Carina Soto Velásquez

18 May. 2018
The 2018 Grand Prix judge on Cuba and her 5 bars and restaurants in Paris

Carina Soto Velásquez is a busy woman: with her business partners, the owner of Calendaria (19th in the World’s 50 Best bars 2017) runs 5 of Paris busiest and hippest cocktail and food establishments. In ten days, though, she’ll take a few days off to judge the competitors at the 2018 Havana Club Cocktail Grand Prix.
“I’ll be looking for creativity and spontaneity”, she told us in a recent conversation. “In Cuba, it’s very complicated to source ingredients and the competitors will need to be very reactive”. Carina knows what she’s talking about: she discovered Havana last year and was very impressed by what she saw. “The competition’s theme is Cuba Moderna, and it’s very smart. You hear people saying Cuba has changed, that it’s not what it used to be. They’re wrong: there’s a new generation doing great things. Artistically, it’s a very dense city. It’s impressive, magical”. As a Colombian national, Caribbean people’s gift for the arts is certainly familiar to her (although she comes “from the mountains”).
Carina’s career didn’t start back home, though; she first worked in bars to pay the bills while studying hotel management and marketing in Paris. And she often ended up running the teams or managing the establishments: “I was very young, but I always put a lot of myself in the places I worked at”. Unlike most, she didn’t graduate from bartending to management. It was the other way round: she discovered cocktails at the Experimental Cocktail Club in 2007 and it’s precisely when she got more responsibilities at management level that she really dived in, focusing on creativity and spirits knowledge.
With her background, it seemed inevitable that she would open her own bar. She took the definitive step in 2011. “Bartending allowed me to discover superb products.  And I was really moved by agave spirits. At the time, it was a very little known category in France”. Although Candelaria is famed for its taqueria and its mezcal or tequila cocktails, Carina insists the bar is not only defined by Mexico: “We will really wanted to introduce people to all the spirits from Latin America, from pisco to rum”. The rest is history: since it first opened, Candelaria has been a fixture on every best bars list and received its fair share of awards.
This success enabled Carina and her partners to open more spots, always focusing on quality products with strong identity and a potent food offer. Le Mary Celeste, Glass and Hero have all made waves. “I know people think everything went very fast, but actually it was a slow process and we though everything through. Once you open a second place, you realize that things are already place that allow you to go on and develop more projects”.
Don’t expect other openings soon, though: Carina and her team first need to settle in their latest project, Les Grands Verres, in Palais de Tokyo, a modern art museum.  “It’s by far our biggest project”, says Carina, referring to sheer size and administrative constraints (the Palais is a public institution), but also to the challenges posed by a clientele that has little to do with that of her other bars. “It’s extremely varied, from 5 years old kids to 80 years old retired art lovers. People don’t really go to museums to drink cocktails, they come for the art. We need sensible prices, accessible flavour profile. We’re still learning”. And since Les Grands Verres opened, more and more ambitious project land on her doorstep. It might take a while for Carina to announce a new venture, but rest assured the fifth place won’t be the last.

François Monti