Words by: Daniela Valdez (Editor, Difford's Guide Mexico)
2017 has been a big year for Jeppe Nothlev, and it's not over yet. If you ask me, the next line drawn from my conversation with Nothlev clearly sums up how he got where he is now: “running a bar was a natural step towards being eager to learn more and having more responsibilities”. And where exactly is he now? Well, keep on reading.
The finals for the Tahona Society Cocktail Competition are about to come to an end: two more to go after 23 contestants. Everyone is tired, it’s been a long day, a long week even, and we all have seen wonderful people with wonderful creations. What else is missing? And there he is, this tattooed, Viking-like bartender cheering for the contestants. He seems relaxed, which is not at all the face of someone who will present his own cocktail later on.
And now, his turn. He is smiling. He has been smiling all week long. Why? Because he did not fly to Arandas, Jalisco, Mexico for the finals to win; he signed up for this to learn, and boy, he did. His recipe is not simple, in the end, he got to impress Simone Caporale and Altos’ founder, Dré Masso along with the Trash Tiki team, and well, all of us. “I never thought I was going to win,” said Jeppe. “I saw many people there who could have won it as well. You don’t believe it when you hear your name”.
Both of Nothlev’s parents are chefs, so he virtually grew up in the kitchen. However, his parents told him he needed to get a ‘proper’ education, and a ‘good’ job. Happily he did not listen, because thanks to that decision for the next year he will get to travel the world as a Global Ambassador for Altos tequila. Back then, he was actually fascinated with waiters, how they got to pour the wine and carry all those fancy dishes to the table. “I was always amazed by the whole service theme, so one day I applied for a job in a hotel across the street where we lived in at the time and I started working there clearing the plates of the buffet at breakfast hours”. But Jeppe used to be very shy, and now he was talking to strangers all the time, even if it was only to say: ‘sir, are you done with your plate?’”. He was out of his comfort zone, at least he says so, but I don't believe it when I look at him confidently talking to the judges.
He finally became a waiter, and from that he jumped to the bar. He was also a student, and at some point he had to choose what was he going to do. Of course he chose the bar, because for him it was more than just making drinks and having fun. “I guess I was always drawn to service and I think I was good at it in a way. It just ended up feeling very natural to me. So then I sat down and thought: ‘where am I going to work?’”. Nothlev is from a small town in Denmark, so if he wanted to grow in this business, naturally, he had to move to a bigger city. “I wanted to work at the best place possible, and at the time Ruby in Copenhagen was #22 in the World’s 50 Best Bars”. Three months later he had a shift there, and he stayed for three years.
After three years of hard work, failed competitions, learning and talking to people, it all started paying off. This June Jeppe, along with Nicklas Jørgensen, his partner, won the Absolute Invites Competition, in which the vodka brand tries to find the best bar team in the world. After working together in Ruby, Jørgensen and Nothlev are now running a bar together in Copenhagen. Helium is in a place Nothlev describes as “a very decadent area”. “The bar project wasn’t really about changing the way people see drinks or anything of the sort, nor making any groundbreaking, super advanced, innovative statement; it was just about making a damn fine menu and a damn fine bar with drinks that taste good”.
An element he considers important is sustainability of ingredients. Relating this to his competition drink he explains “I used the pulp from the rhubarb and blend it with salt, and then I used the lime husks as a tequila shot, which is something else than throwing it away. Anyone can do this, can relate to this. When I serve things like this to my guests at the bar they say ‘that makes sense’, and it does, it saves money, it is clever. I think we need to move to the next level of approaching our ingredients. When you are working you need to keep your eyes open, take the ingredients in your hands and before throwing them away, just think: can this have any value to me?”
Also, when you talk about sustainability, the world “local” automatically pops up to the conversation, and during his time in Mexico, Jeppe had a unique glimpse of this concept: “We went to the market, and I saw all the indigenous ingredients you have, which are so different from what I am used to see at home, all the exotic spices and herbs and sauces and how you use them, that impressed me. The fruits and the scents and the flavors… even some fruits I can get back home, for example a mango, when I tried a mango at the market it was so different”. Being close to the source of an ingredient is a concept we all should keep in mind. “You get the most honest and beautiful flavor when things come right from its source”. And that takes us to talk about the moment the industry is living right now both in his country and mine (Denmark and Mexico), where cocktail bars are relatively new. Young bartenders are now mastering big recipe books, learning, perfecting the classics, and that is exciting, but how about the future? “Looking back is easy, but we need to look forward too, and looking forward to me is finding the uniqueness in our own countries through local ingredients, through culture and tradition. To me it is finding a way to combine all the knowledge and the craft that is now being rediscovered and putting it in a new light”. Nowadays, wherever you are, you can find a decent classic in any cocktail bar, but how about finding something you can´t reproduce anywhere else in the world? Nothlev is trying to achieve that by using local spirits and products. That makes sense, when you think of the exposure of Nordic gastronomy is having now, which he finds inspiring and also a big but interesting challenge.
If you keep the later idea in mind, Jeppe got to achieve that with his Sweet Effort, his winning cocktail. “I just kept on thinking of the jimadores working so hard under the baking sun, and waiting for the agave to grow 5, 10 or more years until its ready for the production of tequila …” So he got to stand there, staring at the agave, getting to know all of those new, exciting ingredients, thinking of the ingredients the likes the best at home and he brought all of that to his drink. And that is the perfect example of how you can achieve something great if you are willing to actually stop and smell the roses… and everything else, and also get to look at them closely, feel them, combine them and put them in a different light.