Colin Field is the most passionate man I’ve spoken to in the industry. In fact, he may just be the most passionate man I’ve spoken to, period.
Even over the telephone, his enthusiasm is infectious and halfway through our conversation, I’m ready to quit my day job, slip on a suit and step behind a bar to spend a day in his shoes. It’s hard not to. As Field delivers one anecdote after the other – like when he performed on stage alongside Carla Bruni or when a client picked him up by private jet to mix drinks at an event – it’s obvious that being the Head Bartender of the Ritz is a lifestyle as much as it is a profession.
Indeed, when it comes to the man Kate Moss describes as a “four-part combination of gallant host, fairy godfather, conceptual artist and spiritual guide” the act of bar tending itself is only the tip of an iceberg floating in a hardball glass… and it’s one he is fiercely proud of.
Ahead of the Ritz’s opening and the return of his beloved Hemingway Bar, we have a chat with Mr. Peter Colin Field about all matters Ritz related… as well as his jet fighter ambitions and Kabuki theater. Enjoy.
Grand Luxury Hotels: It’s been quite a long sabbatical. The Ritz has been under renovation for three years now and you’ve been around the world practicing your chops as a superstar barman. What’s your favorite place or activity that you’ve done so far?
Colin Peter Field: Where to begin! Well, the Hemingway Bar closed on 26 April 2012 and I’ve been around the world trying out new mixes and living new experiences since. For example, we partnered with Air France for the “Hemingway Bar in the Sky” where I mixed drinks aboard an airplane for La Première and Business Class passengers in a world tour where we touched down in Japan, Brazil, Mexico and China. It was great! So was working in the Orient Express, that was a childhood dream come true.
I also got the opportunity to visit and work in some great bars held by some of the best bartenders in the world like Agaustino Perrone from the Connaught. I also loved working at the Mark hotel in New York. While there, the percentage of takings at the bar shot right up and I remember walking down a corridor after the service and someone saying “you’re the reason the takings are so great” so that left an impression.
GLH: What are you really looking forward to when you return to the Ritz?
CPF: The Ritz is something else. It’s got a family atmosphere which I miss and even though I’ve welcomed some of the Hemingway orphans to my house for lunch and had one of the regulars fetch me in a private jet for an event, I’m looking forward to feeling the atmosphere of the Hemingway bar again. It’s a place where everyone becomes friends after a while and I love introducing different tables to one another. That’s one of the best parts of the job, contact with people, and the role of the bartender is not to be behind the bar as many think, but in front of it. I also look forward to bringing some stability back to my life! Zipping here and there is great fun but it is tiring.
GLH: Pick one cocktail that best represents the Ritz Paris.
The Serendipity. It’s a marvelous long drink, which I particularly love because it tastes like France in a glass. Though I’m an Englishman, I’m also a bartender in one of France’s most prestigious hotels so it’s my responsibility to make a great product that is representative of the country. I’m proud that all the ingredients used in the cocktail are sourced locally which helps small producers. Also, it’s a cocktail that’s become iconic in record time. It usually takes decades for a cocktail to be recognized, but the Serendipity is already being served around the world, it’s a wonderful feeling.
There’s another cocktail that I consider to “taste” like the Ritz and it’s one I came across when I wasn’t working there yet. I was at another bar at the time and two clients walked in near the end of my shift and asked for a “Ciboulette” which I had never heard of. Now the code among Bartenders, is that if a customer orders a cocktail you don’t know, it’s perfectly OK to call and ask for the recipe and that’s what I did. The Bartender at the time, Michel Bigot, was more than happy to give it to me and I’ve associated the taste of the cocktail to the Ritz ever since.
Photo taken from Colinpeterfield.com
GLH: I’ve read that you approach every night at the bar like a performance. Could you tell me more about that?
CPF: If you walk into a bar and ask someone about a painting, you shouldn’t just tell them who painted it, when they painted it, and leave it at that. What you should tell them, is its story, why is it there, where does it come from… There’s a lot of people who come into the bar, because they are Ernest Hemingway aficionados and it’s a pleasure telling about all the Hemingway memorabilia you’ll find there. How we communicate this passion about the bar is crucial.
Also, we don’t make cocktails for the sake of making cocktails. We make unique cocktails for people, so when someone comes in, we serve them a glass of cucumber water first to get them relaxed and engage in conversation to find out what they’d like to drink and a specific cocktail is made based on that. For example, if a lady walks in wearing a black dress, I garnish the cocktail with a white rose, if she’s exotic, she gets an orchid… the end product has to be bespoke.
It’s also important to project yourself as much as possible. When I describe a cocktail to someone, I don’t tell them as much as show them how it’s done and what it is. You create the glass with your hands, show them the ice cubes and liquid going in and create a clear picture in their minds. I learned that from the Kabuki actors in Japan. Their every single movement is watched and scrutinized by the audience, it’s fascinating really.
GLH: Are there any fellow bartenders who you’re particularly impressed with?
CPF: I like bartenders that have an immediately recognizable style. That’s a rare thing, and Alex Kratena from the Artesian Bar has that. In terms of designs and creative use of bar objects he’s one of the world leaders and I admire him even though I wouldn’t go down that path necessarily.
GLH: You’ve helped create the “Meilleur Apprenti de France” awards and “Meilleur Ouvrier de France” for the bartending profession. What’s the next step to elevating the bartender to the status of a chef?
CPF: I’m very proud that bartenders are now included in the Meilleur Ouvrier and Meilleur Apprenti de France awards. It’s an idea I had years ago and it took some work to happen, but it’s now accredited by the Sorbonne and the Minister of Education herself presents the title to the students. As for elevating the status of the bartender to that of the Chef, there is a fundamental difference between the two.
The Chef, works behind closed doors and occasionally comes out to chat during the service. The Bartender however, he’s out front and more of a showman on stage. If you want to send a Chef to promote a hotel for example, you’ll need to send him and his whole crew and they end up staying mostly in the back. But with a bartender, you send he or she and they’ll just go and create the moment. That being said, the art of the job is the same. Both take base products and elevate them into something of quality and bespoke.
GLH: What’s the moment where you just know that you want to be a bartender and that you’ll be pushing the boundaries of the profession.
CPF: Funny you ask that! I was talking to an old girlfriend and she reminded me that back in my college days, I had transformed my dorm room into a bar. And back when I was 14, I wanted to be a garçon, you know with a mustache and all, so I guess it goes way back.
As for pushing the profession further, that’s because I believe that you should aim to leave things better than when you found them. Back in 1985, I bought a bright red Spitfire car off a gentleman. The first thing he told me, is that the car was in a better state now than when he had first bought it. I think that’s a great principle to live by.
The profession has changed a lot. Nowadays you have to talk to people and tell them about your life, be generous with yourself. When you’re at the bar you want to forget about yourself and step in someone else’s shoes for a bit, see something new. We even do a bit of a show for the client’s sometimes and it can get a bit theatrical, some even compare it to Cheers!
Photo taken from Colinpeterfield.com
GLH: Your latest book release was in 2011. Will you be picking up the pen and bringing us something new anytime soon?
CPF: I don’t know if I have anything I want to communicate right now. I don’t want to do a book for publicity or money, but when something burns inside me, I will write one.
GLH: What’s the worst part about being a Brit in Paris?
CPF: The worst part is when I invite my colleagues over for lunch, they expect the food to be bad! In fact, Auguste Escoffier, the Ritz’s original Chef refused to learn English in case it made him cook like an Englishman. A lot of that’s changed though nowadays and we now have a lot to learn from English cuisine.
GLH: If you weren’t bartending, you would be?
CPF: If I were immensely intelligent and had fantastic eyesight, i’d be a fighter pilot. Failing that, I wouldn’t mind being in the Royal Shakespeare theater. I love the challenge of going up on stage. For my first time, I was up there with Marion and Jane Gainsbourg and Carla Bruni for a tribute to Serge Gainsboug at the Pleyel Theater in Paris.
People say that it’s hard to start with but then it gets better… it doesn’t! But as soon as you make people laugh, it’s a massive boost and that’s what gets you going. We performed for 2000 people and after doing that, I can understand how it becomes a drug. The ability to take an audience and make them laugh or control their emotions… it’s an immensely gratifying experience.