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Startenders: Does The Celebrity Bartender Exist?

Chasing fame may be fickle work but, unlike their chef counterparts, the booze industry has yet to find that magic ingredient to make the front page.

They’re the person that welcomes you at the door, they’re the one who asks how your day has been and, in response, they search through an infinite list of drinks to find the one you need that very moment. They pour the shots and allow the conversation to get a little bit cheeky. They watch you get merry and laugh at your tipsy tangents. They offer advice while your date is in the loo and they recommend the next destination. They genuinely mean it when they say hope to see you again soon. And no matter how incredible your drinks were, how unique the flavour combination or texture or spirit, not many of us leave a bar thinking of the liquid.

People may tell us the line between bar and kitchen is increasingly blurring – and they’re right in terms of ingredients and techniques but what of the role of chef to bartender? Can the friendly face behind the bar on a Friday night become so exalted for their work they end up on the cover of Hello?

So far it just hasn’t happened. Certainly a few have flirted with fame, and within their own industry there are several names which rise above all others. But do their customers know or care – probably not. No matter how hard spirit brands and the bartenders themselves seem to work at it, there simply isn’t an equivalent to Jamie Oliver or Gordon Ramsay pumping out drinks, even if a few do have their own recipe books. But this isn’t entirely about one or two people finding personal celebrity – it’s the cause of an industry struggling with recognition that theirs is a career and not a transitory job for out of work actors and unpaid musicians.

One of the reasons often given for the booze industry not being taken as seriously as food, and therefore its best and brightest not recognised outside of their peers, is that food is necessary and drink is a luxury. Of course we don’t need Martinis and Clover Clubs to survive, but neither does our body need to run off steak tartar and blue cheese soufflé – bread and broccoli would do the job just fine. Any dining and drinking experience in restaurants and bars is all a luxury, no matter how much you might have managed to convince yourself that a glass of riesling and buttermilk breaded chicken is key to your survival.

No, luxury verse necessity simply won’t wash.

Perhaps it’s the very nature of the beast itself – booze. Chefs might make you indulge in too much butter and salt but you don’t start to gain weight sat in the restaurant chair. It’s nothing like the visible effects of alcohol and any media coverage of drinks is subject to huge legal requirements. After all we’re talking about liquid which inebriates us and changes our emotions and thoughts. Try putting that on daytime television.

What of the talent? Across both industries there’s bucket loads and both run competitions and awards all the time to allow those skilled bartenders and chefs to shine. Yet while everyday consumers are well aware of what it means to be a Michelin starred chef, only a handful would recognise the prestige of a bartender wining World Class, Bacardi Legacy or the Havana Club Cocktail Grand Prix. Even rankings such as The World’s 50 Best Restaurants resonate a lot more than 50 Best Bars – which makes little sense when you consider that you’re unlikely to be able to book a spot at any of those restaurants unless you plan well in advance and yet you could walk into what has been voted as the world’s best bar tonight and order a drink.

Ultimately it seems that comparing these two worlds might make sense when discussing how rhubarb or rotavaps are used but not when we talk about how people think of the creative force behind their experiences eating and drinking out. The two don’t seem to match up.

Your bartender is visible, imagining and creating and replicating drinks before your eyes while simultaneously they’re serving you, they’re laughing with you, they’re accessible.  Your chef is behind closed doors. The art they create is unknown, it arrives as if from nowhere and the hype created around great food and excellent chefs places them above the norm. At the end of the evening your bartender is more a mate than skilled professional. Your chef however could well belong on TV, you’d never know. And this, more than any other reason, is why the startender is unlikely to become a household name.

Go ahead and give yourself a pat on the back for recognising names such as Ryan Chetiyawardana, JJ Goodman, Alex Kratena or Tony Conigliaro. But I’ll happily argue it doesn’t matter if you don’t – their drinks taste just as delicious if you had no idea they were celebrated bartenders. Besides, going out and having a drink is meant to be fun – there won’t be a test at the end.