Interview: Alessandro Palazzi, Dukes

Interview: Alessandro Palazzi, Dukes

What do you enjoy most about bartending?

Everything!  People sometimes say to me they think I have a tough job – but I am paid to party every night!

The beautiful thing about being a bartender is that you are allowed to create things - this is particularly true of the past 20 years with all the different products that have come along – and you have a completely different relationship to your customers than you have in a restaurant. The customer comes to the bar, they open up to you and when you work in a place like Dukes, you meet people from all over the world from all different walks of life.  I like to say that I get to travel without queuing at Heathrow or delayed flights or spending hours on the plane! Having said that, I have worked and guest bartended all over the world. One of my favourite places is Japan – it is so clean, the food is wonderful and the people are so respectful, whatever your job, whether you’re a bartender or you clean the streets. And when you guest bartend there, they make it so easy for you – you’re treated like a king!

How did your career start?

I went to catering college in 1972 – wow!  That’s a long time ago. The story of how I went to catering college started when I was hitchhiking to get to the seaside. In those days everybody hitchhiked - I come from a small village where everybody knew everybody and besides, it was only about 6 miles from the sea – and the guy who picked me up had some kind of publicity on the side on the door of his car, so I asked him what he was advertising. He said he had a small family restaurant in Loreto, so my first question was, “Do you need any workers?”  I had no experience whatsoever. But he said, “Yes, I do actually, why don’t you come tomorrow?”, so I did. It was a lovely typical little Italian restaurant – his wife was in the kitchen and he was in the restaurant but he soon realised I didn’t have a clue and three days later he said, “Look, the business is not going very well - it really breaks my heart because I like you, but we cannot afford you.” But he knew I wanted to earn a bit of money so he recommended me to the best hotel in Loreto where they were always looking for staff.  What I didn’t realise is that Loreto is a bit like Lourdes, and a lot of the people that were staying at the hotel were there to go to the Basilica for a miracle or a cure for their disease. I didn’t have a clue about that, I was a bit unpolished, and then one day, I told one guy who was very rude to me, where to go, which didn’t go down very well with the customer or the staff - because when the customer left, he didn’t leave a tip. So the hotel manager put me in the bar but eventually I was sacked because – well – I was young and a bit of a rebel.  

But although those jobs hadn’t worked out, I had quite enjoyed myself so my uncle suggested I went to catering school, which I also liked.  We were on rotation - one week you would study, one week you were in the restaurant and the following week you were in the bar although the bar was only used for the teachers to make coffee – all you ever did was clean bottles.  So, I have always loved to read and one day I put my feet up on the sink and started reading but a teacher came in and caught me. My punishment was to be in the bar for a month but I loved it, even if it was just polishing bottles, and that is how my career started.

Years ago, if you wanted to work in a five star hotel you had to speak French, which I spoke, but things were changing and English was becoming more and more important in the hotel industry.  I remember polishing these beautiful bottles in catering college and the majority of the labels were English and I couldn’t understand a word of them so, on the recommendation of my headteacher I came to England to learn English.  That was in 1975.

Of course, when I first arrived I couldn’t speak any English so I went to work as a kitchen porter and then I went to work in a restaurant.  I didn’t want to work in an Italian restaurant because I knew I’d never learn English. Unfortunately London wasn’t as cheap as Italy so after two weeks I went to work in an Italian restaurant but, as I was only 17, I was too young to work behind the bar so I just made coffee.

Then I went to work in a beautiful Manor House in Cobham owned by Trust House Forte and it was then that I started to work properly as a bartender.  The bar was very classic. It was old-fashioned but beautiful and the bartender, José, was my first mentor. “When I make cocktails, he said, “Listen and look – and polish glasses! But most of all - look!”  It was the best first lesson I could have had.

I was promoted and went to work in the Excelsior near Heathrow which was also owned by Trust House Forte. When one of my bosses was promoted to the Georges Cinq in Paris, as he knew I spoke French, he asked me to go and work there. That was my first time in Paris and it was a beautiful hotel but they couldn’t put me in the bar because the bar manager at that time thought that, because I had been brought in by the Assistant Hotel Bar Manager, I was a spy!  The Assistant Hotel Manager was very embarrassed that I had left my job at the Excelsior to go to Paris so they found a job for me in the hotel’s beautiful restaurant, Le Prince, because they knew all about wine but nothing about cocktails. So my job title was Sommelier and I dressed as a Sommelier but although I didn’t have a clue about wine, I had a cocktail trolley and I was making cocktails.

When I came back to London, I had a job in this wonderful hotel called the Cumberland as the Assistant Restaurant Manager but it wasn’t for me, I was missing the bar. The reason I wanted to work in the restaurant was to learn how to keep the floor because it’s a very important skill for a bartender. It’s not just about making drinks, it’s also important to learn how to receive the guests and even today I find what I learnt there very useful but, like I said, I missed the bar so I resigned and went to work in the American Bar at the Savoy.  That was a very good experience but it was very short – two weeks! I was sacked for talking too much - I was only 26 or 26 but I was a typical big-headed Italian and I thought I knew everything. Looking back, it was a very good lesson.

In the 1980s I went back to Paris where I was lucky enough to work at Bar Vendome at the Ritz – the Hemingway was shut at the time - off course, being the Ritz there were always lots of celebrities and on one occasion Madonna was staying with us. It was crazy, people were screaming outside, the usual thing you get with celebrities. Anyway, one day Madonna decided to come to the bar. Now, the Ritz was a fantastic experience and I met some amazing people there, but at that time it was very classic and we weren’t allowed to have our own ideas.  So, Madonna was sitting with her boyfriend, and I really wanted to serve her so that I could tell my grandchildren I had served Madonna but she was more interested in touching her boyfriend’s leg than looking at me.  Eventually she asked me for a Cosmopolitan and I thought - being a bit classic and not being allowed to think in that bar - that she meant the magazine, so I went to the concierge and I asked him for a copy of Cosmopolitan. Being a typical Parisian concierge he said, “What do you think I am - a newsagent?” and I didn’t know what to do because it was chaos in the bar and I really didn’t have time to go to the newsagents. Madonna had this really very nice bodyguard, a massive guy but very sweet, and he said “What’s the matter?” so I told him that Madonna had asked for a Cosmopolitan but I didn’t have time to go and buy one and he told me that it was a drink! I had never heard of it before!  So I went to Madonna and I said, “I’m sorry but I really don’t know how to make this drink,” and she just said to me “Are you stupid? OK, give me Kir Royale?” So my claim to fame is that I was insulted by Madonna while she was feeling her boyfriend’s leg.

Dukes is a very traditional place so how did you manage to put your own stamp on it, whilst maintaining its classic style?

Back in 2000, I spent 6 months with Gilberto Preti [former head bartender at Dukes] so I already had some experience with Dukes and when I was with Gilberto I could see what was working and what needed changing. Gilberto was the gentleman who came up with the idea of the Dukes martini trolley. He was very old school and he always said you have to give people your time, which is right. However, although Dukes is an establishment place and  has an old clubby feeling - it’s not a place where you throw bottles in the air - the thing about London is that you have to mix classic with modern, because otherwise you die very quickly.

When I took over Dukes in 2007 I knew already knew which things were done well and didn’t need changing and which things could be done better. Obviously there was already a team in place but I slowly, slowly brought a team together who had the same kind of ideas as me. One of the things is that you have to have a passion for this job.  Often people say, “OK – it’s an Italian team.” That’s by coincidence. For me, they have to share the same passion. I have been doing this for 31 years – I’m a bartender and I remain a bartender.

Your team have been with you a long time – I find that consistency is reassuring and one of the things I like most about Dukes. How do you manage to keep everyone on board for so long?

This goes back to how I changed things. In the old days, the martini was only made by the manager. The first thing I did was to change the uniform to a white jacket to give a classic feeling with a modern mentality and I allowed all of team to make the martini without any restriction. I also changed the menu. I thought that the menu was a bit - how can I say? - not boring exactly, but lazy. If you go to a classic bar, of course the bartender knows how to make an Old Fashioned, a Bloody Mary, a Champagne cocktail - but you also have to come up with new creations and that’s what I did. Obviously the bar is very well known for the martini and the connection with Ian Fleming, so I created a menu in honour of Mr Fleming where the inspiration for the cocktails comes from his books. But of course, all the classics are available too.

The other thing is that I took away the Prima Donna mentality. I am the person most closely associated with the bar but I want everything to be done as a team so we always talk and share ideas. And if a customer prefers to be served by one of my bar team members, I step away and I am very happy.

Does that happen sometimes?

Yes, there are some older customers that get upset if I don’t serve them but sometimes I know others customers might prefer one of the others.

Mary is the first female bartender– so how did that come about?

There had never been a female bartender at Dukes before but like I said, for me, passion is the main thing - knowledge and passion.  When Mary first came to Dukes, they put her in the restaurant even though she had actually asked if she could work in the bar. I was losing a member of my team as he was going back to Italy and I knew of Mary through Luca Picchi in Florence, famous for his Negronis, and I knew we shared the same outlook so I brought her into the bar.  It shocked a few of the customers at first, but now they love her. She’s been with me four years and only one customer made a rude comment and he will never be welcome at Dukes again.

Why did you decide to make your famous two martini rule?

As Dukes bar became more popular we had lots more people come in but unfortunately not all of them understood about the martini. What you have to understand is, at Dukes, although it looks like a small glass, the martini is five shots of pure spirit so sometimes you have to stop the customer from drinking more because they don’t know how to drink properly and they just lose their head.

Do you have a few customers who are allowed more than two?

Yes, but it’s a secret!

And what other bars do you like?

I personally like very much the Dorchester because of the professionality of the bartenders

How did you first come across Sacred?

When I took over Dukes bar they only used certain products, they were not open to other products but London bartenders are very lucky as there are some very interesting drinks producers around and again, it’s all about the passion. The first day you came in, I have to be honest, I liked the personal touch and then, when you left me a bottle, I tasted it with some of my customers and we thought, “Wow!”  And also you were one of the first of the new distilleries and you made your product a little differently. So I thought it was a good opportunity because, as a bartender, I want to introduce people to something different to the usual gin and vodka you find on the market. Of course, you have to have certain products because there will always be customers who want Tanqueray or Bombay, but slowly, slowly I started introducing more craft products to our customers because not only do bartenders make drinks, we are also storytellers - it’s great a way to start talking to customers and Sacred has been my most successful story.

What is your favourite Sacred product?

The gin and the dry vermouth!

What’s your desert island tipple?

A gin martini of course!

Which drinks do you make for yourself at home?

I like a Manhattan. Whisky is another passion of mine but I’m not a collector, I’m a whisky drinker so often it’s whisky or, because I like peaty single Malts, if I want something a little bit easier, then a just a frozen shot of gin.

If you wanted to be a perfect Dukes customer, how should you behave?

It’s very simple.  Be patient because we don’t like to rush. We like to accommodate people – if they want to sit for an hour – two hours! – with one martini, we are happy for people to stay but most of all I prefer them to use Dukes as a cocktail bar. We don’t just serve martinis.  People say, “Is this a martini bar?” and I say, “No, sir - or madam! - this is a cocktail bar.”

What do you think about the flood of new gins that have recently come onto the market? How do you think they will last?

It’s becoming a bit ridiculous. I wonder if some people have been taking drugs before making gin – some of them come up with things you would use for making a salad, not gin! It’s just become stupid but in one way it’s good. Like restaurants and bars, some are classics and will be here forever and some are just for here five minutes but that’s ok. That can be fun.  And the same is with drinks. Classic gins, like yours, will stay on the map. The others will disappear. Anyway, now it’s the moment for vermouth.

One last anecdote….

When I was at the Ritz in Paris in the 1980s, it was very popular with the fashion crowd, so we had all these lovely models and rock stars, which is OK for 5 minutes but it’s quite difficult to maintain the room. Anyway when Valentino was in Paris, he always reserved one of the banquettes for himself and Joan Collins and her boyfriend at that time, who was a very nice guy, and I had to make sure no one else sat there or else I would be dead. One day, this very tall guy wearing a greatcoat, the kind you buy in a second-hand market, and a string vest came in and I thought, “Oh no”, because obviously with the fashion shows, not only do you have a lot of weird and eccentric people but we also got a lot of people from outside trying to barge in.  As he made his way to Valentino’s banquette I said, “I’m sorry sir, but this is reserved.” Now, as you know, I’m not very tall, and this guy was very tall. He looked at down at me and in this beautiful Oxford accent started to go on and on about how superior the English are to the French and how the French are peasants.  He was really articulate, so I thought “OK, so he’s not a tramp” but I was still in big trouble because I was incredibly busy and I had to keep him away Valentino and Joan Collins’s table because I didn’t want to die. Luckily I was saved by Joan Collin’s boyfriend who arrived and said, “I’m so sorry Alessandro, this is Rupert Everett, he’s with me,” and I said, “Tell him he doesn’t need to apologise – I’ve never been insulted so beautifully in all my life!”

And of course, I’m Italian, not French, so it didn’t matter anyway!

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