Words by Declan McGurk, interview by Theodora Sutcliffe
Photography by Alys Tomlinson
Declan McGurk, bar manager of The Savoy’s American Bar, is on the hunt for the bar’s 11th head bartender. What does it take to follow in the footsteps of Ada Coleman, Harry Craddock and now Erik Lorincz?
How do you feel about Erik leaving?
Him and I have got a very, very good friendship and the reality is that after eight years of tenure I think it's a good move for him to be moving on. He'd very much completed that role and while he could have obviously continued - it's one of those roles that you can keep on doing - there was part of me that was hoping some sort of opportunity would present itself for him because I felt he deserved it. With the bar set up well and him going off in a positive vein it's quite exciting to think that someone else is going to put on that white jacket and take on one of the greatest pure bartending roles out there.
So what are you looking for in the eleventh head bartender?
Even though Erik set an amazing example we're definitely not looking to replace like for like. The person who comes in needs to make the role their own. They'll need to grow with the role but their profile does also need to be at a level where it won't intimidate them. There needs to be a solid basis of technical execution and knowledge, and they need to be highly creative. We are always a classic historic hotel bar. But at the same time we need to very much look forward. It takes a very creative mind when you're playing with something so established.
What do you mean by their profile being at the right level? Are you talking about winning competitions, fronting a prominent bar, getting a lot of press, having a big social media profile?
They need to have had that element of experience, whether it be leading a team, whether it be interaction with the media, that when we position them they're not going to feel overly intimidated. I wouldn't specify things like competition victories. Maybe they have won all that but it's more about past experiences: they've led bar programmes, they've dealt with cocktail menu launches, and they've dealt with managing team members. It might be that they are someone's number two and that's fine.
How large is the team they'll be leading?
The total team at the American Bar is 21 people which includes four senior bartenders. A big part of what we're looking for is someone who'll take a great deal of pride and satisfaction in others' accomplishments.
Are you still looking internally or have you switched the focus to external?
We've identified the position would be most likely filled externally. Never say never, of course, but I feel that in terms of experience level the timing of Erik's departure would dictate the new head bartender will be coming in from outside.
When you talk about experience level - could you put a number of years on what you want?
I wouldn't want to be specific on that. They need to have experienced a great deal. They have to have had a bit of a bar past. I need to feel they've got that interest level and that passion, and the gift of being able to reflect on the past - and cope with the role.
And are you open to people from anywhere in the world?
Absolutely. Bringing in an international person might be quite interesting. They might bring some ideas for different ingredients, some different ideologies that could help really develop the bar. But again it's about finding the right person - we're not set on that or saying they must be of an international background.
What will their first priorities be when they take on the role? What will be first on their to-do list?
We will do a ceremony of some sort with Erik handing over a shaker or something. The first and most important thing will be getting them soaked into the hotel straight away. I'll set up a strong three-week program for them: a meeting with our hotel archivist who can go through key artefacts and historical aspects, meetings with our communications teams, all the back of house operations and different departments of the hotel. After three weeks the priority will be them making the bar their own. I would hope that this person will come in and really challenge the way we do things.
When are you looking for them to start?
The whole point of this process is it's all about the right person and I will go as long as it needs to find the right person. There are a number of people who've already presented themselves - we will start interviewing those and maybe one of those will be the person that gets the role. But I'm just trying to be very open. Whilst I am here long term, if you look at the timeline of head bartenders this person can last a very long time. It's a role far bigger than us. The bar's far bigger than us.
So what do people who are interested in applying need to do?
There's going to be more decision-makers than just myself but at this stage it's all on my shoulders. Drop me an email: it will be held with the utmost discretion. It's not about sending me an application. It's about someone writing a note saying I'd love to have a conversation with you. It's just such a romantic role and it's something I'm very comfortable talking about.
You went through five interviews to get your job. Would you be looking at a similar process for the head bartender?
It's difficult to say exactly how it will map out at the moment. They'll probably have a first interview with myself and they will certainly have an H.R. screening. There will be an interview with our director of operations. He's an intimidatingly astute, very experienced individual and really understands what is required for beverage departments within hotels. The hotel manager will certainly want to have the final say but by the time they get to that stage I would say we'd be presenting a candidate that's suited to the role.
What advice would you give someone who's thinking about applying?
All your decision-making is with your head and your heart and that balance will be very, very important. But for a role like this the heart is quite important. What makes the Savoy the Savoy is our unique love for the place. This is far more than a job, it's a way of life. The person does need to be fully seduced and immersed in the romantic notions because it is a place and a bar like no other. Just the way that global bartenders look towards our bar is very, very special. And an understanding of that at an early stage is quite important.
Anything else you'd like people to know?
It's about finding the right person, being really fair to the industry. That's why I'm purposely taking the time. I guess that at a certain point the wheels will get in motion but right now I'm purposely moving those wheels quite slowly just so that we make the right decision with a very sober mind. It needs to benefit that person, benefit the bar, benefit the team, but ultimately benefits the guests that come into the bar and essentially pay all our wages.