Trading places: Working abroad

Laura Foster

Laura Foster

27 September 2016

Ever thought about taking your hard-won hospitality skills and working abroad? Of course you have. Four wandering bartenders share their tales with Laura Foster

An American abroad

American bartender Dee Ann Quinones worked in London at Drake & Morgan and 69 Colebrooke Row for three years before moving back to the US. She's currently the bar manager at Westbound in Los Angeles

'Before I moved to the UK, I had been in the industry for almost 10 years – I've worked everywhere from dives, clubs, cocktail lounges and restaurants. My wife and I wanted to travel and experience new things, so we decided to move somewhere new.

One of the biggest obstacles at first was not getting tipped

Tricia, my wife, already had a job lined up as a travel nurse, so we had that in our favour – there are companies that are keen to sponsor visas for the right candidates. The UK recognised domestic partnerships at that time, so I got my visa because of that.

Technology helps us these days in ways we would have never thought previously. I started looking at listings on Gumtree – I landed on Thursday, applied for a job on Friday and was hired by Wednesday.

I was a wreck at first, but I thought: 'How hard can it be? Everyone speaks English.' I couldn't have been more wrong. First was the language barrier. My first day, I asked: 'Where’s the silverware?' and they said: 'You mean cutlery?' Also, because London is so diverse, everyone's accents are all over the place.

But one of the biggest obstacles at first was not getting tipped. I got paid a living wage and was lucky to go home with £5 in my pocket. At first I was gutted. In the end I got used to it and actually took it as a learning experiment. If I was doing this still to the best of my ability, then I really was in love with this profession.

The plan was always to move back. When our three-year visa was coming to an end in 2014 we decided to give New York a shot.

I love the scene in London. It's unique and always pushing boundaries. Mostly the things I noticed were that bitters are in everything – which I love – and that attention to detail. No matter if it is garnish, glassware, or ingredients, nothing is overlooked.

Aside from that, the other noticeable difference is, again, the everyday consumer. UK drinkers love their pints, G&Ts and Jägerbombs, just as Americans love Budweiser and bourbon…

I learned so much while I was away. The biggest lesson is that taking something else from another bartender is not a weakness. Learning a better way, or a new way, can be career-changing. To be the best bartender is to constantly be learning and trying to improve your service every day. It's one of my biggest motivations.'

My drink of London
I will never abandon my G&T, it always makes me feel close to London and more importantly, it's a damn delicious drink. Otherwise, it would have to be the best Gin Martini on the planet at 69 Colebrooke Row.

From the American Bar to America

Tom Walker was working at the American Bar at the Savoy when he became the global Bacardí Legacy champion in 2014. He upped sticks and moved to New York soon after, and has been there for two years

I'd wanted to move to New York for about four years, ever since I lived and worked in Edinburgh. At that time Milk & Honey was still open, and it was pretty much the only bar on the planet that I wanted to work, outside of Bramble, where I was then, and the American Bar, where I ended up moving to.

Sasha Petraske's philosophy of drinks and service at that bar was always something that I had a massive interest in. When Milk & Honey closed down and reopened as Attaboy, my interest was still there, especially with Sam Ross and Michael McIlroy working there.

The cultural difference was hugely overwhelming

Whilst I was doing Bacardí Legacy I took a trip to New York and caught up with Sam. I was straight up with what I was looking for, which was the opportunity to work with him at Attaboy. He said he'd give it some thought and that I should speak to a lawyer. That was back in 2013. I pestered quite a lot over the following months, and moved there to host in November 2014.

I'd lined up two nights a week hosting at Attaboy (a Sunday and Monday), but no other work. It was suggested I introduce myself to the guys at Dutch Kills and other bars in the Sasha family to find shifts.

The cultural difference was hugely overwhelming. I'd gone from a five/six-day week at the Savoy with a white jacket in a five-star hotel environment, to a neighbourhood cocktail bar in Manhattan where I served and acted as the door guy.

Everything from tipping to currency conversion to transportation to a working pattern and service was new. It was a bigger adjustment than I had ever imagined. And then there was the fact that I had an accent (Geordie) which hardly anyone understood…

The concept of working for tips is one of the most fundamental aspects of work in the US, especially New York. Bars are designed to serve people the drinks they want. Not that this isn't the case in London, but there's definitely a theatrical aspect to cocktail bars and mixed drinks in London, where bartenders are paid a set wage that doesn't fluctuate much.

In the UK, a bar can be born with a theme that can then be brought to the attention of the public; in New York, bars are designed for what people want and expect.

If you're thinking about moving to the US, network as much as you can before you do, with the potential end goal the ability to cover a shift at some place and lock down a permanent shift. Go with adequate funds; sorting out an apartment requires a decent amount of cash, especially as you won't have a credit rating. And make sure your support network and friend group is tight; this will be invaluable to settle in.

For probably the first time since I moved to the US I feel happy and settled; I have the schedule I want, I work the hours I want, I'm financially stable and I still get to do some work and projects outside of tending bar.

My drink of New York
Old Fashioned. I'm a big fan of simplicity – and things done the best they can. I'd use high proof bourbon, Angostura Bitters, a white sugar cube, a dash of soda water; with a huge chunk of clear ice and a long citrus peel.

Down and out in Paris from London

Kelly Ballett moved to Paris three years ago, where she started work at Little Red Door. She’s now a bartender at sister bar Lulu White

Ever since I can remember, I wanted to live in a different country. Through bartending and university I had been surrounded by French people and loved sharing niche aspects of culture, explaining references, exchanging cult films and music.

My departure date was set for two weeks after making the decision to go. My friend Julien helped me translate my CV into French and write a cover letter, but it didn't look great.

When I first arrived I felt so free

I spoke no French, other than the normal collection of insults you learn quickly in hospitality, and I had no accommodation organised, apart from a hostel for two weeks. Four days before I left, Julien saw a post on Facebook from Little Red Door saying: 'Any UK bartenders wanting to move from London to Paris?' It was meant to be.

My night bus left London on 19 August 2013 and I spent the journey with half my brain saying: 'What the f* are you doing' and the other very zen. I got to Paris the next day in time for cheese croissants and coffee.

When I first arrived, I felt so free. For the first six months there wasn't a chance to stop. I threw myself into work at Little Red Door, learning phrases to say to customers, understanding the cultural difference in drinking habits between the French and the British, learning about new products.

After work almost every night we'd go to Le Tambour (a late-night bistro in the centre of Paris) to drink with all the other bartenders and in amongst new faces and pints of Pelforth, the fear of speaking French badly subsided.
The Paris bar scene was quite small, but there was an urgency to learn and expand from the beginning. It has grown enormously in a very short time. Even as it grows, these community ties are multiplied rather than weakened.

There's a very small handful of UK bartenders here – I think it's brought a different style of service. A lot of service in cocktail bars here used to be precise, but distant and formal – this was just the image of professionalism in France, whereas the British style is more personal whilst still retaining formality.

So much is unknown about the impact of Brexit. What is worrying is that future generations likely won't have the ability to leave things to chance, it will have to be a more premeditated experience. Maybe it should be, maybe I shouldn't have moved on a whim.

But then I look at where I am now and know that things needed freedom to fall into place, rather than fixed visas and borders. Having a visa puts a time limit on your experience. It takes away the understanding of yourself that you will leave at the right time, or stay as long as you want.

My drink of Paris
Pastis, filled to the brim with cold water. It reminds me of drinking on a Parisian terrace during the summer months, watching people go by, dreaming of another place, making plans.

Into Africa

Adam Wilson left Leeds to work in Nairobi for six months. He works as a training consultant for Fling Bar Services and has recently been working in Rwanda

After six years at Mojo Leeds, causing innumerable hangovers, the opportunity to move to Nairobi came up through Fling. Apart from a general desire for adventure (and for someone to pay me to see the world), my dad had spent a few years growing up there, and I guess a part of me wanted to go and see this weird place for what it was.

When it came to moving, travel visas were on arrival, accommodation was provided and things like bank accounts and working permits were all processed through the hotel.

It's like a massive, current time Wild West city

Nairobi is such a contradiction. There's Kibera on the outskirts, which is the world's biggest slum and where some of my bartenders actually lived, but you drive in from the airport and pass huge showrooms packed with Porsches. It's like a massive current-time Wild West city – it's modern, but still so open and semi-lawless. The traffic is awful as well, especially when it rains.

When it came to the bar culture there I didn't arrive with any expectations, but it was very basic. There were cocktails but they were usually fairly badly made, with the cheapest possible ingredients. The range of fresh produce there is incredible though. I had a fruit guy who'd bring boxes of diced fruit to my desk every day for absolute pennies.

We really changed how drinks were being made, and from what I've heard it still stands out from the rest today. Nobody had seen homemade syrups, or smoke or fire, let alone implemented them on a large enough scale to sell successfully on a menu. The refreshing thing there though was how open-minded a lot of people were.

I keep in touch with my old team and the friends I made there. They've now got Diageo World Class, in which one of my guys was a finalist, and they're seeing a huge leap in general in the F&B scene.

I'm back in Leeds again now, and have had projects in Leeds, Brussels, Stuttgart, Vilnius (Lithuania), the Seychelles, Casablanca, Doha, Oman, the UAE and the Maldives already in the last year alone.

There aren't many ways you can see the world like this in our game, without being a big industry name. We're always on the lookout for people to pick up jobs on a freelance basis, which is how I started full time with Fling, so if you fancy it, get in touch.

Don't kid yourself though, it's bloody hard and can be intimidating. I arrived in Nairobi shortly after the Westgate attack, and there were attacks across the city while I was there, although I never really felt in danger. I had to cancel trips to Iraq and Myanmar last year for security reasons. Mum hates it.

My drink of Nairobi
Tusker Lager! A lot of people over there only drink room-temperature beers, so some of the smaller places struggled to keep enough cold beers for us. Kenyans are immensely proud of their national brew.

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