A Drink With… Salvatore Calabrese, The Playboy Club11th January, 2013 by Becky Paskin
Salvatore Calabrese, world-famous bartender with venues in London – Salvatore at The Playboy Club – and LA, talks expensive cocktails, Breakfast Martinis and fame with Becky Paskin.
You’re famous for your barside manner. What would you say makes a good host?
One of the most fundamental aspects of the bar industry is hospitality. It doesn’t matter how good you are at making drinks; if you forget that, you’re nobody. The first stepping-stone for any bartender is how to mix a drink and the second is how to host. It’s not just about the art of conversation, it’s about eye contact, smiling. Taking that time to acknowledge your customer is key, even if you are at your busiest. People go to a bar to socialise, and if you fulfill that one basic need they are likely to return.
But you’re Italian – it must come naturally to you?
Being Italian helps, because you grow up to be open, and when you’re open you almost immediately react to the person in front of you. If you are closed, it is difficult to penetrate them and create that rapport. Being able to read your customer is a highly prized skill.
What would you say makes a great cocktail?
One that is not too complicated – you want it to be replicated around the world. A cocktail has to satisfy three elements: the eyes, the nose, and the tastebuds, and the aftertaste is the most important of all as it is the memory of what you had. A great cocktail is nothing unless you choose the right spirit in the first place.
Garnishes have become big and beautiful lately. Are you a fan?
Garnishes are very important, but don’t get carried away and plonk a fruit salad on top of the glass. Your drink needs to be like a beautiful woman: it must look great, smell incredible and taste divine. A beautiful woman can turn heads when she walks into a bar, and you want your drink to do that too.
How did you become famous?
The greatest thing a bartender can achieve is to immortalize themselves with a great cocktail that everyone’s still talking about in 100 years. I did that with the Breakfast Martini (marmalade, gin, orange liqueur and lemon juice), even though there was a marmalade cocktail made in the 1930s. Whatever you think you’ve created today, somebody else in the past has done it, but I’m still iconic for that and I’m very proud. This drink has made me famous throughout the world because consumers took the drink to other bars. I immortalised myself with that cocktail.
Speaking of fame, who’s the most famous person you’ve ever served?
I’ve made Martinis and Vespers for all the James Bonds; I’ve served Her Majesty the Queen, Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro, and Stevie Wonder is a regular client of mine, but it’s not all about serving celebrities. I like to give every customer the same warm service. Once a guy came into the Lanesborough and ordered a Coca-Cola. Instead of ignoring him I struck up a conversation and he ended up ordering a £5,000 glass of Cognac.
What’s your biggest pet hate in bartenders?
I don’t like arrogance in a bartender. Just because you can make good drinks doesn’t give you the right to be arrogant. I also dislike it when bartenders taste every drink they make with a straw. It is the customer’s drink, why are you drinking it? You are following the same recipe every time, so you already know what it tastes like. If you do need to taste it, like in the situation where you are using freshly squeezed lime or lemon juice and it’s the first drink of service, please use a bar spoon and don’t do it in front of the customer.