Alex Kratena, distinguished bartender having worked as head bartender at Artesian at the Langham, London from 2007-2015, has since established himself as a prominent consultant in the drinks industry.
Before I came to London I worked in Japan. I bought a return ticket with a friend and we thought we would give it a month: if we got a job, fine, but if not, we'd go home. I did a bit of working flair and after a week-and-a-half I got a full-time job at a nightclub. I made good money and there were girls all around. After Japan, I went to America to learn English. I started in Maryland, washing dishes - for the first two weeks I would cry - but I made it to upstate New York.
I worked as a porter in this restaurant in New York. And I’m passing through the dining room, and one guy stops me and asks me for blueberries. I was so confused and scared not to give it to him. So, I bring them back to him, and I think he gave me like a $20 tip. I went to the back and was like this is impossible. If I smile and give people blueberries, or whatever, I can earn this sort of money. I think somewhere there I got some of my attitude. I was always a very happy, jolly kid anyway. But definitely there was something there which I only realised later.
When I went back to Czech Republic, I started to help in a bar. I was just helping out at the weekends, and I was extremely bored because after experiencing big exciting cities, it’s very difficult to settle back into a city of less than a million as in the Czech Republic. So, I’m sitting at the bar with my sister, and I was like, “I’m bored, I’m not happy,” and this is like 2 months in that I had been home, and I needed a change – so I went to London.
It was never my goal to become a bartender. I never managed to study effectively and thought hospitality school was crap. When I first came over from the Czech Republic in 2005, I didn't have a job and was staying at a friend's. I already knew from my experience back then, that if you wanted to be staying in a city, you need to get a job, like ASAP. So, I got a job working on the Thames on a boat - I worked out you take the first job then look for the second - and after a month and a half, I was working in a Michelin-starred restaurant. At the beginning no one knew who I was, so I entered every competition I could, I learned to smile - we're not renowned in central Europe for smiling.
Bartending fulfilled my dream of travelling. You sit down in a bar in a foreign country and straight away you have fifty ideas for serving cocktails. It's where I got lots of ideas for service and rituals - after all, they are the things that people remember. Even if you serve a flip in a metal goblet it blows people away.
I was at Artesian a long time. I fell in love with the place when I first visited. It's possibly the most photogenic bar out there, a classic hotel bar with a high ceiling, where the bar is a real centrepiece. When I started it was all very serious and formal but over the years it has evolved. I stayed because I realised that you need consistency if you want to be successful. And I will never forget Simone (Caporale) throwing Justin Bieber out of the bar, that was hilarious.
What I’m very proud of is the guys I’ve been working with over the last 10 years, because all of them are doing so well now, so it’s really touching to see people really successful and become better than yourself. I really miss bartending. That’s one thing that really surprised me - I’m shocked. I didn’t know that about myself, how much I really loved it. I was a little worried that I’d become a lazy consultant, and suddenly become irrelevant. The reality is that I really do miss it. I do a lot of public speaking, I don’t necessarily enjoy it, but I make a living. I prefer so much more to be hosting people in the bar, having fun.
The worst aspect of being a bartender is the effect on your lifestyle. You never get enough sleep, you're always drinking, you need to sacrifice parts of your private life as you need to spend time at work and at conventions. I had a big lesson health-wise, almost collapsing from being exhausted. My in-flight biggest excitement became a spicy tomato juice. In order to perform you need to look after yourself.
I think that the dream of our generation was to make bartending a prestigious profession. And sometimes our generation, because we’re experiencing a lot things for the first time, we didn’t get it right. I wish I posted less business cards, less pictures of me – it probably gave young people the wrong image. So, probably we should have done things with a little bit of a less rock star attitude... it was a big learning curve.
I think competitions will change. I think it all went big and crazy. I think there’s going to be a little bit of a return to bartending, to the actual job, testing their real skills. It’ll become less show, because I think there was a huge attempt to make it very visually attractive and to make a TV show out of it. But I think the industry kicked back because we’re not really interested in it. I think there’s going to be a certain style and a certain group of bartenders who will continue going that way. But also, I think there’s a lot of people not interested in cocktail competitions, they’re not interested in that scene. And I think that’s really nice that the scene starts to separate.
I don’t think of London as a cocktail capital because I think there’s many amazing cities within the global bar scene. But one thing, London has such a mix of all the diverse people from all around the world, it’s hard to beat this sort of variety. Not because it’s London, it’s just so many people from different parts of the world happen to be there. There’s also a lot of exciting things happening in many other cities. One thing that is so wonderful about the whole cocktail scene is that it’s no longer the big cities - you can go to small interesting cities and see interesting concepts.