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P(our): exploring ‘perfection’ in bartending

This year’s P(our) Symposium dealt with the idea of perfection in the drinks industry, and why it is not always desirable.

Speakers from an array of disciplines shed some light on the idea of perfection at the latest P(our) Symposium

When you hear about a ballerina, a psychology professor and a bartender being in the same room, it might sound like the start of a bad joke. However, these are exactly the kind of professionals found at this year’s P(our) Symposium. The third annual event took over Palais de Tokyo in Paris last month, offering a space for hospitality experts to come together and share ideas. “When we established P(our) we had a strong vision, but to be honest I had no idea where this vision was going to take us,” said world-renowned bartender and P(our) co-founder Alex Kratena as he introduced the theme of this year’s event.

P(our), described as a ‘bartender collective’, aims to represent every corner of the hospitality industry, and was founded by Kratena, alongside fellow bartenders Simone Caporale, Jim Meehan, Joerg Meyer, Monica Berg, Ryan Chetiyawardana and Xavier Padovani. In the past, the symposium has looked into what makes the modern bartender and hosted talks about gender equality in hospitality. This year, P(our) hoped to gain an understanding of perfection.

As today’s bartenders become as highly praised as the world’s best chefs, the pressure to be at the top of their game has never been greater. With competitions such as Diageo World Class and Bacardi Legacy pitting bartenders against one another on a global stage, professionals are increasingly aiming to demonstrate spotless technique, presentation and flavour combination.

Diverse group of speakers

During P(our), an eclectic mix of speakers came together to question and examine the quest for perfection in hospitality. They also addressed ways to deal with the pressure of this unending pursuit. The day’s seminars included whisky writer Dave Broom discussing the joys of the imperfect, and Julius Ibrahim of UK-based start-up Second Shot Coffee analysing what makes the perfect business.

Other presentations included architect Simon Ewings’ discussion of the perfect building, restaurateur Oliver Peña’s challenge of opening the perfect restaurant, Dr Stephen S Jones’s analysis of perfection in the imperfect place, and journalist and bartender Mar Calpena’s means of analysing perfection. Stacey Givens, a farmer and chef from the Side Yard Farm and Kitchen, travelled to Paris from Portland, Oregon to also speak at P(our). Like many of the day’s presenters, Givens highlighted the imperfect, with a focus on plants and crops.

“There’s so much beauty in the imperfection of plants, which I find funny because I’m a perfectionist in life, but I love their beautiful flaws,” Givens said.

While many in the bar and restaurant trade may never dream of using a misshapen strawberry as a garnish, Givens and the Side Yard Farm and Kitchen strive to use the whole fruit, no matter how wonkily it grows. Givens’s ‘seed to plate’ philosophy means that the team has to find imaginative ways to use every part of a plant.

Using English garden herb lovage as an example, she discussed how the leaves could be used for seasoning and making pesto, the stalks could be used as straws for savoury cocktails – such as Bloody Marys – or could be dried and used to smoke fish, while the flowers make an ideal garnish as they “taste just like Champagne and honey”.

Overall, Givens’s discussion aimed to show that by embracing the imperfections of plants, the hospitality industry could waste less and become more perfect in itself.

P(our) is described as a “bartender collective” to share and explore ideas

Environmental influence

While bartenders may think the secrets to the perfect cocktail lie in the best spirits, freshest citrus and juiciest fruits, according to the day’s next speaker, “the pleasures of the table reside in the mind”. Charles Spence, professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University, hosted a discussion about the other factors to consider when striving to make the perfect cocktail, addressing the impact that colour, texture, shape and sound all have on the ultimate dining experience.

According to Spence, glassware with different shapes and colours can make something taste sweeter, saltier or more sour. He said the phenomenon is thanks to how we think the dish we are eating should taste – our own expectation is one of the biggest factors that affects whether we see something as perfect. Spence said: “Something about perfection comes from that ‘better than you expect’ element.”

The academic also discussed the difficulties with consistent perfection. “The cocktail makers I work with are sometimes worried about things like robot cocktail makers,” he said. “Supposedly, they will make the perfect drink hundreds of times. But this just simply isn’t true; the robot cocktail maker isn’t fitted with a nose or a palate, so it cannot taste the ingredients or each finished drink.”

After hearing from Spence and Givens, the assembled bartenders may have felt equipped with the skills to serve up perfection in their venues. However, the following seminar offered the audience insight into the intense pressures perfection brings with it.

Pressure of perfection

Shelby Williams, a solo ballerina with the Royal Ballet of Flanders, is “in the perfect profession to be perfectly unsatisfied all of the time”. She told the audience about her journey to becoming a professional ballerina and her unique ways of dealing with the pressures of constantly striving for perfection.

Williams began her presentation with an image of her, mid leap. To the audience of bartenders and restaurateurs, it looked perfect. However, Williams then shared everything she sees, saying that her hips aren’t squared off, her knee isn’t extended sufficiently and her toes don’t point enough. According to Williams, ballerinas constantly criticise themselves, so they can “refine and perfect every movement”. In her eyes, she is “an imperfect person in an industry that is obsessed with perfection”.

There is no shortage of passionate bartenders and chefs, and Williams noted that when you’re passionate about something, if you fall short of your own expectations, it’s natural to have a strong emotional reaction. “I needed to find a solution to cope with this,” she explained. “For me that came in the form of humour – I learned not to take myself too seriously.”

As such, Williams developed an alternative persona that lives online. Her Biscuit Ballerina Instagram page has become home to mistakes, falls and flops from across the world of dance. “Perfect does not exist, and in the end, it’s just dance,” Williams said.

So, in a world filled with picture-perfect cocktails and Instagram-worthy signature serves, it seems the hospitality industry could use a moment or two to celebrate its mistakes, the sunken soufflés and catastrophic Cosmos.

Perfection is not always desirable in the world of bartending, some speakers said

A celebration of flaws

From the outset, the P(our) Symposium sought to understand perfection. But for many of those assembled, the biggest takeaway was that we should all celebrate our flaws and play to the strengths they give us. From the weathering of a building as it is exposed to the elements, to the wear on a beloved trinket, these flaws are what eventually make something perfect – at least in someone’s eyes.

In the fast-paced and ever-changing world of cocktails, there is no such creature as the perfect bartender. If while searching for perfection you eradicate the blemishes that make you human, you could lose the joy and the soul of the finished product. Could it be that the off-beat note from a jazz musician, the haphazard vibrancy of a venue and the joy of being there with friends is what makes the perfect experience in a bar?

Spence shared a similar point as he finished his talk, claiming that while those in the service industry may strive for perfection in every serve, this may not be something the consumer actually wants.

He said: “We don’t want perfection every time – we want to be able to feel the hand of the maker, and that is why I don’t think perfection has any real meaning in this industry.”

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