With a somewhat ambiguous origin story, the martini cocktail has become a must for all bartenders to master. Whether shaken, stirred or otherwise, undoubtedly one of the best locations to enjoy one is at Dukes Bar in London’s St James. Headed up by Alessandro Palazzi along with his team, Dukes bar has become the go-to location for many, not only for the beverage, but for the experience of traditional service. We headed over to Dukes to sit and chat with Mr. Palazzi, over a martini of course.
Let’s begin early on, what were you like as a kid?
[Laughs] How so?
I still am, I’m still a kid. I became 62 years old last Saturday, but I’m still yet to mature [laughs]. When I was a kid I used to love riding bikes, showing off in front of the girls, doing wheelies. I definitely had a reputation in the village for being a nutcase; it’s a wonder how I managed to survive.
Did you have early career ambitions?
I always wanted to be a journalist, travelling the world, dreaming. I wanted to visit unusual places, experience the world, China, Canada or Russia.
Had you begun working towards that in any serious way?
Well, before that I had decided I wanted a motorbike and my mother said, “Are you crazy?” and refused to help me with the money to buy one. So I said, “Fine, I’ll buy one for myself.” Being the stubborn youth that I was. I went out on a hunt for any job I could find and happened upon a restaurant in the next village, who needed a waiter.
Alessandro, in front of Duke's
How was that?
It didn’t last long. They just couldn’t afford it, as they only had one regular customer; It was a nice little family-run business. They told me that there was a hotel, a very old style hotel who are always looking for staff, so off I went. The owner was a psychopath who used to make his mother work in the kitchen at 80 years of age [laughs]. This place would get so busy with religious folk visiting the area looking for miracles, and one day we had 50 guests with no service lift to the kitchen, up and down the stairs and a really vulgar Italian group of guys rudely asked for more bread and I just snapped.
I was sweating, up and down, up and down, you know? and I just looked at him and said, “Why don’t you fuck off” [laughs]. They’re all Catholic, and so there was a silence, they were shocked. Naturally, I didn’t get a tip and I was demoted to the bar. The bar in those days was just to manage coffee or other drinks here and there, but it was a completely different environment to the restaurant.
In what way was it different?
These people, these interesting people would start talking to me and I began to actually enjoy the job. There was often not much to do behind the bar but clean or serve now and again, so I would sit there with a good book, my feet up [laughs].
[Laughs] Here we go…
One day the boss found me doing exactly that and I was punished for three months. Shortly after that, the Canadian government came to Italy to recruit for the service industry, which I leapt on. Sadly I was too young for what they required, but my boss suggested going to England to train and learn the language. Pending that going well, I could then go to Canada. I only went to Canada for the first time five years ago [laughs], so you know how that worked out.
"I definitely had a reputation in the village for being a nutcase"
You first arrived in London when?
1975, when I was 17 years old. I didn’t speak a lick of English, so everything was different and quite difficult at first. It’s a big town and a lot of people thought I was courageous to do it; I think I was stupid.
What was your first job in London? Obviously the language barrier would limit your options, right?
Yeah, absolutely. I couldn’t be a bartender for that reason, so the only job I could do was kitchen porter, washing up.
"There was often not much to do behind the bar but clean or serve now and again, so I would sit there with a good book, my feet up."
Quite gruelling, repetitive work…
Yes, but it ended up being one of the best lessons of my life because when I was in kitchen school, I had no respect for the guys washing up. I would sling plates into the sink with no consideration, but now I was getting a taste of my own medicine, but this time it was nasty…
That allowed you to learn much-needed discipline?
Yes, and respect. You’re a team and it doesn’t matter if you’re the kitchen porter or the general manager, you’re all equal.
Given that you were interested in becoming a journalist because of your interest in stories, do you think that the job in bartending unexpectedly satisfied that itch, hearing from people from around the world telling their personal anecdotes…
I think so, yeah. Also, I’m a storyteller; I love to share stories with guests. I’m lucky in that my job has now enabled me a lot of travel around the world. I also get invited to guest bartend in all parts of the world, Bangkok, Japan, Canada, America, you name it. Each place is so different, it’s fantastic. My wife thinks I’m cuckoo because I finish late then watch the news, skipping from one news outlet to the next, getting all the different perspectives. I’m a sponge for stories and narratives.
Outside of Duke's
What’s your take on the philosophy of serving country to country?
In Italy it’s very different, it’s just work. In England, it’s a bit strange, especially in 1975, but it’s improving a lot. It’s becoming a lot more customer focused, as it should be. I see it as an art, this is why I love Japan; any job they do, they do it to perfection. This mentality is really engrained into the culture, and it’s admirable. This is why I put myself in the place of the customer, putting them first, creating an atmosphere that suits their tastes and needs.
At Duke’s the clientele can be pretty much anyone you can imagine, right?
Yes, but we don’t treat anyone differently. Anyone from Jack Nicholson to a politician, they are all treated the same. Often times, I’ll have no idea who someone is, and my staff will tell me, but it really makes no difference. You are in the position to make or break a pleasant evening, regardless of who they are, and we take that responsibility seriously. Sometimes, a guest might be stressed for reasons that you could never even imagine and be irritable and it’s the best feeling when someone like that leaves with a smile.
"My wife thinks I’m cuckoo because I finish late then watch the news, skipping from one news outlet to the next, getting all the different perspectives. I’m a sponge for stories and narratives."
Given the strength of the drinks here, we’re assuming that there are some funny stories also…
Oh yes. One time we had a gentleman in here who asked for a vodka martini, so I give it to him, and maybe three minutes later, he had finished and asked for another. I said to the guy, “You might want to take your time…” He was very put out by this and said, “Don’t tell me how to drink martini.”
He drank two in less than 20 minutes, wobbles out of the bar and then, a few weeks later, he came back pointing his finger at me saying, “You, it’s your fault.” [laughs].
Despite your warnings. What happened to him?
So it turned out, he had a meeting that he wobbled to with the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown and was subsequently sent home for being so drunk. He couldn’t speak in the meeting apparently [laughs].
A martini in the making
You’ve become somewhat of an online personality in recent years with Instagram, how do you feel about that?
I think it’s great, a customer called me an ‘Instagram tart’ the other day. Often people want to take pictures with me or of me but when people don’t even bother to ask if it’s ok.
Do you think it detracts from the experience?
Oh, definitely. I understand taking a quick picture and putting it away but some people just sit there on their phones not talking, it’s bizarre.
Do you ever refuse?
If they’re very rude. I once said no and told the person they’d have to talk to my agent for a picture and that it costs £5,000 [laughs].
[Laughs] Amazing… did they take the joke?
Of course not. Sometimes you have to teach people a little lesson.
"You are in the position to make or break a pleasant evening, regardless of who they are, and we take that responsibility seriously."
Have you ever considered banning phones or pictures in the bar?
We couldn’t do it, but we like people to be discreet. We never allow a laptop for example, but more importantly, sometimes we have high profile guests and we don’t want them to feel like it isn’t a safe space for them to unwind.
Alessandro making one of his sought-after martinis
So, how does a typical day off look like for you?
A day off will usually mean cycling, visiting antique shops for vintage glassware. I live in the south east, and I’m fortunate that there are a number of these kinds of shops close by. There are also a lot of nice restaurants which won’t break the bank, so I would spend a little time in those too. I’m also a tennis maniac, so I’m watching any kind of tennis I can find. Either that or you can find me on Instagram, talking to friends or something.
You do seem quite into the whole Instagram thing…
I think It’s fantastic, it’s all a bit of fun. It’s silly when someone says you’re famous for being on there; I’m a bartender, not a famous person [laughs].
Doesn’t it go against this idea of subtlety and discretion being known in that way?
It does a little, but times have changed. I definitely come from the school of being discreet and invisible, but this was all somewhat unexpected. There are a few things required to be a bartender; diplomatic, acrobatic and charismatic. Cocktails are easy, unless you’re thick, but having those three things will be very useful.
Now, you’re a watch guy; how did you become interested in them?
I became interested during my time working in Paris at a five star hotel and a local jeweller said that if I sent any business his way, he’d look after me…
So, one day a prince from a Middle Eastern country, I can’t say the name obviously, and he asked me where he could buy some watches, so I sent him over to my friend. This guy goes into the retailer and buys all of their diamond and precious metal Rolexes [laughs].
My friend then allowed me to buy any watch I wanted at cost price, though he excluded gold watches from the deal. I bought a Cartier, which I ended up selling after some time, but before that I had owned a Longines that my mother gave to me. I once got stopped at customs crossing the border with that Longines actually, they thought I was off to try and sell it. They’ve always been interesting to me, and sometimes I go over to the Burlington arcade to have a little window shop.
A classic lemon twist
Do you find it funny that watches, drinks, cars and cigars bring so many people together?
Yes, and I think it’s because people truly appreciate and care about those things. These things carry stories and details that people like to share and discuss. It’s all passion and knowledge. It’s not about having the nicest thing, but appreciating things for their own unique qualities.
Tastes in these types of things can be quite telling…
They absolutely can. It’s not always easy to spot though, I had a guy come in, the then richest man in the world, flies in on his jet and wears a Timex watch. He wouldn’t be discussing money, he’s very humble and I think if I were in his shoes, I’d do exactly the same thing.
When you have access to anything you want, the value of flashier things perhaps fades…
Yeah, you don’t need to show your worth through possessions.
You know, in this line of work, you really come to understand people from all corners of the world. You understand the customers' needs and tastes with experience.
"There are a few things required to be a bartender; diplomatic, acrobatic and charismatic."
So, if there were one piece of advice you’d give for dealing with people, what would that be?
Like I said to you before, you never know what that person in front of you has had to deal with that day. They might have had to deal with a problem, or a personal struggle, so you have to learn not to judge people right away.
Reserve judgement for further down the line…
Yeah, absolutely, never judge a book by its cover.
Thank you, Alessandro, for speaking with us (and for the martini...)