Madame St-Germain: ‘Hospitality is DNA of our industry’

23rd January, 2018 by admin

Think being a brand ambassador is a piece of cake? Think again. St-Germain’s acclaimed Camille Ralph Vidal tells Annie Hayes about the amount of passion and dedication it takes to get to the top.

*This feature was originally published in the October 2017 issue of The Spirits Business

“Some people say to me ‘you’ve been working on St­-Germain for five years, aren’t you over it?’ and I’m absolutely not,” enthuses Camille Ralph Vidal. “I’ve been in love with the brand ever since the first time I tried it.”

The winner of Best International Brand Ambassador at Tales of the Cocktail’s Spirited Awards in August – “an incredible moment” – Ralph Vidal, or Madame St­-Germain, as she’s otherwise known, is every bit as vivacious and impassioned as you’d expect and speaks ardently of an industry that “means the world” to her.

Born into an creative family in the French city of Montpellier – her father was a contemporary dancer and an artist – Ralph Vidal was essentially raised in a theatre; her childhood a whirl of actors, comedians, artists and dancers. “I would get this crazy make­up done by the make­up artist, then I would go to the costume designer and they would dress me up,” she recalls. “It was a pretty incredible way to grow up.”

At 15, Ralph Vidal began travelling with her mother, spending time in Tahiti and Brazil, and igniting “the desire to travel, to learn more about different cultures and different countries and different ways of life”.

She returned to France where she attended art school in Lyon before undertaking a bachelor’s degree in communications, event management, marketing and PR.

After graduating, Ralph Vidal decided it was time to learn English and live abroad, and Australia beckoned. Armed with bucketloads of bar and restaurant experience from her university years – and locked out of a career in communications because of the language barrier – she landed a job as a waitress in Melbourne. It was here she was presented with a taste of the cocktail world.

LEARNING EXPERIENCE

Glass act: TOTC award-winner

Glass act: TOTC award-winner

“In France we make some beautiful spirits and liqueurs, and we have really an amazing saviour-­faire and heritage in the spirits industry but until the past few years we didn’t drink cocktails,” explains Ralph Vidal.

“When I moved to Melbourne I didn’t know anything. The first time someone ordered a dry gin Martini – Martini being one of the really loved brands in France – I was like, ‘So you want a shot of Martini vermouth, and a shot of gin?’ I had no clue that it was a cocktail. It was very much a learning experience, but I fell in love.”

Not one to sit still, Ralph Vidal secured a job in a cocktail bar and set about learning the ropes: studying classics and memorising the menu. “I remember having this epiphany where I was like ‘OK, making cocktails is like cooking, and I know about cooking’ – because in my family we cook a lot,” she says. “It was really my way of expressing my creativity. I remember calling my dad and saying ‘I think I’ve found my medium’.”

Two years later she had set her sights on becoming a brand ambassador in a bid to combine her skills in marketing and PR with a passion for the industry. While holding out for the right opportunity with a French spirit she won a cocktail competition with a brand owned by St-­Germain’s distributor, and was invited to a brunch where she ended up sitting beside founder Rob Cooper. “We were talking and talking and talking,” says Ralph Vidal. “I think in me he saw the potential for a great collaboration. We went for a few drinks and he said, ‘I would love for you to work on St-­Germain’, and I laughed and I said to the bartender, ‘No more drinks for this gentleman, I think he’s had enough!’”

With her Australian visa about to expire, she accepted his offer of an advocacy role in London and began to hone the Madame St-Germain image – something the brand “really needed at that time; it needed a face”.

Less than a year later Bacardi acquired the brand from The Cooper Spirits Company, which came as “a bit of a shock. Rob had a really passionate way of working and a really hands-­on organic way of doing things, so I didn’t expect for him to let his little baby go,” says Ralph Vidal.

He offered her a role at Cooper Spirits, but her work with St-­Germain “was not over, it was just the beginning”, she explains. “I did a lot of work and I was not ready to move on to something else, and he was like ‘I agree’.”

Since then, she has launched the brand in countless markets, hosted myriad talks, workshops and tastings, founded female bartender collective Les Femmes Du Bar, and even trained 20 US ambassadors, whom she continues to mentor. She sees the role of brand ambassador as a collaboration with the on-­trade. “It’s been amazing to take my little suitcase all around the world to inspire and be inspired by bartenders,” she adds.

Brought to book: cocktail recipes

Brought to book: cocktail recipes

COCKTAIL COLLABORATIONS

Arguably, one of her biggest collaborations to date is the launch of How to Drink French Fluently, featuring bartenders’ St­-Germain cocktail recipes. Based upon occasions, the book spans brunch, daytime, apéritif, dinner and nightcap. “It’s common sense that you’re not going to have the same food for breakfast lunch and dinner, but when it comes to cocktails no-­one is looking at it the same way,” she explains.

When it comes to on­-trade trends, Ralph Vidal has her finger on the pulse. We chat about sustainability, seasonality, ingredient sourcing, culinary equipment – “sous vide is my thing”, she tells me – but, ultimately, customer service takes precedence.

“Hospitality is the DNA of our industry,” she says. “I can go to a Michelin­-star restaurant, but if the service is terrible I will have a bad experience. I would rather have an OK drink with the most amazing hospitality than the most crafted cocktail with nothing behind it.”

Behind the bar, health is a hot topic for Ralph Vidal, who is actively working to bring “a little more wellness” to the industry.

“I find that balance for myself is to do yoga and try to eat healthily to cope with the travel, and I’m trying to share that with bartenders,” she explains. “In the US we invite them to do activities – like a little yoga class where they learn to stretch before and after the shift to make sure they don’t hurt their backs too much. If I can help bartenders learn how to look after themselves better and find a way to be happy while enjoying this industry then that’s great.”

As a globally renowned ambassador, Ralph Vidal is regularly inundated with messages from bartenders seeking guidance – ranging from sun salutations to interview tips. “I have a lot of bartenders reaching out to me and saying, ‘you’re an inspiration’, and asking for career advice, and that is the biggest reward that I can get,” she says.

With so much under her belt, what’s next? She’s not quite sure. “The day I feel like I’m not learning anymore, I need to go. But I’m still learning, I don’t feel like because I won this award that this is over – there’s still room to grow and things to do in this industry to help it excel, as it’s doing right now.

“I also believe that life brings the things that you want and dream your way, so who knows? Maybe tomorrow something will cross my path and it will be the new challenge or the new adventure for me. You never know!”

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