Alessandro Palazzi: ‘Hospitality is like military service’
Having started his bartending career in the 1970s, Alessandro Palazzi has worked his way up to become the duke of Dukes, the London hotel where he has forged a reputation for making some of the world’s best Martinis.
*This feature was originally published in the August 2019 issue of The Spirits Business
Tucked away in a cul‐de‐sac in London’s affluent St James’s neighbourhood, Dukes hotel has long been serving what are widely considered the capital’s best Martinis.
Downstairs, Dukes Bar is an oasis of genteel hospitality, much loved by celebrities, aristocracy, royalty, drinks enthusiasts and wide‐eyed tourists. The venue has changed little in appearance since the 1950s, with its heavy drapes, furniture in deep blues and browns, soft lighting, patterned carpets, ancient liquor bottles and wooden drinks trolleys. To spend an evening in Dukes is to take a step back in time.
Since 2007, this cocktail institution has been under the charge of Alessandro Palazzi – one of the most recognisable faces in the bar world. “One thing that brought me to this industry was my love of travel,” he says. Palazzi attended a small cookery school in Italy before moving to London to work as a kitchen porter in a Queensway hotel, where he says he learned a valuable lesson.
“When I was in kitchen school, I was one of those twats who treated the washing up like dirt,” he says. “The amount of abuse I had early in my career was horrible. It made me realise that I was a twat and that in hospitality, everyone is important. I was very lucky it happened so early in my career – it was one of the best lessons of my life.”
After this, Palazzi worked as a barista at a chain spaghetti house, where he became even more aware of the gruelling nature of hospitality. He says: “Sometimes people don’t understand, hospitality is like military service.”
His first job as a bartender came in 1976 when he joined a stately home in Cobham, Surrey. From there, Palazzi moved to a hotel near Heathrow, and eventually landed in the Four Seasons George V in Paris, where he officially worked as a sommelier, but, with little knowledge about wine, honed his cocktail‐making skills. “They put me on the floor but all I knew about wine was Chianti and Barolo,” he says. “I had to imitate – I didn’t even know of Château Margaux!”
Palazzi returned to London to take up a position at The Savoy, which was short lived. “After two weeks, I was sacked,” he says, adding that he was brought in to “push out” the old guard of the American Bar. “I was young, stupid, I had long hair and I thought I knew everything, which I didn’t. But it was a great lesson: The Savoy wasn’t right for me and I wasn’t right for The Savoy – I talk too much.”
Once again, Palazzi crossed the Channel for a new role at the Ritz in Paris, where he got his first taste of what it’s like to work in a celebrity hotspot. “At this time, the Ritz was really popular with the fashion industry, so I had to deal a lot with supermodels, Mr Versace, Mr Lagerfeld – you name them. I was dealing with egos and prima donnas – wonderful people too. That’s why in the film Prêt‐à‐Porter, I was the only one laughing in the cinema. The fashion editors are the most difficult and dangerous – if they complained about you, you would be history.”
Palazzi highlights an awkward situation when Gianni Versace had hired the entire terrace for a party, much to the chagrin of Valentino, who wanted to sit outside. The bartender went on the charm offensive: “Valentino comes with his entourage and says: ‘Alessandro, you don’t have a table for me.’ I pulled a table outside and said: ‘Mr Valentino, you can have this table – you have the special table.’”
He also remembers one evening when Versace wanted to order room service after the kitchen had closed. “People were panicking because Mr Versace wanted to eat and I said, ‘don’t worry, I’ll do it.’ It was midnight and I took one of my guys, we served pasta, fillet steak and chips. He gave me a fat tip and we met all the family. There’s no job too small in hospitality; we are lucky to work in this environment.”
Despite rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous, Palazzi says working in five‐star hotels taught him another lesson: to treat everyone the same. “Everyone is a customer – they made the effort to come. It doesn’t make any difference if you are so and so.”
This is the philosophy he brought to Dukes, which he joined 12 years ago. “The first thing I did was get rid of the dress code,” says Palazzi. The bar has loosened its top button, but not too much – trainers, shorts, hats and sportswear are still not permitted. Palazzi also brought in a new bar team and did away with some of the venue’s more archaic rituals. “Previously, only the bar manager would make the Martinis – now everyone makes a Martini, not just me.” However, the right to tip the excess vermouth from a Martini glass straight on to the carpet is reserved just for Palazzi.
FIRST FEMALE BARTENDER
Most of his (mainly Italian) bar team has been with him since he joined Dukes, but last year he appointed the bar’s first female bartender: Mariantonietta Varamo.
Palazzi ensures the cocktail menu remains fresh, and while Dukes is famous for its Martinis, he says guests are increasingly interested in other serves. “Some people ask if I can make an Old Fashioned and it’s like a slap in the face,” he quips. Palazzi believes the reason why Dukes’ famously stiff and ice‐cold Martinis have become so renowned is because of their simplicity. “We are spoilt for choice with so many wonderful products – why would I want to spoil these beautiful vodkas and gins? All I do is put the ingredients together.” He says his use of Amalfi lemons also elevates the quality of Dukes’ Martinis, as does storing the glasses in a freezer.
With more than 40 years’ experience, Palazzi has wise words for younger bartenders. “To call a cocktail a cocktail you need three ingredients. To be a bartender you need three qualities, you need to be: diplomatic, acrobatic and charismatic.”
He encourages up‐and‐coming bartenders to “understand the location of your bar”, “work in different types of venues so you can understand different types of customers”, “don’t worry about prizes”, and – most importantly – “watch, don’t stick to one place, and learn about hospitality”.
After all, he says: “I started in this business in the 1970s and I am still learning.”