The Armenian cantinero is all about connecting cultures (and avoiding inflight fights)
After a gruelling week in Havana during the 2016 Grand Prix, our BarTeam alumnus Gegam Kazarian probably wanted to rest on his plane. Instead, he found himself in the middle of an argument threatening to turn physical between a passenger and a flight attendant. Gegam stepped in and gave a pep talk to the staff, highlighting the value of teamwork and hospitality… “If the staff doesn’t believe in what they are doing, nothing can be achieved”, he told us. This anecdote, as odd as it may seem, is very revealing: his larger-than-life looks and his impressive CV hide a very humble, passionate man who values trust and teamwork above everything else.
Originally from Armenia, Gegam came to Spain sixteen years ago on a student exchange. He never left. As he had some experience in the hospitality sector, he supported himself working events, bars and restaurants. As often happens, the side job became his main focus, and he found himself with a career. With a deep thirst for knowledge, he studied and attended master classes, not only spirits-centred (pastry has been a serious focus, and he always related cocktails with gastronomy).
When he relocated to Alicante, a coastal town where he still lives, there was no cocktail culture, so on top of opening his first bar, he realized that he would have to train staff and customers. This, in turn, led him to travel more, in order to broaden his horizons. And one way to travel was to take part in competitions, something he had always been reluctant to do. That’s how he entered the 2010 Havana Club Academia del Ron in Spain. “I thought I’d mix Cuba and Armenia, so I used pomegranates, which are very typical of my country, and built a story around a masterwork of our cinema, Sergei Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates”. He won, and a trip to Havana – “one of the world’s most beautiful cities” – followed (the first of many: he also represented Spain at the 2012 Grand Prix).
Mixing influences is a major trait of today’s cocktail scene, but Gegam’s philosophy is quite clear on the subject: “You can respect each country’s culture and come up with sensations and histories that are pure and harmonious. You can use Cuban cocoa and rum, a smoked Scotch and an Indian-style serve: two or three cultures that you connect. Fusion often leads to confusion, so I prefer to talk about connexion”.
In turn, connecting with clients depends on the staff. One of Gegam’s most intriguing projects saw him setting up a bar at the centre of a restaurant – as if it were a kitchen’s island. “In Spain, chefs became celebrities and people had lost sight of how important the waiters, the bartenders and the rest of the staff were. I didn’t want to convert it into a show but the idea was to set up the bar as you would set up the station of a sushi chef and have it more present for the diners”. It was the talk of Alicante for a while, and Gegam took the opportunity to collaborate even more with out of town bartenders and chefs.
Disagreements with his partners led Gegam to distance himself from that business and open a much more discreet spot: Kazaris Lab. “It’s every bartender’s dream to open a small, hard to find bar, with just a few tables and personalized service”, he explains. The bar seats no more than 12 persons and opens for normal service from Thursday to Saturday (the rest of the week, it is used to train bartenders or for sessions with chefs – food pairing remains an important aspect of his work).
The space also doubles up as Gegam’s research centre, so patrons get to try the result of his investigations. “I want my clients to travel. Sometimes in their seat, sometimes physically – we have trips planned to explore some countries’ food culture”. For those who won’t hop on a plane with Gegam, Kazaris Lab will still provide plenty of amazing moments: “When I developed this space, I wanted to call upon Japanese philosophy, Indian spirit, Cuban joy, Armenian heart, French elegance and a dash of Italian renaissance”. If anyone can pull this off, it’s our favourite Armenian cantinero.