Ever had that thing in the morning when you wake up, know you have to get up but your feet somehow shout “don’t you dare”? Well, that’s me this morning, right this instant. My feet were victims of physical abuse these last two days and I can positively (huh really?) say: they hate me! After years of playing footsie with each other or with whatever mess is located beneath my office desk, they’ve suddenly been asked to dance the complicated back and forth and sideways dance of the bartender.
Thanks to my sister’s connections I had the luck to get a training experience gig at the bar of a fancy Indian restaurant in London, Mint Leaf, near Piccadilly, on a Friday and a Saturday night no less! When I told one of my bartender friends about it back home, he nodded at me with a commiserative look upon his face when I told him I was probably “going to die”. None of the training I did at EBS or Bols prepared me for the physical exertion my first two shifts would prove to be but the excitement, the exhilaration, the rush of being active more than compensated for it.
Mint Leaf from LondonTown.com
An usual Friday night
I was told to show up at 5pm on Friday to meet with Julien, the chief bartender who’d supervise me for my first shift.I remembered the n°1 rule of punctuality (“Being early is being on time, being on time is being late, being late is unacceptable”. A motto my parents have unsuccessfully tried to ingrain in me for private meetups ever since I was born) and I got there by 4.45pm. There were two bartenders at the bar when I arrived, Gabriele and Franzi. They showed me how the stations were organized and where everything was located. And then the weirdest Friday night in the history of London started: the night was unusually low. My guess would be it had to do with people flying to the Alps to enjoy the skiing holidays.
The team felt sorry for me that it was this quiet but I was more than okay with it. “Nevermind, I want to experience how it feels to be behind the bar and being behind an empty bar is part of the reality of the job!” I told them. Many times I’ve seen my friends working as bartenders bored out of their mind on a low Tuesday night. As weird as it may sound it was an interesting experience for me to be in their shoes, even more so when the context was London on a Friday night and not Geneva on a Tuesday!
When I arrived at the bar I was both eager to learn and work and nervous that I’d make a complete mess of myself and would just disrupt service. There I started eagerly looking at the door for customers to arrive and sending telepathic messages to the ticket machine transmitting drinking orders from the restaurant to send us some requests. First part of “dying” working behind a bar, dying of boredom: check! I wasn’t bored actually, as I took the quietness as a critical part of my training experience. I served a few beers, some wine and barbacked as no barbacks were there that night. However I understand how low nights can be frustrating on a regular basis.
I left the bar short of 1pm, 10 min before the official closing time, with the recommendation from my new colleagues to get some rest for the next day as it would be the complete opposite with 150 people coming for dinner and another 300 coming later for an after movie. I was tempted to go for a drink on my way home but thought better of it. My feet and back were hurting and I knew I’d need all of my energy for the next evening. I went to bed after a long hot shower to relax those tense back and shoulder muscles. Standing for 8 hours, even doing nothing much, takes its toll on the body!
The eating conundrum
I woke up yesterday rather sore. It was already mid morning. Although I wanted to have a bit of time in town I also knew I had to be at Mint Leaf by
5pm 4.45pm, which meant I had to leave my sister’s place by 4pm, which in turn meant being at her place by 3pm at the latest to get ready. And I had to figure out eating at some point, eating enough and not too early so I wouldn’t feel famished during that night’s shift. At some point Friday I started to get hungry although I had splurged on the carbs. It didn’t last long though. It happened again yesterday night, however well prepared I was but, again, it didn’t last and I quickly forgot about the snacks I had pre-packed. (Note to self: next time you’re feeling hungry in the office, just wait! It’ll pass.)
An intense Saturday shift
Fast forward to yesterday, Saturday, 4.45pm. The team is already at work. They’ve started the mise en place at 3.30pm and they’re removing the last pieces of furniture in preparation of the after movie party. It’s going to be pretty epic they assure me. The party organizer didn’t arrange for a general drinking tab so, basically, everyone is going to pay for their own drink and they can order whatever they like. To keep things as orderly as possible, Javed, the bar manager, gives us the word to keep it simple. If guests ask for cocktails, we’ll suggest what gets done the fastest.
The bar opens at 5pm for happy hour. A few more people than on Friday arrive. Some proceed directly to the restaurant. (Someone, please explain how one goes to dinner this early??? At best, 5pm is snack time for me.) Orders for cocktails and mocktails start coming in. Gabriele takes me to the back bar where we’ll prepare the drinks for the restaurant. Needless to say, the recipes I learned last summer and which I dutifully revised yesterday are completely useless! The quantities of every ingredient are different and the proportions are not the same.
After a few cocktails I get the hang of the new recipes and can make a Mint Leaf Lemonade without batting an eyelid. Everything runs rather smoothly and I’m getting a bit more confident… when – you could hear the “when” coming, couldn’t you? – when suddenly I raise my head and there are about 20 people standing in front of the bar waiting to place their order. Right, so I take it the movie premiere is over now? Time’s about to get really busy!
Over the next 5 hours I’ll be running back and forth preparing G&Ts, JD& Cokes, serving beer and wine. At one time I’ll prepare a Dark and Stormy. I’ll only break a glass and…hum…yeah… a bottle. I’ll remember some guests’ specific order (JD& Coke, 1 ice cube, 1 piece of lime, top with Coke only until the half of the glass) and they’ll keep coming to me to make it for them. At several times Javed comes to check on me, to see if I’m enjoying myself. I guess the huge grin on my face is answer enough but, for you who couldn’t see it, I was absolutely loving it! I was dreading working behind a bar in London on a Saturday night with a 300 people private party – as a first work experience it was really daunting – but things went rather fine (in my opinion). People were very patient and generally relaxed. All in all, I had an amazing time! There was this funny moment where I suddenly realized there was music playing. You’d think I would’ve noticed immediately but no… While I’m usually the first to have my feet tapping to the beats, I was so concentrated on the service that I was quite taken aback when I suddenly saw people dancing across the room!
Finally it was time to close the bar. A few guests were left wandering. It was nice to have one of my special JD & Coke-1 ice cube customers acknowledge me when I left. Good work accomplished!
As usual on a weekend night but maybe curiously so after such an intensive work premiere for me I was feeling all giddy and decided to head for a celebratory “end of my training shift” drink at my favourite bar in London.
A big thank you to Javed and the team at Mint Leaf for giving me this amazing opportunity!