Words by: Theodora Sutcliffe
Paulo Figueiredo, Ketel One's global brand ambassador, travels light. It's a hangover from a stint as an ambassador for Diageo's Reserve Brands, covering the whole of Latin America – not to mention the myriad islands of the Caribbean.
“I lived in the Dominican Republic, where there were no direct flights, so I was doing at least four flights a week,” he says. “In the end, I decided to pack my bags, give up my house and just do everything in one go. I'd pack up, do my work, stay for the weekend in an AirBNB, then travel on a Sunday night to the next country. It meant I had the time to explore a bit of the country and get more time to myself rather than just get home, do the washing and fly out again.”
Travelling light is easier to do in the warmth of Latin America than in a European winter, but by the end Figueiredo had his worldly goods pared down to an extendable carry-on with clothes and bar tools, plus a bag with computers and electronics. Anything he bought along the way, he'd ship to Portugal, where his long-suffering grandmother looks after “seven or eight” motorbikes in various states of repair.
Born and raised in Portugal, Figueiredo speaks three languages – Spanish, Portuguese, and English – and his professional passion and inbuilt wanderlust has taken him around the globe. He's worked in Portugal, London, Hong Kong, Africa – including South Africa and Ethiopia – Abu Dhabi, Dubai, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, and is now based in Amsterdam.
A quirk of the Portuguese education system requires young adults make up their minds what they want to do with their lives around age 15, when you choose a career-oriented high-school track, such as science or letters. Figueiredo wasn't sure what he wanted to do, so a friend suggested hospitality.
“I didn't know anything about hospitality, or bars, but I've always loved people. Since I was very young I've talked to everyone,” he says. “I've always liked travel – I took trips in Portugal when I was a child, but I always had a desire to go and explore the world.”
He started working in bars aged 16. Knocking out big, tacky drinks with gaudy garnishes in Portugal's tourist capital, the Algarve, whetted his appetite for adventure, and soon he headed for the bright lights of Portugal's capital, Lisbon, and the Hard Rock Cafe.
“I didn't straight away fall in love with this industry,” he says. “The first thing I really enjoyed and still do enjoy was getting to know people and their stories and learning. When I started meeting people from around the world, that's the moment when my job became a love, and I realised that was exactly what I wanted to do.”
Around 2004, David Palethorpe opened Cinco Lounge, Portugal's first contemporary, UK-style cocktail bar, which transformed the Lisbon scene, and drew Figueiredo like a moth to a flame. Between David's stories and the advice of another mentor, Portuguese star flairtender Paulo Ramos, London started to beckon.
“Paulo was very well travelled, 15 years older than me, and really understood mixology,” Figueiredo recalls. “So I asked him 'What's the best bar I can go and learn from?' and he said, 'LAB Bar'.”
Figueiredo packed up his bags and moved to the UK, where he spent a week knocking on the door of LAB pleading for a job. “I was a barback for three months, then I moved up to bartender,” he says. “That period was the moment where I realised that you could do so many things, that there was a lot about the industry that I couldn't see.”
Over the two years he worked at LAB, he had trainings every week about drinks and spirits, and learnt English on the job. Next up came legendary jazz bar Ronnie Scott's, and Salvatore Calabrese's now-defunct Salvatore at FIFTY.
“I learnt so much about hospitality from Salvatore,” he says. “If there's one thing about him that fascinates me, it's the art of hosting, and making people feel special. You could walk in a bar, feel a bit down, and with his way of doing his own thing, he'll put a smile on your face straight away.”
Yet come 2008, and with his quarter century looming, a new challenge beckoned. “I'd worked with all these amazing people, but I needed to go and learn other cultures, other ways of seeing things,” he says.
The Singapore-born restaurateur David Yeo was rejigging the menus at Aqua, his Japanese-Italian bar and restaurant in Hong Kong, and loved the drinks at LAB. “He told me, 'Can you come to Hong Kong and do something interesting? I have a beautiful bar, 360° views, and I want to bring the scene up,” Figueiredo recalls.
Aqua Restaurant Group already had around 15 venues in Hong Kong, and so Figueiredo got started working with chefs, which transformed his perspective on flavour. “I'd be talking to Italian chefs, or Chinese chefs: they'd taste the cocktail and say yes or no, it changed my vision straight away,” he says.
After Aqua came a year in London, opening a venue on Oxford Circus, which left him burned out. “Openings aren't easy,” he says. “It was beautiful, but it was seven days a week about 18-20 hours a day: it was very tough.”
So he picked up his first love, travelling, and took a few months off to explore the world and see what to do next. Soon, the Cipriani group came calling. They were opening the first club in the UAE with a 6am license – and Figueiredo had a literally unlimited budget to spend.
This was less about cocktails, or even bottle service, and much more about the all-round experience. “We focused a lot more on bringing a cool experience into that club: sound engineers from Ibiza, entertainers from the biggest clubs in Ibiza, Cipriani chefs...,” Figueiredo says.
Next up was Hilton Group, which approached him to sort out the bars and drinks at its African hotels, a task that required everything from cocktail training through to fixing power levels in the bar area. “I love a challenge, and a culture and people I don't know,” says Figueiredo. “I was doing trainings around venues – South Africa, Cameroon, Ethiopia – doing two or three weeks in every country. What I loved was how working in Cape Town or Johannesburg is so different from working in Cameroon or Nigeria.”
By 2011, Figueiredo's global experience had brought him to the attention of Diageo. (He tells folk who ask – and they always do - that there is no guaranteed route to a role as brand ambassador: you simply need to do your best and keep challenging yourself and, if you're good enough, brands will hear your name.)
After lots of interviews and a myriad discussions, he took off for India, to do the classic around-India-on-a-motorbike trip by Royal Enfield, an adventure that was far from trouble-free.
“There's a road from Shimla to Ladakh – a tough road that's open just three months of the year, but a beautiful, high-altitude road – and I don't really recall what happened, I think it was the low oxygen,” he says. Somewhere around 4,000 metres up in the Himalayas, he lost control of his bike on a bend: the Enfield hurtled straight off a 500-metre cliff, while his body slewed in a different direction and tumbled through trees on a slope.
When he officially joined Diageo as a Reserve Brands Ambassador at the 2011 World Class final in Delhi, he was still carrying bruises – but nothing worse. (He still feels he has unfinished business in north India.)
For someone who loves travel – and has such high energy levels that his mother wouldn't let him in the house as a child until he'd done at least three hours of sport – brand ambassador is the perfect job. Figueiredo started in the Caribbean, delivering training on Diageo Bar Academy, the Business of Bars, and World Class. After a couple of years, he added Peru, Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, and Ecuador to his portfolio.
By 2014, he was covering the entire continent of Latin America. “Every week I was in a different country, and with no house I'd just explore. I'd go to the market, meet up with chefs and cook something, get together with a couple of bartenders, go to the market, buy ingredients, dress down, and go to see other things,” he recalls. “Sometimes people skip a lot of things on their trips, but for me it's about exploring a country, and that's what I really like.”
(Figueiredo stopped counting how many countries he'd visited last year, although he thinks he's at 80-odd: he reckons he'll hit the magic 100 this autumn.)
Paulo, Dennis Tamse, Bob Nolet
As of August 2016, however, he's back in Europe – and readapting to the demands of a north Atlantic winter – with the role of Global Brand Ambassador for Ketel One: he's looking forward to the increased strategic focus you get when working on a single brand.
And the vague idea he had in his teens about wanting to explore the world and talk to interesting people has paid off in spades. “I'm very lucky – I get to learn a lot, see a lot of different countries, I'm exposed to a lot of different things every day,” he says. “One of the big things I like about it is that feeling of receiving and sharing that knowledge you get travelling: I never stop learning. Every day there's a new challenge, a new culture, a new contrast.”