Words by: Jane Ryan
Paul Graham is a part of a new breed of career bartenders who are quickly rising to power across the industry. Suavely dressed, working sociable hours, and splitting their time across many sites, Paul and his peers are proof that there's a career option out there for those who don't want their own bar. And it's an enticing option at that. As the newly appointed Groups Bar Manager for Gordon Ramsay, Paul has taken his place alongside the likes of Gareth Evans for Jason Atherton, and James Shearer for Rainer Becker and Arjun Waney. However daunting the task may seem, Paul comes from a generation of Edinburgh bartenders who have essentially taken ownership of London in the past few years, so we trust he'll do just fine.
My role is very much in its infancy, the group hasn't really had an overarching bar manager as such, so I got to write my own job spec. But it's a position that's growing and it's been great to focus on the new openings.
A huge part of what drew me to the group, and to this role, was the chance for progression. My hours aren't quite 9 to 5, but they're more social than ever before and I'm at work when I need to be. I'm at that point where I was ready for something stable but the group also brings variety, it's a different restaurant every day.
I wouldn't want to open a place. Opening my own bar has never been something I was interested in, I can't put my finger on why, but if that was where my career was heading I would have stayed in Edinburgh. More and more now people realise this can be a career, it's not some stopgap between university and a 'real job'.
It was in Melbourne, Australia, where this industry grabbed a hold of me. I had been doing some travelling and started working in coffee. They have such a high standard for their coffee and drinks in Melbourne and I was quick to take note, working in cafe for a friend. The license worked out so that come night we had a tiny bar with cocktails and DJs. That was my first menu. I had been to a few of the 'iconic' Melbourne bars but I was young and my life was focused on music, I went to bars for that reason, not for their drinks.
Back in Scotland, aged 21, I started washing glasses in Bramble. In those days moving from Melbourne to Edinburgh meant coffee couldn't be my main source of employment, it just wasn't a thing there, so I decided to have a go at the bar scene. I stayed in Bramble for four and a half years and can honestly say I couldn't have worked that long anywhere else.
Bramble was an amazing place to cut my teeth. I was so lucky how quickly I moved from washing glasses to managing, and the people I had around me. But it was also the guests and the crowd that place attracted that made it worth those four years. Ryan Chetiyawardana has probably been my biggest teacher, I owe a lot of what I know to him. Likewise Iain Griffiths, Ian McLaren and Craig Harper.
Then London came calling. I went straight into the Gordon Ramsay group, having lined up a Bar Manager job in Bread Street Kitchen before moving down. It's a natural progression to come to London. Edinburgh has such a strong industry but there aren't that many people or venues. Unless you want to open your own place the only real option is to move south. By the time I moved down so had most of my colleagues.
Bread Street Kitchen was petrifying to walk into and see how different the business was in London. It's a huge space that needs a lot of people to fill it. Not to mention the amount of money going through the till on a day to day basis in a venue like that. It was fascinating. I got lucky with my General Manager, David Martin, who's a close friend, he was fantastic and very supportive.
It was my first restaurant bar and a huge part of the challenge, still, is trying to get people to understand that we do great food and great drinks together. I wanted to bridge styles between quirky and classic, so we came up with the forgotten classics, such as the original recipe Cosmopolitan from 1934. It's approachable but tasty, unusual but appealing. You have to understand the venue as well, in Bread Street Kitchen, Monday to Friday, you get a lot of people from the City who want to be in and out for lunch in 40 minutes. They are aware of what they want so it can be fun to challenge them, but they're usually particular about what they drink. The weekend is an entirely different crowd, we get families in taking advantage of kids eat for free.
I was with Bread Street Kitchen for one year then came to London House to do the opening in January. I come in when the concept for the restaurant is done, the plans are together and I'm given the shelves behind the bar and the counter top and three weeks to pull it all together. I couldn't be happier with London House, the locals have taken to it very well. We've brought a standard of service and food that is usually found in Chelsea or Mayfair to a residential community which otherwise they would have had to travel to access.
Day to day I split my time mostly between Bread Street Kitchen and Union Street Cafe. I love Bread Street Kitchen, I honestly can't spend enough time there, the doors open at 7am and I can work in the corner feeling very much at home. My job focuses on five sites out of the 12 the group has in London. Bread Street Kitchen, London House, Union Street Cafe, The Narrow and York & Albany.
The venues are all individual but at the same time they are expected to have a standard across the board. While the buck stops with me, the Bar Managers have creative control. I do tastings with the group but it's their call in the end of the day. I'm not a fan of pun names so we have a blanket ban. Not that I want everything to be overly serious, but it's not the line I want to go down. I want drinks that have a story.
I don't want people to walk into my venues and get the same Martini in the same glass but I do want people to walk in and know it will be a good drink. The places shouldn't feel like a chain. I do look around to my peers and take inspiration from everywhere, the cutting edge places to dive bars, hotels and speakeasies. What Jason and Gareth do is supercool, I go into their venues and think, that's done really well, but we're a different group that is just as individual and creative.
For me, the perfect bartender is the perfect host. Holding a room and hosting is the biggest thing. Having fun with the guests, coming out from behind the bar and doing floor shifts is essential. A lot of bartenders don't want to do it at first, they're scared of having that barrier removed. The first time I did a floor shift in Bramble I was scared, but it makes you a better bartender.
The next few months will be about settling into the role. I'll be focusing on my five venues and if we have events in any of the more restaurant-focused sites I'll come on board as well as any new openings. It's strange to say but my days behind the bar are done.
Group Bar Manager