Interview with Salvatore Calabrese
Dom Costa meets Salvatore Calabrese
Dom Costa’s intense interview with Salvatore "The Maestro" Calabrese, one of the world's most celebrated bartenders and an Italian icon who has written some of the most important pages in the history of mixology.
Dom Costa – Let's go back in time a little. Do you remember when we first met?
Salvatore Calabrese – It must have been more than 20 years ago.
D.C. – That’s right. It was in Las Vegas. The mayor was there as well and Francesco Lafranconi was showing us around saying, "Remember, what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” Well, we made good on that, I can't remember a thing from that day...
But let's go even further back in time, to the beginning of your career. There is a picture of you as a child pouring from two bottles at the same time. Who taught you to do that?
S.C. – I forgot. In that photo I was 12 years old and already in my second summer of work. I clearly remember these two brothers asking me for two drinks, and it just came naturally to me to pour them together to save time. It was a job where I had to hustle. I was quite a smart boy, maybe more mature than my age. That photo was taken by the two boys' father, we were friends, we used to go play together down at the beach. I showed them the nicest places on the Amalfi Coast.
D.C. – One person you always mention from that time is a Mr. Raffaello. He was your mentor, a source of inspiration. Can you tell us about him? In my mind he's a huge man, three metres tall...
S.C. – I remember him as Humphrey Bogart's character in Casablanca. He spoke several languages, had travelled the world, was a great ladies' man. He belonged to a culture that valued hospitality above everything else. You see, everyone's always talking about the so-called Dolce Vita of the Sixties. I can say I experienced it, that unique atmosphere, that lifestyle. I remember customers coming to the bar after the beach, elegantly dressed for aperitif. It was in this kind of culture that Mr. Raffaello began mentoring me. He taught me many things, including the art of hospitality. Have I ever told you about the fish? That really taught me a great lesson...
D.C. – Tell us about it.
S.C. – I would wake up at five thirty every morning and go to the Regina hotel in Maiori, where I worked. My first task was to slice bread for breakfast. That's where I started to learn accuracy, because I each slice had to be exactly the same thickness. My second task was to turn on the coffee machine and wipe the bar clean. Then, when the coffee machine was up to pressure, I would make coffee and take it to the chef. I would walk into the kitchen and always greet him quite energetically, you know, with a kid's typical enthusiasm. But the chef never responded to my good morning's, he just took his coffee without even looking at me, always keeping his eyes down. One day I walk in and the chef isn’t sitting in his usual place, he’s cleaning a fish. I greet him as usual, and suddenly he grabs the fish and throws it at me! I'm obviously shocked, and all morning I wonder what I did to deserve that. Then Mr. Raffaello arrived and I told him the whole story, and that was when he taught me one of the lessons that stayed with me throughout my life. "Not everyone likes it when you bring them sunshine," he said. “First you need to understand the person. If they want sunshine, you bring them sunshine. But if they want to be left alone, you leave them alone.” This is the heart of true hospitality: it is not about offering what you like, what you think is good or nice, you need to understand what your guest wants, even if it is different from what you like, and try to make them happy.
D.C. – What else did Mr. Raffaello teach you?
S.C. – Many things, starting with the right way to shake a drink. He taught me "the three stairs" of shaking: first high, then in the middle, then low, with a rotating motion and not pounding. I still see a lot of bartenders doing this pounding movement that shatters the ice. With the "three stairs" you get a completely different result...
D.C. – Let's now move on to London in the early eighties. You went against the flow compared to what everyone else would have done at that time. I mean, you went from your beautiful Amalfi Coast to the grey Victorian city. Why?
S.C. – Because I had my best friend Gerardo Vitagliano living in the UK. I used to visit him pretty often when I was very young. For years I spent my winters abroad and my summers on the Amalfi Coast. One day my wife finds this job ad from the Duke's Bar and I go for an interview. My resume was too restaurant-centred, but I was very persuasive and asked to be given a chance. It was Christmas 1982. On December 23rd I get a call from the Duke's Bar telling me that unfortunately they found someone else, thank you for your time, goodbye. Well, that's that, I tell myself. I'm stuck at home at Christmas and I don’t have a job. I spend the next few days thinking about my future. I had a son to raise, a mortgage to pay. Then the unexpected happens. The new barman has an accident with a customer and almost sets him on fire while flaming a drink, his career pretty much goes up in smoke and on December 27th they call me. That's how my career started. At the time the Duke's Bar was small, with a small counter. It could seat no more than 15-20 people...
D.C. – So the place served the popular drinks of the time...
S.C. – Back then the place wasn't famous at all. Their rise to fame began when I came up with the idea of “selling history in a glass”. In those days everyone was talking about this crazy bartender who "sold history in a glass". At first the administrator and the manager told me to get lost, my idea would never sell. But the owner gave me a chance, and it was a success. Let's just say it wasn't an easy win.
D.C. – Let's take another step forward in time. Let's fast-forward to the early nineties in a London where bars were still rare, most of them in hotels. Traditionally, people only went to pubs, and those years marked the beginning of a new bartending era. That was when you created the Breakfast Martini. Honestly, you didn't just invent it one morning over breakfast, did you?
S.C. – No, of course not. You should see me in the morning. All I want is coffee. My wife used to encourage me to have English breakfast, but all I ever wanted was coffee. Then one day - it was back in '96 - my wife handed me a slice of toast with jam, and I ate it. After that, I started bringing jam with me to work. I’ll explain. Back then everyone used a great deal of chemical and artificial products, but I was already working to make sure everything was not only organic, but fresh as well. I was struck by the taste of coffee and jam in the morning, I started thinking about bringing sweet and bitter together and it occurred to me to use them in a cocktail. The jam was obviously English, so my idea was that everything had to be English for consistency. So, gin. Then I used Cointreau instead of sugar. A drop of lemon juice, and jam... Actually, I think it was the name that made this cocktail popular.
D.C. – What about the Direct Martini? It came almost like a hurricane. Some also call it Naked Martini. Legend has it that Americans arriving in London used to run to your bar to have one before even going to their hotel.
S.C. – I created that one back in 1985. The idea came to me to please one of my customers. As I mentioned, my work philosophy is to give customers what customers want. That year I had this American customer - at the time I didn't know who he was - who for a while came to my bar every morning and again in the afternoon. He would order two Dry Martinis, one right after the other. And every time he would criticize it, he would take a sip and say, "This is cold enough, but not dry enough," or the opposite, "This is dry enough, but not cold enough." The same thing every evening. That really gave me a headache. I wondered how I could make him happy, how I could create a Martini that was both dry and cold enough. Then, four days later, I got an idea and started working on it. On the fifth day, the customer orders his drink and I serve him my Martini. He says nothing at the first sip, nothing at the second, drains the glass and asks for another. He leaves without saying anything, for the first time he has no remarks to make. A few hours later he comes back and introduces himself. He was Stanton Delaplane, a very famous journalist. That's how the story of my Martini began, with Delaplane defining it the best in the world. And that's how everything started. For example, that was when I had the idea of serving Martinis in restaurants as a pre-dinner drink.
D.C. – Let's talk about today. Let me ask you a blunt question about today's bartending. Don't you think bartenders today take themselves a little too seriously, to the point of forgetting they have customers to serve?
S.C. – Anyone can be good at mixing, but that doesn't mean you can call yourself a bartender. As I see it, the true bartender needs to master two arts: the art of mixing and the art of hospitality. They are like two hands: one is not enough. Without the art of hospitality, it's like working with just one hand. A bar is like a theatre: the shaker is your musical instrument, and when you play it you need to use your heart, not just show mastery. You need to show your customer you're working for them and not for yourself, you're not just flaunting. I think it's important to understand that hospitality is essential. It's something I first learned by literally getting slapped in the face with a fish. This philosophy is the reason this job brought me so much satisfaction, that's how I came to serve US presidents, Fidel Castro, Nelson Mandela, Robert De Niro... I succeeded because my goal has always been to make customers feel good - not just drink well but actually feel good, build a nice atmosphere around them. Making cocktails is just part of our profession.
D.C. – Speaking of your experience with so many - and remarkable - customers, what is the most bizarre request you got?
S.C. – Well, there are so many. Maybe the funniest scene that happened to me was back in the 1980s. At that time there were all sorts of new cocktails being invented, which I didn't make. So one night a girl came up to the counter and asked for an Orgasm, which I had never even heard of. I was a bit puzzled by her request for an "orgasm", and before she could explain it was a cocktail I said something like, "Sorry, I can't right now, I'm working..."
D.C. – Have you ever refused to serve a customer?
S.C. – Refusing a customer is not part of my philosophy, but it did happen once. The only time I did that was when a customer ordered an 1811 cognac with a Coke. I just took the glass from his hand, leaving him puzzled. It's true that you have to give customers what customers want, but there are limits.
D.C. – You are the only one in the world who made a cocktail while being driven by Michael Schumacher at 200 km/h. Do you remember this?
S.C. – How could I forget? The idea was to bring together the world’s best bartender and best driver for a commercial. I was to mix a cocktail in a car driven at top speed by the greatest Formula 1 driver of the time. The purpose of the video was showing that drinking and driving don't mix. But it was a game, and I took it as a fun challenge. I also took it very seriously, to the point that I made up my mind not just to actually mix the cocktail, but to do it without spilling a drop. We didn't rehearse before shooting. I had a tray, a seat belt, and I remember I couldn't see anything. All I could do was try to work while the car was on the straight. But of course Schumacher knows this and plays a joke on me. On the straight he yells, "Watch out, there's a rabbit on the track!" and abruptly zigzags the car. Of course that sent everything flying. Again a few moments later, while I'm pouring from the shaker, he suddenly drives the car in an 8-shape and the cocktail splashes all over me... The profanities I threw at him! We had so much fun. Schumacher spoke perfect Italian and we laughed so much, it was really a great experience.
D.C. – Ok, let's switch to a totally different topic. Tell us, what exactly is Acquabianca?
S.C. – It all started with De Kuyper Royal Distillers coming out with a line of liqueurs created by bartenders. When they asked me to create one, I immediately started thinking about what sort of liqueur I could make. I had already created a liqueur before, a high-quality limoncello. But now I wanted to do something different. Since I love coffee, my first thought was coffee, as well as my beloved Amalfi Coast lemons, then chocolate and other things. In short, couldn’t make up my mind. I wanted to create something unique, but how can you create something unique in a world where everything has already been experimented? The more I thought, the more stressed out I got. It was really hard. I thought about it for a year, then two years, but I still couldn't come up with a formula. The idea eventually came from a book. I have a small collection of antique books in my study, and in one of them from the 1800s I found a recipe from the 1700s, which called for an ingredient I had never heard of: ambergris. I found out it's produced by whales and it was widely used 300 years ago, as among other things it was believed to be an aphrodisiac. But it wasn't just used in liqueurs. As I continued researching, I learned it was also used in perfumes. This was particularly intriguing because liqueurs - unlike spirits and wine - have almost no aroma. That meant I could create the world's most fragrant liqueur. And that was the beginning of my journey. I decided to add citrus notes from the three ‘lemon philosophies’ - lemons from the Amalfi Coast, my birthplace; bergamot, much more floral; and citron, the world's oldest kind of lemon, which is citric and bitter and would help me with the sugar. Then I thought of adding the scent of roses, the underlying idea being to use ambergris to bring everything together. I insisted on every ingredient being natural, organic. Today ambergris is collected on beaches - definitely not from whales, which greatly increases its value. One of the things I like best about Acquabianca is the bottle, designed by my daughter and her boyfriend. The shape is designed to look like a book, a tribute to the original inspiration for my idea.
D.C. – Thank you, Salvatore. It's been a pleasure talking to you. How shall we say goodbye?
S.C. – Tell you what. I'm going to leave you with a story I love to tell. It's another anecdote about hospitality. As you know, I served many celebrities from politics, showbiz, finance. One of them was Stevie Wonder. He started coming to my bar in the 1990s and became a frequent customer. He felt so comfortable that one evening he had himself taken to the piano and began playing as if he were in his own home. He played in my bar for over half an hour - just think what a magical moment it was for customers. But the most magical thing happened when I went up to him to say goodbye and, in a sudden reversal of roles, he started applauding me. When I asked him why he was doing that, he just replied, "From one artist to another." Well, I think what earned me the honour of being compared to a great artist is my hospitality philosophy, which made an artist like him feel at home.