What was supposed to be an interview with Sophie Larrouture, winner of Diageo World Class Switzerland 2016, about her World Class experience turned into a double interview with Nicolas Berger, co-owner of Geneva’s Little Barrel. I wouldn’t have had it any other way and it couldn’t have been any other way. See, Nicolas was Sophie’s mentor throughout the World Class 2016 competition up until the global finals in Miami in September. In that sense, he is an inherent part of her World Class journey. More than the account of Switzerland’s latest World Class champion on her experience of the competition, this is the story of a friendship born and consolidated through a contest.
Sophie and Nicolas first met during Diageo World Class competition in 2015. While Nicolas was already a seasoned contestant, it was Sophie’s first competition. Quite a feat considering she had started working behind a bar only 4 months before, after a year as cheffe de rang at Geneva 5* Hotel des Bergues. “My colleague and my chef were the first to believe in my potential. I didn’t know anything about bartending but thought I’d learn a lot. So I took the challenge!”
Sophie and Nicolas truly bonded after the competition, when Nicolas started the works to open Little Barrel: “Sophie was there every day to help.” And thus a friendship was born.
When Sophie decided to try her luck again at the World Class in 2016, she turned to Nicolas for help and they discussed the evolution of their friendship into a mentor-pupil relationship. While he felt extremely proud that his work was recognized, Nicolas carefully weighed his decision before accepting: “It was a great responsibility and I knew it would require a complete commitment from both of us.” Nine months of intense work followed with Sophie and Nicolas fully immersed in another dimension. “Bartending competitions require a lot of personal investment. It’s hard to understand if you haven’t experienced it yourself or with someone close to you”, Nicolas explains. Sophie agrees: “It was World Class all day long with a lot of preparation and training outside our regular jobs and little sleep. Few people could understand. We didn’t let many people in, to be honest, but not many people knocked at the door either.”
Working this close wasn’t always easy. “Sometimes we argued, “Nicolas remembers, “but we were always in sync about the competition.” Both have different approaches to cocktail creation: Sophie needs to have a story first, while Nicolas starts with the recipe. “Even though I didn’t always agree with Sophie and even if I had more experience than her, I never imposed my way of doing things. I supported her. She was the one doing the competition; she was the one taking the decisions. From the get go I wanted it to be her ideas so I let her have the first and the last word, always.”
After spending so much time working together, it was very difficult for both when Nicolas couldn’t go to Miami for the global finals. He was following everything online though through Diageo Brand Ambassador for Switzerland Vincent Dumesnil’s Facebook live videos and all three of them would get pumped up and debrief before and after each challenge.
Nicolas took on his free time to coach Sophie on theory and technique. Other people also helped in her training or to supply the material for her cocktails and presentations. Le Caveau de Bacchus, a wine specialty shop in Geneva, hosted her three times a week for tasting sessions in order to get her ready for the finals’ blind taste challenge and a friend built the service trolley she used in Miami. “I was so lucky to meet people who were willing to help me! I will never pretend I did everything by myself. I had a lot of help”, Sophie humbly shares.
There was a lot of work on Sophie herself as well. “We worked on my personality behind the bar, on my self-confidence.” Nicolas came up with the idea of arranging a guest bartending shift for his pupil at L’Antiquaire in Lyon. There were several aims behind that: 1) for Sophie to learn from the bar owner’s experience. (Marc Bonneton was the first winner of the Bacardy Legacy competition); 2) to adapt to places she wasn’t familiar with; 3) to create a cocktail shortlist under short notice and get used to the drinks’ preparations; 4) to serve guests different from her usual 5* hotel customers; and 6) to be able to sell her menu and herself by reinforcing her image.
“Women are trending and rising whether in politics or in bartending. Before the start of the competition, I had a feeling a woman would win this year. Therefore our strategy was to play the feminity card, notably with Sophie always wearing a dress”, Nicolas explains. Those who’ve followed Sophie’s adventures during the World Class competition would have noticed the white rose attached to her corsage and the roses she handed to the jury at the end of her challenges. A last minute inspiration, the flower became her signature to distinguish her from other candidates, much like the ever-present hat on the head of Jennifer Le Nechet who went on to win in Miami.
Sophie gets her inspiration from cooking. “Bartending is often put in the same category as cooking. Many times we can reproduce the gustatory patterns of a solid dish into a liquid savor, even though it’s a challenge. I’m lucky to count a Michelin starred chef among my colleagues and to be able to observe his use of innovative techniques.”
For the competition, she benefited from the hotel’s grocery supplier. “I asked him for unusual ingredients. He brought me 16! We kept the most unlikely: the tansy.” Slightly bitter and reminiscent of cedar, this plant was the key ingredient in Sophie’s winning cocktail for the Swiss finals.
Creativity wasn’t limited to the cocktail recipes but extended to their presentation as well. Sophie and Nicolas spent countless hours scouring flea markets, shops or the Internet searching for the perfect vessels to serve Sophie’s cocktails in. For Miami’s “pool party” challenge, Sophie opted for a “pure bar” concept playing with transparency. “We paid attention to every detail: from the “glassware” to me wearing a transparent apron and serving a clarified punch. We spent hours finding a punch bowl and getting the idea of serving the drink in fruit puree pouches. People don’t see all that work.”
For Nicolas, one of the craziest moments was the last practice before Sophie left for Miami. “I invited people at Little Barrel for a last rehearsal of every challenge. They didn’t understand the aperitif concept for the “Before & After” challenge but three cried when Sophie presented her concept for the “The Shape of Cocktails To Come” challenge. It was insane.” The effort paid off as for this challenge, the toughest of all, Sophie ended up in 11th position. Respect!
When it comes down to narrowing the World Class adventure to a maximum of three best memories, Nicolas’ top three are the following: in third position, their visit to Marc Bonneton’s apartment after Sophie’s stint at L’Apothicaire. “We were sitting in his New York style apartment, drinking Louis XIII cognac while listening to his anecdotes. The guy is a legend on the international bar scene. We left dumbstruck.”; in second position, the sending of the recipes after 72 hours without sleep and with the website down; and, in first position, meeting with Sophie on the Mont Blanc bridge that crosses Lake Geneva after her victory at the Swiss finals.
Sophie’s n°1 memory was a sort of mystical experience she and Nicolas shared during the speed and taste challenge at the Swiss finals. “The closer we got to this last challenge, the more distracted I became. Right before my turn, Nicolas and I held hands and touched foreheads. He was chanting, “You can do it, you can do it, you know how to do it”, and, at one point, he hit my head. We’re both rational people and I can’t explain what happened then but, suddenly, I said “I will do it” and I did it.”
Coming back from the World Class was rough. “I wish the World Class to everybody but it’s not for everybody. Nine months of preparation for 4 stints of 20 minutes each and then it’s over. It’s brutal.”, Sophie admits. Nicolas concurs: “For six months we were operating in combat mode and, all of a sudden, the curtain drops.” Having been solely focused on the competition for the 4 months of preparation before the global finals, the emotional backlash of everything that had been put on hold during this time was hard.
Hard but totally worth it. While they were both disappointed that Sophie’s adventures at the global finals were cut early and that she didn’t make it to the final stages, both Nicolas and Sophie focus on the positive: the experience, the people they’ve met, the fact that Sophie defended their ideas at an international level although she represented a country that’s not really acknowledged on the international bartending scene.
Two months after the finals in Miami, the World Class is now a cherished memory belonging to the past. “We don’t talk about it anymore”, Sophie confides, “I want to get back to my friend. I want us to meet, to enjoy a meal without talking about bartending.” And? Judging from their complicity, the banter and the teasing between them all throughout this interview and on the other occasions I met them, as well as from the pride shining through Nicolas’ eyes and the gratitude through Sophie’s, I’d say they have no need to worry about retrieving their friendship.
© Nicolas Berger 2015-2016
© Nicolas Villion 2015-2016
© attadrink 2016