Working in hospitality for 57 years, named ‘The Maestro’… this man needs very little introduction. We have the pleasure of sitting down with Mr. Salvatore Calabrese, who tells us the story of how his career as the world’s most esteemed bartender began, lending readers some wise and inspirational words along the way.
Salvatore, please tell our readers about your career so far.
My career started in 1966 at the age of 11 on the Amalfi coast in Maiori, during the summer holidays. These were some of the best experiences in my life, because I can truly say I experienced the dolce vita – it was a special time, there was an elegance about having a drink. I worked in a bar from 11 to 15 years old, I started to work in restaurants and by the age of 21, I was the youngest maître d’ in the Amalfi coast. My dream was to be a captain but unfortunately I had an accident which left me nearly blind and I did not pass my physical test. So, I went to the second passion in my life, hospitality. I always say, I didn’t choose hospitality, hospitality chose me.
I met my wife and we decided to make a life in the UK and in 1982, I found that I wanted a change… I wanted to go back to the hotel industry. My wife saw an advert for DUKE’s Hotel which read, ‘DUKE’s Hotel looks for Bar Manager’. So, I went there for an interview and obviously, my reference was far too much about being a restaurant manager more than a barman but I was very convincing – I told them that bar work has always been in my blood, it was my first job and I said if they give me a go, I can show them that I’m the right person for the job. They did give me a go, I started at the DUKE’s bar on 3rd December 1982, by the 23rd December they called me back in the office to tell me they had found the bartender they were looking for… as you can imagine, I had just got married, my very first child was on the way, I had a mortgage – it was not a happy experience.
But you need a bit of luck in life… it was a very cold winter, and a guest at DUKE’s asked the new bartender for something hot. The bartender decided to use the gas on top of the bar to make a hot drink for the customer, and he set fire to the bar and the customer. His career went up in smoke, and mine started with a flame… they called me back and the rest is history. I took over the bar six months later as the Head Bartender and began to wonder how I could increase revenue. Being such a small bar, I could not work with the quantity but I thought about how I could improve the quality and serve something unique. I had a lot of history around me in the bar, I even had a painting of the Duke of Wellington sitting behind me. I thought about all this history around me, but something was missing: liquid history. The revenue of that little tiny bar was an average between £400-500, I took it up to £10,000 per table. But at the DUKE’s it wasn’t just the liquid history that made the bar famous.
In 1985, I had a customer called Stanton Delaplane who, on the first day he stayed at the hotel, came to the bar and asked me for a very very dry martini, and very very cold. I always say, it took God six days to create the perfect world, it took me five to create the perfect martini. From the first moment I attempted to make this drink for him, I could make it cold but not dry, I could make it dry but not cold – and he always used to complain. By the third day of trying, I began wondering how I could fulfil the expectation of this customer. This is for me what makes the difference, it’s not what we want, it’s want the consumer wants, and it’s what’s called hospitality! On the fourth day, I went down to the canteen which was serving fish and chips. There was a porter who was very specific about how much malt vinegar he put on his chips, using a dash bottle he used to put a dash on the chips. I thought, “that’s clever!”, so I took the dash bottle, washed it out and put the dry vermouth inside so I could control exactly how much vermouth to add to the top of the martini.
Now, I had to make it cold. In the small bar, there was a little domestic fridge and inside there was a little freezer – big enough to put one bottle of gin and two glasses. Mr. Delaplane came on the fifth day and I served him the drink – he took one sip, he did not complain, he finished the first drink and asked for a second. And because he did not complain about the first one, I made it the same way. Mr. Delaplane walked away and then came back a few hours later, he brought me a fax. He said to me: “My name is Stanton Delaplane, what you do not know is that I’m a journalist, I write for the San Francisco Chronicle.” He used to write for the Los Angeles times, the New York Times and in the fax he was sending to San Francisco, he wrote, “If you ever go to London, you must make a stop at the DUKE’s bar, where Salvatore will make you the best martini on the planet.” That was the beginning, people used to come from all over the world to try the martini – the bar became known as the best bar in the world, with the best martini in the world.
Then, I moved to the The Library Bar at the Lanesborough Hotel where my fame grew and my nickname ‘The Maestro’ was born. From 1994 to 2004, I worked at the Lanesborough where I created a new culture of cocktail making, using quality spirits, fresh ingredients and new techniques. It was also here where I created my Breakfast Martini in 1996, which was inspired by the marmalade toast my wife insisted me to eat one morning.
In 2004, I opened my very first bar, Salvatore At Fifty, St. James – this was a very exciting time for me. I then opened Salvatore Playboy, and many other venues around the world including Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Hong Kong. I have written 14 books, my first book Classic Cocktails sold over one million copies, my fifth book, Home Bartender’s Guide is officially the world’s bestselling cocktail book. I have developed my own liqueurs, such as Liqueur di Limone, and have created my own branded glassware and shakers, things that I believe can make a difference, to improve standards and quality in bars. Today, my name is licensed to places such as The Donovan Bar at Brown’s Hotel, The Velvet Bar by Salvatore Calabrese at the Corinthia Hotel – all very beautiful bars. Now, I enjoy spreading the love by travelling the world and speaking about hospitality.
What has been an important lesson you have learnt within your career?
One of the biggest lessons occurred in my childhood and has always stayed with me. I was a young boy working at the Hotel Regina on the Amalfi coast, where I used to cut the bread for breakfast – every slice had to be the same thickness, I became a perfectionist because of this. My second duty was to go down to the bar where I used to switch on the coffee machine, and by 8am I used to bring the coffee to the chef. One morning, I walked into the kitchen and the chef was cleaning a very large fish. I walked in, full of joy, and exclaimed, “Good morning Chef!” He looked at me and said, “What’s so good about it?”. He picked up the fish and threw it at me. I didn’t know what to do, I did not know what I did wrong to upset this chef. So when Signor Raffaello, Head Bartender at the hotel, came, I told him this story. He gave me one of the best lessons I could have ever thought about. He told me: “Not everyone wants your sunshine, stop and wait and see the person in front of you and see his reaction. What kind of a person does he want you to be? Does he want you to be formal? Does he want you to be friendly? Once you learn that, then you use your skill to make him at home.”
What advice would you give up-and-coming bartenders?
I think what is important is to love what you do, it doesn’t matter if you reach success or not. Everything that I have done in my career has been done with passion and love. Today, with social media, many young bartenders, after two years, think that they know it all. I’ve been in this industry for 57 years, and I still say, I haven’t learnt everything, I’m still learning. Be humble, arrogance is not for this business! If you go to a bar, it’s a social place. It doesn’t matter if you’re alone or with your partner, you are quickly part of a crowd and feel the social aspect of a bar, it’s not the place that makes the bar, it’s the people inside – the bartender makes the difference. If you want to create a legacy and be in the industry as long as I have been, remember that aspect of hospitality.