Words by: Jane Ryan
Rainer Becker and Arjun Waney have had a busy 12 years. The chef and his financial backer have been opening up restaurants across the globe, in quick succession and with great success. There are currently eleven, with four more set for opening this year. James Shearer has had an equally busy time of late, he might not be the headline act when it comes to Zuma, Roka and most recently Oblix, but he is in charge of each and every drink that finds its way from the bar to the customer. The restaurants may have managed to take the world by storm, but it's not just the cuisine that's garnering attention, and that's thanks to James.
We meet at Oblix in The Shard, and what better place to demonstrate the prowess of this company than that stunning location. A large wrap-around bar is already busy with customers sipping wine and trying the cocktails. James Shearer, at 37, looks relaxed and in control, this is a bar he's very familiar with.
Being a bar manager for ten international sites isn't everyone's dream job. It means early starts and late nights, not necessarily in the bar. Then there's the travel, which sounds glamorous, until the reality of never being home starts to sink in. James says he wishes there were 14 days in a week. But when your creative vision is flourishing in soon-to-be eight countries and your success is as visible as the 32nd floor of London's tallest skyscraper, the late nights must start to seem worthwhile.
James is one of those rare people in the industry that has stayed loyal to one company, he's been with Becker and Waney since joining in 2003. Starting from the bottom as a bartender, one year after the first venue was launched, he is proof that switching jobs every two months will get you nowhere. Whilst pursuing his first love of photography, James, like a lot of people in the industry, fell into the bartending world. Photography hasn't exactly gone by the wayside for him, but the creative side of cocktail bartending quickly ensnared him. Eleven years later, having worked his way up the ranks, James' job description is vast and ever widening. "Basically the buck stops with me."
James' job puts him in a great position to ruminate on our industry from a global perspective. He's spent months in Hong Kong opening up venues just as he has in London, Dubai, Istanbul, Bangkok and Miami. His job involves, as minimum, a week away every two months but this is a large reduction from recent years, now that London is dominating his time.
"Each country has its own issues, some worse than others. Outside of the big cocktail hotspots your entry level of staff is going to be basic and you'll have to train them up. In places like London you expect bartenders to have experience. But then you'll go somewhere like Hong Kong and they're so much more advanced than you expected. The problem with a name like Zuma or Roka is consistency. Maintaining that across the globe is a constant challenge."
That consistency must manifest itself in signature drinks or best sellers that are served globally. For the rest of his drinks James has to adapt each menu to the taste and palate of the locals.
"My first stop whenever I open a new venue is to visit the stores, from the supermarket to street vendors and high-end food shops. Then I'll talk to the local staff because, let's be honest, I'm the new kid on the block and I have to be humble to their knowledge of the area. That way I can figure out, not only what type of products I'll have access to, but also the tastes and flavours of the city."
The next challenge is replicating Zuma or Roka. James lists Istanbul as his biggest struggle so far as the country is far stricter about imports than most. As well as house signatures his bartenders need to have a good concept of the classics, but, he says, this is becoming less of an issue in terms of training as standards improve.
Better and more confident bartenders have resulted in more courageous feedback, propelling the company and its reputation for good drinks forward.
"I'll sit down with a new bar team alongside the General Manager and Bar Manager and create all the drinks and ask for honest feedback. When we opened Oblix at The Shard one of our bartenders came up with three replacement drinks for ones she felt unhappy with, I was impressed, challenging the menu is only ever a good thing."
James' opposite is the head of wine for the group, which could be a tricky relationship. But he says there's little rivalry, instead they look out for each, particularly when opening a new venue. "When designing a bar I think about the wine and sake, where the glasses will go, storage and we have to find a balance between the two. Obviously I want everyone to drink cocktails but that's not going to be the reality."
Having worked behind the bar for 12 years, something he still does on occasion from bar backing to cocktail shaking, James believes in simplicity, which makes sense when rolling out beverage programmes. His pet hate is drinks with too many ingredients that are over-garnished.
"Balance is key to everything. It doesn't matter if it's the best drink in the world, if it's too complicated then we can't deliver it. In the end the customer is the last ingredient and it has to be perfect for them. I want to be able to walk into any of my bars and order a Martini with confidence, knowing that anything my bartenders produce is outstanding. For that they need to understand simplicity. The Martini might have been placed on a pedestal but it is so easy to mess up. I need the cocktails to work on every level."
In the past few years James has been focused on the rest of the world, or rather away from London. It's the new openings that excite him, taking a brand, developing the team, putting the menu together and teaching the staff, is a formula he has perfected.
But while he'll still be globe-trotting, James is now firmly based in London with two London Roka restaurants opening before the end of summer. The Mayfair venue is in fact poised to launch this month on February 17th. London Aldwych will follow shortly after. But nothing will compare to the giant leap the company took investing in The Shard.
"Doing Oblix was a big challenge. Roka and Zuma have been easier to adapt, we know them inside out. Oblix was new, we hadn't worked with this type of cuisine before or had to consider a theme that was non-Japanese, non-Asian so our style of mixology had to adapt."
His day-to-day life is as far away from the photographer/bartender he started out as it could possibly be. James jokes he is permanently attached to his phone and emails, having to turn his attention to paper work, finance, weekly meetings with General Managers, and on top of that dealing with things such as con artists painting unripe bananas yellow in Hong Kong.
"It's great to be a part of a company that gives me creative freedom and support, and to feel respected. I can honestly say that starting as a bartender to earn extra money has led to a roller coaster ride. For the past 11 years I've worked with great people. I think I find the most joy in discovering new talent - their success is my success. And when it comes down to it I don't do for myself but for the customer, the person sitting in front of me. Their experience has to be memorable."