On a recent visit to Paris, Danni met with Colin Field, who has been Head Bartender at Bar Hemingway at the Ritz for the past 24 years. Here, he shares his wisdom on drinking, dancers and the psychology of cocktails.
By Danielle Snyder
On getting his job at the Hemingway Bar:
The first time I wrote to the Ritz was when I got to Paris in 1980, when I was 19. I wrote again [in 1982] when I had got Champion of France and the Martini Grand Prix du Monde, and came for an interview, but that didn’t work out either. Then one day [in 1994] I’m working in a restaurant called the Belle Époque and somebody called and said, “The Ritz is trying to get hold of you.” I thought it was a prank, [but] I called in and they said, “Is it true that you have an A-Level in English Literature and you’ve read Hemingway?” Finally, after killing myself trying to win every contest in town, in the country, in Europe, in the world, I get it because I’d read Hemingway.
On how much bartenders really drink:
We bartenders are in general big drinkers. We don’t feel we are, but put us next to a normal person and we drink a lot. But also, it’s the tasting: almost every day people want you to taste two or three different things. Today I haven’t had anything to drink, and I was hunting. Last year on the hunt, at eight o’clock in the morning you have red wine and saucisson and bread and cheese, then at 12pm we all get back to the cabin and drink Ruinart Champagne or whiskey on ice. And then we have lots of wine with the meal. Last year we had a 1924 eau de vie, just a small amount each, with our coffees. Then you go off hunting again, then you get back at about 4.30pm and you all have a beer, and then you drive home, and then it’s time for dinner and some aperitif, so that’s on a Monday which is my day off.
On the Hemingway Bar’s most popular drink:
The Clean Dirty Martini: nobody knows how we make it. That one took me so long — I used to boil olives, macerate olives, cook them in sous vide, dry them, mash them, pour vodka through them — nothing ever worked, and one day I sussed it out. So after ten years of trying to create a dirty martini that looks beautiful and clear but with this incredible taste of olives, I’m not going to give the information away!
On the psychology of cocktails:
I run a cocktail course on Saturdays that is around the psychology of mixing drinks. The essence of these courses is that the cocktail is about the person you serve the cocktail to. As a bartender, it’s not about you, and it’s not about the cocktail. A big problem with the new mixology bartenders of the last 15 years is that they seem to think it’s all about the cocktail. But the cocktail’s not going to buy itself and it’s not going to drink itself. For me, it’s all about the client.
On describing himself as a bartender, rather than a barman or mixologist:
It’s non-gender. The English use barman, but today there are so many lady bartenders. Some say they’re barmaids, but a barmaid is something out of the ‘60s and ‘70s — she’s got a huge bust and she pours beers and calls you “dearie”. Girls can be bartenders. The problem with girl bartenders in France is that they call themselves “barman” like, “Je suis barman.” It’s like a guy saying, “I’m a barmaid”. I think bartender’s great for everybody. I think we ought to adapt.
On falling for Moulin Rouge dancers:
When I started winning competitions, it was the girls at the Moulin Rouge, who would give out the prizes, so wherever the contest was, there would be these lovely, beautiful girls. Although I never came first, I never came less than second. Always, always number two. While the first place and third place winners would change, I was always there. The first couple of competitions, you daren’t say, “hello” [to the dancers], then you say, “hello,” then the fourth time you say, “Hello, how are you,” and then the fifth time you go out for dinner. For four years I was with a very, very beautiful young lady from Scotland who was a dancer at the Moulin Rouge. She broke my heart and I suppose I was on the rebound and finally got married to another dancer from the Moulin Rouge.
Two difficult decisions to stop were dancers and Gitanes Filtre. But I’m no longer with a dancer, and no longer smoking Gitanes Filtre either. So that was a spin-off from winning all those competitions, or coming second always.
On the most interesting person he’s ever served:
One of the most interesting people was Jim Harrison. Jim Harrison never wanted this bar to be called the Hemingway Bar, yet Jim Harrison was so Hemingway himself: he had a wandering eye, he looked like a bear, he had a stick, he had a game leg. He would drink Canadian Royal until it came out of his ears — he walked in the same way he walked out, it had no effect on him. I remember, one evening he was in the bar early, he was probably 70 at the time, and a very beautiful young lady of 30 [came in], and with his charm, his way of talking and his way of being, within five minutes, they were almost a couple. It made me think of Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir – Simone was so beautiful, Jean Paul Sartre had these huge glasses and wasn’t necessarily a top model, and yet he had a different charm, and Jim had this same je ne sais quoi.
On the supposed rivalry between the Hemingway Bar and Harry’s Bar:
I love the Harry’s Bar bartenders, although I have been banned from Harry’s Bar since 1995. One day I walked in, and they said, “You have to leave straight away.” I was very embarrassed because, of course, everybody starts looking at you. [Several years later] I called them, because I had always gotten on very well with [Harry’s Bar owner] Duncan MacElhone, who was a marvellous chap, and unfortunately in the intervening years, Duncan passed away. I finally got to Duncan’s lovely wife and she said, “I’m afraid you’re banned because you say that Harry’s Bar did not invent the Bloody Mary, which of course we didn’t, but you say that Hemingway did.” Which we didn’t, we absolutely didn’t! I must admit though, it’s a banning that I choose to respect because anyone can go into Harry’s Bar — you really have to be something to have been banned from Harry’s Bar.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.