We’ve spent a good deal of last year writing about the top tier of our industry, bartenders who have made the grade and turned into bar owners, or entrepreneurs who found they excelled at coming up with amazing bar concepts. So for the first article of this new year we thought we should turn our attention back towards one of the starry-eyed kids, with a career that’s still pretty much a blank page. We wanted to have a chat with a promising bartender with huge potential, and we found the perfect match when Audrey Saunders told us about Alcibeidis Gonzalez, her young Cuban bartender with dreams of opening his own bar in Havana… « The very thought of him coming back to Cuba », she told us, « establishing a Havana bar with the skills he acquired at Pegu Club would fill me with so much pride ».
Originally form Guantanamo, Alcibeidis moved to New York aged 15. Life and its circumstances, he says, led him to work in bars. As is customary, he started as a bar back and soon learned the basis of cocktail making. « When I realised I was enjoying it, I decided to buy books to sort of feed myself », he told us. Fittingly for a Cuban, he got a gig at The Rum House, a NYC midtown institution, and his potential was spotted by a regular customer, who turned out to be working at Saunders’ Pegu Club. Alcibeidis made the move in 2014.
The first year, he worked as a bar back, getting to know how the place worked, studying the recipes and getting hours of training under his belt. Then, Audrey decided to give him an opportunity behind the bar. « Pegu Club is a school, it brought me to a new level. Audrey made me realize that the palate is the bartender’s most important tool ». Schooling takes times and it’s not unusual for Pegu Club bartenders to have to wait for years before they see one of their cocktails grace the bar’s menu — Audrey Saunders is that demanding. It took Alcibeidis three years, but it was worth the wait: his first creation judged to have matched Pegu Club’s exacting standards was picked as the cocktail of the year by Time Out NYC.
« I was very happy of course, but for me it was a case of ‘another one for the team’ », he says modestly. It’s not just a manner of speaking: as a quick chat with Alcis makes quite clear, teamwork is a core value at Pegu Club. When asked what he loves the most about his day-to-day work at the bar was, he doesn’t talk about creativity or tasting new ingredients: « I love it when the bar gets very busy, I look to my left and my colleague is sweating behind the bar. I look to my right, and my other colleague is in the same situation. We look at each other, make a sign and go on with our work. I love that moment. The bar is our house, we’re family and it means a lot to me ».
So Pegu Club is a school and its team a family, but you normally end up leaving the nest at a certain stage. Although Alcibeidis is in no rush, he has quite an ambitious program: « I want to bring to Cuba the education I’ve received here. I don’t want to arrive in Havana and be the guy that says ‘I’ve worked in Pegu Club, listen to me’, I just want to teach by example, applying what I’ve learned at Pegu ». One of those things, he says, is attention to details: « There are great ideas and lot of potential in Cuba, but there’s a lack of produce and maybe not enough of a focus on what a difference a drop of this or a drop of that can make in a drink ».
Ideally, he would like to make this dream a reality within the next three years, although a lot depends on how Cuba evolves. Thinking ahead, he is already developing a concept. « My family runs a paladar, and as a small kid I would cook with my grandmother. I want to unite past and present: my grandmother’s cooking with my cocktails. It would be modern, but not too much. And it would be a cocktail lounge, not a nightclub, which is what people tend to open in Havana ». If and when it opens, we’re pretty sure Pegu Club’s Old Cuban will have a place of honour on the drinks list…
When the time comes to head back to Cuba, Alcibeidis is sure to miss a lot of things. Professionally, the hardest thing to break with would undoubtedly be Audrey’s mentoring. « At Pegu Club I learned to love and respect what we do. Audrey makes you understand each and every drop of liquid that goes into your glass. When a person transmits her knowledge with so much love and passion, you receive it in a unique manner. And that’s what I’ll miss the most: I won’t be receiving her teaching with that energy ». Maybe. But what your family has taught you stays with you. And even when you live thousand miles apart, your folks are there for you. We’re sure whatever Alcibeidis ends up doing — whether in Havana or anywhere else — Audrey and the Pegu Club family will still be paying attention, offering support and valuable insights.