Words by Ian Cameron
First name(s): Zdenek
Last/Family name: Kastanek
Originally from: Czech Republic
Zdenek Kastanek, 26, is from the Czech Republic
I often get asked whether there are any decent bartenders left in the Czech Republic or Slovakia. I've talked about this with some of the others - Erik Lorincz, Alex Kratena and Marian Beke - and actually I don't think there are any more of us in London than from any other country, it's just that we are all in good places. There are definitely still some good people back home and you could definitely stay and progress, but I wanted to see the world.
I started off as a chef, but was always taught that the barman was the pinnacle of hospitality. A barman needs to be the best head waiter, know the kitchen inside out and be a great host - as well as have a knowledge of wine and cocktails. It's the whole kit and caboodle. When it's done right it looks easy and makes guests feel confident and relaxed.
Back in the day I was really into flair bartending. I was a junior champion. It was when I was 18-20 and we partied hard, everybody was showing off and there were loads of girls. It's what you should do at that age, but importantly flair also gives you moves, confidence and a sense of showmanship.
Czech bar culture is based on the classic European style of service, where you're behaving as if you are doing silver service. When I was working in Australia I found a more relaxed style of bartending, where it's more about knowledge and your personality rather than rules around proper service. It's a classic example of travel broadening the mind. Whether you're working in a bar that's all optics and RTDs or in a five-star hotel, you can always learn from each other.
I hate the word 'mixologist'. I think it makes people feel like they can focus more on the cocktails rather than how they host guests. You can read a million books and travel around the world but the definition of a bartender has never been about exact dates or the detailed history of a brand - we are here to host guests. I'm amazed at bartenders who don't talk to their guests while they are making them a drink. When I interviewed for a bar training job in Australia, we weren't even allowed to talk about booze and just had to present. I think that ability to hold a room is a great test of a bartender's abilities.
After I met Paul Mant working in London became my next goal. I arrived in May 2009. I only wanted to work at the Savoy or at Quo Vadis - the Savoy hadn't yet opened and everyone said Quo was the place to be. As a junior you get one shift upstairs in the members club, then you get more as you mature, so it's an incentive. Downstairs at Quo is the playground, where the younger guys play with homemade syrups and oils. We don't have waiters there, even though we do plenty of covers a day, so they have to know loads about food and wine. It's a hard fight but I still push them into it as I believe every bartender has to know their food.
It's really upstairs where everybody wants to work. Up here, it's no frills, we keep it simple and straightforward for our members. Most of the time young bartenders are disappointed by my back-bar, I don't have a crazy collection of cognacs or anything, though I do have 29 ryes. We need to know our members, their names, what business they're in, and it's interesting developing relationships with them. Sometimes your biggest skill is being diplomatic, knowing what not to say.
I'd be really happy to see fewer bartenders taking up brand ambassador roles. Rather than leave for that Monday-to-Friday job I hope they take posts where they're in charge of several sites - restaurant companies in particular are finally realising drinks are just as important as food. Hopefully it will help increase customer education - they already know what good foie gras is and what a good burger is, so maybe one day they'll know that a Cosmopolitan shouldn't be red as hell and can recognise the difference between a good Manhattan and a bad one. Then again, that might not be until 2040, so we've got our work cut out.