventies. Not only that - you couldn’t even stay in the hotel if you had an address in the city! It was to prevent any hanky panky.
What about the customers, have they changed behaviour?
I stay for the customers, they come back again and again, they become friends, they trust me and tell me their secrets. They know what comes here, stays here. All of my customers are wonderful. With me anyway.
You inspire good behaviour?
If they misbehave, I let them know: this is not a place you can swear, there are things you can say and not say. You need to do that in a polite and professional way. Some people look around and they see: this is not for me. This is not my atmosphere. Likely I don’t have to say anything and they just leave. I like to maintain a tight ship, we have a lot of women at the bar and I like to keep a nice place for them to come and sit.
What do you drink when you’re off work?
I like sometimes just a scotch and soda. Yes, just a highball. It doesn’t even matter what brand, because I’m diluting it. As for a cocktail, I like just peach schnapps and orange juice. I’m getting my vitamin C and a little taste of schnapps.
Is there anything you miss from the old days?
I don’t change, people like to work with me. Years ago, people ask what I will miss when I leave, and it’s the staff, the community we have here, we help one another and that’s why I’ve been working all these years.