of Being Afraid
Illustration by: Mila Spasova
Alex Kratena is the head bartender at the multi-award winning Artesian bar in The Langham hotel, London. Originally born in the Czech Republic, he has been living in the English capital city for 8 years.
How did it all start for you? Was it a dream that you wanted to pursue: being the best bartender?
I never dreamt of becoming the best bartender and I never really dreamt of becoming a bartender at all. Travelling has always been my dream; bartending was just a way to make a living, which I started to do at a very early stage. As soon as I could, I just left my home country, and I never returned. I am from the Czech Republic originally. I think bartending really found me in a way, I wasn’t searching for it and the passion came later. I was always excited about flavors and exploring new things, but it was never like “I want to be a bartender” or “I want to make drinks”. It just happened.
What qualities should one possess in order to be a good bartender?
You should be a very social person, who likes other people. If you love people and like to do nice things to others, I think that’s the first good precondition. Obviously, you either have, or you don’t have the makings for the job in terms of flavors and stuff, but I think there is a lot you can learn. Just be passionate about hospitality, that’s the most important thing.
How do you see mixology developing in the next few years? It seems, at least here, that there’s been a boom recently.
I think the whole cocktail thing boomed everywhere around the world and for one simple reason: as people become increasingly more aware of food and more interested in flavors, and they’re exploring new things, and this is equally happening in the world of beverage. The great thing about cocktails is that the possibilities are really endless. While beer or wine are pretty much “made” and from the moment you open the bottle — that’s it, with cocktails there are just so many more things you can do. That’s what makes it very exciting.
Do you have a favorite ingredient and what’s the weirdest you’ve ever used?
It is hard to say because I never think about the ingredients I use, I am always thinking about the next ones I would like to use.
About the weirdest: that is a question I often get. I think it is mainly the perception that makes us regard certain things as weird. For some people, my drinks with mushrooms and seaweed might seem very bizarre, for others that might be normal. But yes, we have done drinks with stuff like blood or beaver gland, so there are lots of interesting things.
What’s the most “in” drink right now, are classics back?
We’re beyond the classics right now, I think. It is the same like in cooking: you have to know the basics. Every chef needs to know how to cook eggs. People experiment and they reach out more; we search for things that we haven’t experienced much like mescal, obscure wines, interesting ingredients, small-scale production, things crafted with passion, knowledge, and integrity.
Artesian is the best bar according to numerous awards. What is it like to be its manager?
And because you are afraid, you will push yourself to do your best. Obviously, a few years later, and due to the fact that I was so lucky with accolades, I stopped caring so much about what people say — I just do what I enjoy, and people respect it. But I realize it is a huge privilege. So it is all about going to work every day, asking yourself, “How can I do this better?”
How do you pick the people who work in Artesian?
You can learn about spirit production, I can show you all the different techniques, but passion is the one thing that you either have, or you don’t. If you are passionate about something, you can achieve so much more.
Do you have any managing education or is it something that you just have in you?
I did study a bit of hospitality management, but I never actually finished those studies. So no, I do not have such an education, but I think it is about learning every day, and that is exactly what I do.
Who are some of the most interesting people that come to the bar аnd do you have any interesting stories with them?
Part of my job is to never name-drop. It depends on the place: if you want to make your bar famous in the media, it is probably good to name-drop. We prefer not to do it, and that is why people enjoy coming to us.
One thing, which is a specialty of mine, is that I have difficulties recognizing famous people in everyday life. So there are actually a few celebrities who I have kicked out of the bar, only to learn after 5 minutes that they are very important people.
You won an award for Bar Personality of the Year, what does that mean exactly?
It is a UK-based award for people who deliver an outstanding contribution to the development of the British bar industry.
So it is a big deal?
I like to think so.
Maybe you don’t have a lot of typical days, but in general, how would one look like?
There is not really a set schedule to my days, but there is one thing that they have in common – they are very long. It is extremely different from one day to another: I travel pretty much every week, and it usually involves finishing late and catching a plane without sleeping.
So, lack of sleep would be the common thing in my days. It is not a good sight, that’s why you always see me with sunglasses.
How do you recharge then?
I do get rest, don’t get me wrong, but I also get a huge amount of energy from travelling. Many people perceive it as something tiring, but for me it is extremely recharging to see new places and meet new people, experience new things.
How did you choose to move to London?
To be honest, I only came to London to see a couple of friends, so the original intention was to stay only a week, maximum two. It has been 8 years now, so at this point I have learned that you should never make long-term plans for where you want to live or work.
What is next for you?
I have a lot of different projects coming up. We just launched a company that is going to be selling service and tableware, different glasses and special tools, all of which we are developing with my business partners. We basically blend the experience of running operations and being bartenders within the design. We are a bunch of people with huge experiences on both sides. We are combining them together and launching some unique products.
Glassware is pretty important not only design-wise, but for the taste too, is that right?
Indeed. It is not just about taking any liquid and putting it in any glass. The vessel is essential for a lot of factors: it affects how the liquid is held, how it hits the palate, how the taste is perceived.