Bartender Gegam Kazarian Interviewed for Heering 200th Anniversary

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By Ashley Pini

Name: Gegam Kazarian

Current Bar: Kazari´s Lab

Consultancy Work: group and hotels consultant

Gastronomic Project work: Kazari’s Project creator, Kazari´s Konecta, Gastrokosmos school by Kazaris.

Question 1. Tell me about your background; where you were born, raised and educated.  Was there anything that stood out for you that helped you develop into the person you are today?  Who was your greatest influence in your younger years?

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My name is Gegam Kazarian. I was born in Yerevan city, Armenia, in 1980.

When I finished high school, I started working in a Mexican restaurant to pay for my university studies. After that, I worked in many different hotels and as the time passed I realized that I had fallen in love with this profession. I worked in positions of this profession such as steward, waiter, assistant and bartender; I worked in the kitchen and in the bakery department as well.  I got interested mainly in the world of gastronomy when I came to Spain at the age of 20. I started working in different places to broaden my knowledge. I also worked as a sommelier and all this acquired knowledge has helped me to become the man I am now.

There´s one interesting fact I´d like to share. I think that my story in this profession started when I was 5. Back than I would enjoy smelling and mixing different products, trying to invent new flavors and smells, most of them were pretty rare. I would smell the bread I ate, or grass when I was playing outside. When I was a child I would love to eat rose petal jam that my grandmother cooked. My grandfather used to make wine and distill it. I remember always staying by his side and helping him in everything I could. So I have been experiencing the world of different fragrances since I was a child and I think that my grandparents´ way of life has influenced me a lot.

One more interesting fact to talk about is my mother´s habit of setting the table with precision. When I was seated at the table it was always perfectly set and I would have my special dinnerware, I remember a lot about that. I think this ritual showed me that minding each detail is essential, that´s why I don’t use only crystal glasses but different metals, silver, gold, copper, wood, ceramics, organic and natural materials as well and I take care of every detail when serving a drink. I buy different table wear in the countries I visit.

When I was 5, I would pick cherries with my cousins in my grandparents’ garden. I would put them inside the bottle with a little bit of sugar, stir them with a cherry tree branch and leave the mix for a while in the sun. Afterwards we would drink the juice. I can certainly call it my first cocktail.

Question 2. How did you get a start in this industry? Was it by luck or design?  Where there any characters that drew you to the industry and what (and where) was your first role?

I started working in this industry 20 years ago. When I was 18, I was hired by an international Mexican restaurant as a steward. Then I started taking different courses. I was fond of the kitchen as well as of the bar.

We had international managers. My first general manager Boiko Dimitrov, he was Bulgarian  and the bar manager, Biju Varghese, he was Hindu.

Then I changed my job to become a waiter, then a bartender, and then I worked in the kitchen and in the bakery. In a few years I started working as a sommelier.

I’m not sure whether it was luck or my own decision. I believe more in fate than in luck. I had to search for a job to pay for my university studies and I loved acquiring new knowledge.

Question 3. At what stage did you feel that this could become a career?  Maybe it always was for you, or possibly you woke up one day and realized that you were “good at this” and it could become your career.

At first I started to work in the restaurant because I needed money to pay for my degree. I dreamed of becoming a doctor, then I wanted to become a biochemist, but as time passed I was getting more involved in the gastronomy business. When I came to Spain I didn’t have opportunities to use my first degrees so I started working in hotels and in restaurants. I’d like to note that since I was a child I have been taught to treat my guests with great hospitality so I am very fond of inviting people and treating them. Armenians are very hospitable people.  Hospitality is essential for me, so, when making a cocktail it becomes one of the ingredients together with my biochemistry as well as happiness and affection for my clients.

Question 4. What are you most passionate about in the industry and your job in particular?  What gets you motivated?

I love tasting different types of food. I enjoy experiencing different tastes and fragrances, searching and acquiring new ingredients for my cocktails. I enjoy sharing experiences, watching how my guests enjoy those experiences and different sensations that they produce. I love to serve people and it gives me great pleasure.

I get motivated by my projects and my journeys. In my Kazari’s project I have a part that’s called Kazari’s Konecta where I connect different ethnic cultures, lifestyles, experiences, origins through the sense of taste. I want people to experience different sensations.

My absolute motivation consists of creating sensations to wake up the senses.

It doesn’t matter what I have been doing before or what I am doing now I take advantage of all of my previous knowledge, it doesn’t matter whether it’s martial arts, philosophy, chemistry or medicine, or even my traveling experiences. I fuse them with the ingredients and I pass them over into my cocktails.

Through the taste of just a sip of one of my cocktails I’m looking forward to transmitting my energy, my experiences and my knowledge.

Question 5. Can you briefly explain your job? What a regular week would look like and maybe something that comes about now and again that you get involved with?

I have to repeat that my job is all about connection, sharing experiences. To be honest I work 24/7. I open Kazari’s Lab for my guests only at weekends to give them all that I have seen, eaten experienced and created during the week. During the week I also give different trainings, events and master classes in my Kazari’s Lab as well as all over the world. I travel a lot. I also work on my other projects and I prepare myself to serve my guests and my friends at the weekend.

Question 6. Do you have a mentor – or an influencer that you now look up to or aspire to emulate?  Or possibly the opposite where you prefer to carve your own path?

I had lots of teachers when I was young and I’m constantly studying. I try to learn new things even from my clients, but my favorite teachers now are children. I graduated from the Pedagogical University and I’m also very fond of pedagogy. Sometimes I organize different training events for children and I have learnt a lot from them.

If I had to name my first mentor, it would surely be Biju Ratja, my first Hindu bar manager. He managed to inspire me the passion for this professional world and motivated me to keep on with it in Spain.

Of course there are more people who I consider to be my mentors. There are a lot of famous people among them. Lots of them became my friends. For example, a good friend of mine from Greece is Michael Menegos, Ueno San from Japan, King of cocktails – our amazing American bartender, Jeff Darry. I also trained with different famous mentors such as Steve Olsen, Kevin Terry, Stanislav Vadrna (A very good friend of mine who is dedicated to establishing international connections between Japan and Europe), Gary Regan or Philip Duff. Those professionals and good friends of mine all over the world have played an essential role in my life and have given me a lot of precious knowledge.

I never imitate at any of them. I carve my own, personal path. I think that every bartender has to make his own way because everyone has his/her own style and experience. I’m unique just like the other great mentors who are unique in their own and personal way. My cocktails are more gastronomic, as I learned a lot from different chefs and pastry cooks, so they conceptually differ from other cocktails as well as containing all my experiences and all of my knowledge. Although I’m really fond of classic cocktails and I use them as a base for my creations and in spite of having had really good mentors I chose my own way. I have my personal, unique concept which implies design, aromas, music and lots of other small details as well as beauty, meditation, my life and my faith.

Question 7. Is there an embarrassing moment you can share?  Something that happened in a shift, or with work colleagues that will stay with you forever?

I can’t remember any embarrassing or strange stories. Well, I did have lots of them. Some of them are interesting and some of them are funny but I can’t highlight any one of them as the one that would stay with me forever. I think that bartenders are like priests. We listen to lots of different stories and see lots of things happening in our establishments but we never talk about them. I think we mustn’t embarrass our clients telling stories about them whether they are good or bad. This is our bartenders’ ethical code, just like the famous three monkeys, “I don’t see. I don’t hear. I don’t speak.”

Question 8. Is there an industry issue that you are particularly passionate about? Something you would like to see change in?

I think that the main problem is that new bartenders want to achieve a lot in a very short period of time. In some countries within a year some bartenders start calling themselves mixologists or even consultants and they become very popular posting their videos on YouTube and social networks but, to my mind, they suffer a great lack of experience. For example, I’ve been working in this industry for 20 years and I think that this experience is still not enough. I consider that time is very important for a person to acquire experience and knowledge. To become a real professional you have to be working for 30, 40 or 50 years. And a large amount of people are only looking for fame, they get popular only by copying others and not by searching for their own way. From my point of view to become a professional bartender you have to feel the passion for this profession and to live this experience and it would be much better if everyone made their creations in their own personal way, giving their essence and adding new details to classic recipes.

From the other side I see a lot of pride in lots of bartenders. It would surely be better if they were more humble, because for me humility means knowledge and nobody can ever possess it completely.

The main change for me would be in the perception of the bar industry and gastronomy. I can´t imagine gastronomy without a good cocktail. For me it is incomplete. So I would like to reinforce the connection between culture and cocktails. If bartenders had more knowledge and thought more about national products, spices, ingredients or herbs than alcohol, it would make me really happy. People have to pass on the knowledge about their country’s ancient liquors, ingredients and products to the next generations to conserve the knowledge about them, maybe creating new cocktails from this base. I want to see more natural and ethnic ingredients in modern cocktails and less artificial ones. I want people to perceive the cocktail industry not only as alcoholic drinks but from its gastronomical, natural and nutritional point view.

Question 9. Why did you choose the year you chose [for your special cocktail]?  What is its relevance to you? Why is it special?

I chose the year 1887 as the year of my cocktail.

In this year 4 Armenian friends Martin, Tigran, Avet and Arshak, salesmen, inaugurated Raffles Hotel in Singapore, one of the best known hotels in the world.

Afterwards this hotel was taken over by many other companies. It was also used as a refuge.

In 1929 during the big depression the hotel suffered serious economical problems and in 1931 the company went bankrupt.

In 1933 a new company Raffles Hotel Ltd. appeared.

At the start of the Japanese occupation of Singapore on February 15, 1942, it is said that the Japanese soldiers encountered the guests in Raffles Hotel dancing one final  Meanwhile, staff buried the hotel silver—including the silver beef trolley—in the Palm Court.

During World War II, Raffles Hotel was renamed Syonan Ryokan, incorporating Syonan (“Light of the South”), the Japanese name for occupied Singapore, and Rryokan, the name for a traditional Japanese inn. During the liberation operation about 300 Japanese soldiers committed suicide.

In 1987, a century after it first opened, Raffles Hotel was declared a National Monument by the Singapore government.

This year is also connected to another date. In 1915 the bartender from this hotel Ngiam Tong Boon created the cocktail “Singapore Sling” – one of the most famous cocktails in the world. It is widely regarded as a national drink of the country. Primarily it´s based on the liquor Cherry Herring but it also contains pineapple juice as the main ingredient, along with grenadine, lime juice and Dom Benedictine. Giving it the pretty pink hue are cherry brandy and Cointreau. The talented Ngiam Tong Boon saw a niche in the market and decided to create a cocktail that looked like a fruit juice, but was actually infused with gin and other liqueurs. Masking it in pink gave it a feminine flair and together with the use of clear alcohol, he cleverly led people into thinking it was a socially acceptable punch for the ladies (they were not allowed to drink alcohol in public). With that, the Singapore Sling was born. Needless to say, it became an instant hit.

Another event that deeply affects me also occurred in 1915. Turks committed Armenian Genocide. More than 2 billion Armenians were killed.

So my cocktail will be inspired by these events.

Kazari` Sling

Glass: Armenian traditional clay jug

Garnish: Dehydrated pineapple slice with pomegranate beans and Armenian dry cherry lavash (a traditional Armenian sweet made from fruit crushed and dried in the sun)

Method: Shake all ingredients with ice and fine strain into clay jug.

Ingredients: 60 ml Ararat Armenian brandy infused with dehydrated pineapple

22.5 ml Cherry Heering

15 ml Palo cortado sherry

20 ml Lemon juice

10 ml Natural artisan grenadine without added sugars

2 dash Thyme bitters

Question 10. What’s the hot topic across your bar? What are your regulars and patrons talking about – what’s affecting their lives and what are they passionate about?

Kazari´s Lab was my dream which came true. I´ve got several principles there. It has capacity only for 12 people. I don’t serve food; I don’t have any soft drinks, neither have I got any plastic tableware. All the tableware I use is organic, metal, or glass, the straws are made of bamboo stalks. Apart from classic cocktails I’ve got seasonal ones using seasonal fruit and vegetables. I’ve got lots of ingredients that I bring from my journeys so first of all I ask my guests if they suffer from any kind of allergies, the next question is about their likes and dislikes as I make cocktails for them and not for me. I always try to guess their preferences and create a cocktail that will bring them pleasure. I make ethnic cocktails and cocktails that will transfer them to other countries, involving their senses. Trying my cocktails they can find themselves in Mexico, India, Japan or whatever country of the world through the aromas, glassware, small details, music, etc. Aromas and fragrances have always been my obsession. The world of fragrances is very important for me which is reflected in the concept of my establishment. Among my cocktails there are ones from Latin America or Africa. I’d like to say that my guests can make a short trip around the world. My guests usually comment that they have experienced different sensations. That’s why I take into consideration even the slightest detail such as the light, the smell, the sound. Kazari’s Lab can’t be categorized as a simple pub or café. Every guest gives his/her name to it. Somebody calls it a temple meanwhile others say that it’s a place for joy or even a spaceship that is able to take them on a journey to other countries due to the aromas they smell and senses they experience.

Question 11. What drinks are popular in your bar?  Are you seeing this change and is there a stand out drinks order that you have seen recently? If so, what do you think has driven this change? Are you catering more to locals or do you have a real mix of patrons?

Alicante is a popular tourist place as well as the capital of the province of Alicante so my Kazari’s Lab is visited by an international public. You can meet Spanish people, Russians, Japanese, Indians, Greeks, Americans, Norwegians, Germans, Italians, French people and Latin-Americans.

Finally….

Question 12. – Personal details

Favorite musician: I don’t have any favorite artist or music style. I’m fond of good music, classical music and composers, ethnic instruments such as Armenian duduk, kanon, Spanish guitar, Indian boards, Japanese or South American instruments. I enjoy listening to Armenian singers and composers. Ancient ethnic national music, the music, which was not created only by one person, but by a whole culture is also one of my favorites because it makes my heart and my soul sing.

Favorite bar – (not your own): There´s no particular bar that I could call my favorite one. I like to have a good time in different bars all over the world, for example, in Japan, NY, Europe, etc. If I´m drinking a cocktail and I’m feeling good this bar turns into my favorite and the best one for me.

Favorite city to drink in – (not your own): Lisbon, Paris, Berlin, Tokyo, Kyoto, Erevan, Alicante, Madrid, Barcelona, NY, London are some of my favorites.

Favorite drink: It depends on the moment. Where I am, who I am with, how I feel and so on. The only condition is for them not to be sweet. I’m more into bitter cocktails. If I´m in Japan I´ll surely drink a cocktail based on mesu, usu, sake. I like mescal, tequila, whisky and rum. So I wouldn´t  limit myself to a one favorite drink.

Pet? Name?: I don´t have any because I travel a lot, but I had a dog some time ago. But I had a stuffed monkey named “Kapik Dudu” who travelled with me for 15 years around the world.

Play sport? Which one? I´m very fond of sports and not only sports, but martial arts as well. I do Aikido, Karate, Capoeira, Kenbudo (the art of Japanese sword), Jeet kune do (the art of Bruce Lee). I love philosophy, yoga and meditation. That´s why I´d say that Asia is one of my favorite countries.  I think that sports are very important in all people´s lives and moreover in bartenders´ lives. And I want to encourage everyone to do it with my philosophy of GeKiNez do.

Activity outside work…what do you love to do? I love everything. I love to live. I love to stay outside as well as at home because due to my job I spend very little time there. I love reading, walking around the streets of different cities, watching the sea, spending time with my family. Due to my work I always smell and try different food and tastes, visit different restaurants, I also love visiting the market in the morning to buy some bread and products and to communicate with people. On the other hand I quite enjoy being alone because due to my work I always find myself surrounded by people. I cherish being alone. I love listening to music and playing my guitar too.

Do you love to travel? Where? Of course I love travelling because my job implies travelling a lot. I visit lots of different cities, I love Asia, Latin American countries, Greece, Armenia (I love visiting my birthplace), Portugal, Russia, etc. Each journey I make inspires me for my future creations.

Favorite place: The Mediterranean Sea. When I’m not working I love walking by the sea shore or meditating or working out. I adore these moments because they fill me with energy. Sometimes I go hiking. I like being in nature. It’s the most relaxing environment for me and it gives me inspiration for my creations.

But after traveling a lot in beautiful places in the world, the most special place for me is still my house in Armenia looking at Mount Ararat from my balcony.

Although I am a citizen of the world and I love many places and cultures, I think that we should never forget our origins and our history.

(All photos used in this article are from the company Kazari´s Audio Visual)

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