An interview with Peter Dorelli, legendary barman

2
Other: People, Service

Godfather to generations of British barmen, Peter Dorelli tells Alice Lascelles about running from the police, serving Dry Martinis to the Queen Mother and, er, high-jumping


He’s trained as an accountant, has mixed drinks for royalty, and is revered for heading up one of the most iconic hotel bars of all time, but Peter Dorelli wasn’t always so respectable. In fact, he spent his early adult life on the run from the law.

‘In those days Italy still had conscription,’ he tells me over afternoon sandwiches in the refined surroundings of his preferred meeting place, Duke’s Hotel in Mayfair. ‘So when I turned 18 I got the letter calling me up to join the army. Well, there was no way you were going to get me to be a soldier or hold a gun or anything like that, and I just thought: I have to get out of here!’

LAW AND ORDER-ING

Having fled to the UK to seek refuge with an uncle, he found a job as a handyman on a short-term work permit. ‘But when I changed jobs I didn’t register with the correct authorities, which was against the law at the time. And once I broke the rules my only choice was to keep going. I was on the run!’ he says, with a mischievous twinkle. ‘I tell you, I ran practically the whole length of the country, from John O’Groats to Lands End, pulling pints, working in pubs and hotel bars and being a wine waiter. Every time the police got on to me, I was off again!’

It’s not a start that spells glittering career – but this mix of charm, respectability and rebellion is exactly what makes Dorelli tick, says Duke’s bar manager Alessandro Palazzi. ‘He’s very precise, but he can also have a good laugh – actually he’s a lunatic,’ says Palazzi, who trained under Dorelli in the 1980s. ‘He’s the kind of guy who you will meet for a drink, and you’ll end up paying, and yet somehow you don’t feel he’s a stingy bastard!’

Fortunately for the bar world, Dorelli was eventually pardoned thanks to the intervention of a kindly employer (those were the days when a cut-glass accent and a bowler hat could do that sort of thing), leaving him free to pursue his bartending career in earnest. His first, and most fondly remembered, gig was as head bartender of the Savoy Group’s fashionable new Pebble Bar at Stones Chop House in London’s West End. ‘That was the best time,’ he says, ‘that little bar was an amazing bar. I think because I liked it so much, it reflected outwards and that was part of my success. It was 1963 and in those days Wardour Street, which was just around the corner, was the centre of the film industry, and just about everyone who was anyone came to me: Kenneth Williams, Roger Moore… I think because it was upstairs and tucked away people felt safe and at ease.’

The notion that a customer should be made to feel ‘safe’ and ‘at ease’ is one Dorelli returns to again and again. ‘The most important thing in the bar is the customer,’ he insists. ‘Whatever you do, you must please him and make him feel at ease. It is important to look at the situation and think: what is required?’

To demonstrate the point, Dorelli then launches himself into an energetic series of role-plays, with a cast including a frazzled businessman, too tired to choose a drink and grateful for a suggestion, and a nervous lone woman, soothed by the offer of a Bellini on the house. Later on, he plays a couple on their anniversary (a bespoke cocktail named after the wife is a nice gesture, he suggests), and a hen-pecked husband in need of escape (a case of strong drinks all round, essentially).

‘My greatest satisfaction, is when someone says thank you, you really made my evening or my anniversary,’ he says. ‘That moment is magic, that moment is what success is.’

A bartender putting a straw in your

drink and tasting it? I hate that

In 1980, Dorelli moved to the American Bar at the Savoy, and it was here that he encountered the man who was to become his mentor, head bartender Joe Gilmore: ‘Joe, in those days was the best,’ recalls Dorelli. ‘It was a joy to see him in action and he was an amazing host. I have been trying to follow in his footsteps ever since!’ Gilmore wasn’t the only legend on the premises: ‘I even caught a glimpse of Harry Craddock once,’ says Dorelli of the American Bar’s other famed head bartender who authored the 1930s classic The Savoy Cocktail Book.

Dorelli remained at the Savoy for the next twenty years, rising to the post of head bartender in 1984 and even writing the foreword for a revised version of The Savoy Cocktail Book in 1999.

‘But my proudest moment during that time was serving the Queen Mother,’ says Dorelli, ‘she was my favourite of the royals, she was just natural, very at ease. I remember when she came in to the restaurant at the Savoy and it was amazing, like there had been a big bang and suddenly everybody was standing! She drank two parts gin with one part Dubonnet in the morning and then a Dry Martini in the evening.’

But times, of course, are a-changing, and this year the Savoy will re-open after a £100m revamp which will have divested the hotel of almost all its original art-deco interior. What, I wonder, does Dorelli make of it all? ‘It’s absolutely dreadful!’ he groans, screwing up his face in pain. ‘I don’t know why people do these things. Maybe I’m getting old, maybe I don’t see things, maybe it’s globalisation. I’m not the sort of person who says all old things are good, definitely not, but some old things are worth keeping. The Savoy, for me, was England. With all its art deco, it was unique in the world.’

Wood, legs and all the rest…

I was quite timid in my youth – but I got over it because I’m a Gemini. If there is a guy in the middle of the room being silly or talkative, it’s a Gemini. We like to be part of the party – we dive into it. But I have an Italian temper.

I live near Epsom, in Stoneleigh. I’m not a country bumpkin, I’m a townie, but I’m happy with 50/50. I don’t like creepy crawlies and it’s tidy enough that I can know what’s crawling around down by my feet.

My wife is English. One of the reasons I left Italy was because

the Italian ladies giggled so much – I couldn’t stand it. They still do, I’m afraid.

My guilty pleasure is a White Russian. It’s unique because it is the one cocktail that improves with dilution, as the ice melts and it gets lighter and lighter. It’s like a journey. I make it slightly differently to the traditional recipe, with five parts Kahlua, three parts vodka and two parts cream.

If I hadn’t become a bartender I could have been an Olympic high-jumper I think. My first jump was 2m high. I was all legs

in those days. That in itself was a national record. I was also good at long distance running. Anything to do with legs – I was the best.

I’m not really into possessions except wood. I cannot throw it away. I’m building a new garage to use as a workshop. I disappear there for hours, building galleons to scale. I even make my own canons in my own furnace. I recently salvaged some mahogany doors from a building site. I’ve got them stashed in a friend’s shed at the moment – if my wife knew she’d go mad.

Dorelli’s one consolation is that the American Bar, re-opening in May, is set to escape largely unscathed, and he has even been advising the Gorgeous Group on aspects of the revised cocktail menu, according to GG’s director, Robbie Bargh: ‘We have been speaking to him about original ingredients and measurements, yes. We will be keeping some cocktails such as Peter’s wonderful Elise cocktail (made with grapefruit, mango, limoncello, peach schnapps, gin and dash of orgeat), and we’ll be very respectful of the American classics, but we will be tweaking some of the Savoy recipes a little as they can sometimes be a little challenging for modern palates.’ Fabrics will be ‘refreshed’, he adds, although the look and feel of the bar will remain the same.

‘But that’s all finished, it’s part of my past now,’ concludes Dorelli, adding that he now avoids wearing a shirt and jacket wherever possible (‘It was my uniform every day for so many years’), favouring nehru collars or, on the day we meet, a black polo neck instead. Indeed, he’s in pretty good nick for someone who’s spent a lifetime surrounded by bottles of gin. How old is he exactly, I wonder?

‘Well, do I say 70 minus one or 68 plus one? Somehow saying soixante neuf doesn’t sound quite right,’ he winks before springing up to have his photo taken, and regaling us with a story about a shoot he once did for a glossy magazine, ‘ooh, Tatler or Vogue I can’t remember,’ clad in £68,000 worth of diamonds.

SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST

‘Bartending is very hard on the body – this body of ours is not meant to stand 10 hours a day,’ says Dorelli, who prescribes regular foot-scrunches to stop one’s arches collapsing. ‘I also do a lot of yoga and chi gong, and I am a vegetarian, although I eat a little fish to keep my wife happy,’ he adds.

When he’s not got his heels behind his ears, Dorelli now busies himself with heading up the education programme for the UK Bartender’s Guild, a calling he is passionate about.

‘London? We’re still the leader of the world, without a doubt – all the other cities are copy cats! But it’s a little shaky,’ says the former UKBG president. ‘Service, that is where the problem is. Today in England, most bartender education is to do with cocktail-making and product knowledge, rather than how to interact with the customer. That’s our main aim at UKBG, to teach them how to behave and communicate with customers. Maybe we’re old fashioned, but we stand for excellence. We stand for class and style.’

And good service will be a defining feature of the bars that survive these testing times, says Dorelli: ‘We are now in a period of change that’s critical – the credit crunch will get rid of the dreadful people opening bars who are not interested but who got away with it because ofthe boom, the money-grabbers, not the professionals. The people who will survive are the ones who can keep that level of service and reduce their overheads. The number of owners I’ve met who don’t know what a GP is – I can’t believe it!

‘A bar should be constantly re-evaluating and changing itself,’ he reflects as the evening crowd start to arrive for their Martini. ‘The bar is a living thing – if you can hear the heartbeat, that’s a good thing.’

Many thanks to Alessandro Palazzi and Duke’s Hotel for hosting the shoot.


DORELLI’S DOS AND DONTS

It costs nothing to smile. Make sure you acknowledge the person, because remember, that G&T you are serving him is probably half the price at the pub. So many bartenders are in their own little world. I feel like screaming: acknowledge the guy!

Some bartenders are trying to be too like chefs with all these spices and chilli – they kill me! If you have too many flavours you’re on dangerous ground.

When I am judging a cocktail competition, I want to be able to taste the featured brand. If you can’t taste the basic ingredients, what the hell are you doing!

A bartender putting a straw in your drink and tasting it? I hate that, it is so unprofessional. At all these trendy bars, you get cocktails that they must have made hundreds of times and they still do it! By now you should know how to make the blasted thing!

Every day before service at the Savoy we would taste everything, the grapefruit, the lime, and maybe the lemon might be a little sharper today, in which case we say gentlemen, add a little more sugar to the drink today. It’s all part of the preparation.


Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – March / April 2009

About Author