Miguel F. Lancha

20 Feb. 2019
Cocktail agitator turned innovator for chef José Andrés

We’re in Washington, D.C. on a bitingly cold Monday morning. We’ve just been shown to a small office, walls filled with spreadsheets and numbers. Now we don’t typically interview bartenders in corporate offices — but this is not your typical corporate office nor is this your typical bartender. This is the headquarters of ThinkFoodGroup, the company through which José Andrés, one of the world’s most famous chefs, aims to « change the world through the power of food ». And our interlocutor today is Miguel F. Lancha, who’s José Andrés’ « Cocktail innovator ». No big deal.

Miguel’s job is to design cocktails, cocktail menus and spirit menus for the whole Group. He also needs to make sure the drinks are made as designed by the teams on the ground and takes care of training for new staff and new openings. That is a lot: before this trimester ends, the Group will have opened restaurants 22 and 23. Miguel joined a little over three years ago — in the meantime, José Andrés has added no less than 8 places. « I started on the September, 1st. My first opening was on the 20th of the same month », he tells us. The rhythm is relentless.

Thankfully, he had some experience with large projects. Before heading to Washington, Miguel was actually working in the Dominican Republic at a luxury resort in Punta Cana — 17 bars on one site, and up top 90 bartenders. Going from a resort to working for José Andrés may seem like a strange evolution, but this was a different kind of resort, with a focus on luxury experience and first class cocktails. « Not your usual all-inclusive drinks », Miguel says. And opportunity, as it does, came knocking when Miguel least expected it. « I was all packed and about to leave for the United States where I was going to work with Steve Olson », Miguel recalls. One of the cocktail world’s great gurus, Olson had been a mentor to Miguel since they had met years earlier in Spain. « Two weeks before, part of José Andrés’ team stayed at the hotel. They told my boss they loved the drinks — they didn’t expect something like that in a resort. He told them about me and they said they were actually looking for a cocktail guy for the Group. We met, they invited me to Washington, I was introduced to José Andrés and did an interview… » Initially, Miguel had doubts — he really wanted to work with his mentor — and it’s Olson himself who had the final world: « He told me: ‘Are you kidding? If you don’t take the job I’ll come and kick your butt’ ».

Miguel was used to some of what awaited him at ThinkFoodGroup. « Punta Cana had already taught how painful it can be to learn the different languages of big operations — you need to speak the language of the guy who controls cost, the language of the human resources people, of management, etc. ». Another challenge, we venture, is that you’re now working for a very well-known chef, so there are huge expectations. Miguel concurs: « In any company you need to defend the values, the marketing plan and satisfy the clients. Here, there’s a man and a name on top. If they don’t like the drinks, they don’t criticize me — they talk about José Andrés. » In practical terms it means that every drink has to be green-lit by José Andrés himself. « He tastes everything that goes on a menu. So we have two things in mind: we have to give José Andrés what he wants — magic and quality — and we have to guarantee that the company can make money with the drinks and be sustainable ». No pressure then…

Things are a bit different at barmini, José Andrés’ flagship bar in D.C., which is all about wow factor and incredible experiences. The bar shares its space with minibar, the chef’s 2 Michelin star restaurant. His passion for cocktails is there for all to see: from a client perspective, it seems that both the restaurant and the bar share equal square footage, which is quite unique. But working in permanent contact with such an awarded kitchen surely adds pressure? « Of course, when you work for José Andrés, you have to deliver but for us it is invaluable to be working with chefs. You’re learning constantly. And you have someone who’s there to guide you and tell you about what he likes and what style of presentation he enjoys — as a bartender, you’re expanding your repertoire ». barmini cocktails are logically strongly influenced by the techniques and mores of modernist cuisine, with the team looking at visual arts for presentation or fine dining restaurants for service. And with the recent introduction of a tasting flight of cocktails (an exploration of barmini’s « most innovative and adventurous techniques »), it has moved one step closer to the restaurant experience.

No matter how good the drinks were, there’s a world between working on a resort and leading barmini’s cocktail program. But let’s get down memory lane even further. Before Punta Cana, there was Madrid. Back then — the late 2000’s, early 2010’s — cocktail was not going through its best phase in Spain’s capital. Miguel, who was widely travelled, took on a part that doesn’t give you much press but that proved essential: from his trips he brought new drinks and new techniques and spread awareness in the small, local community. He played a pivotal role in creating a hub and helped along some of the bartenders who are now grabbing the headlines in Madrid. He was, shall we say, a cocktail agitator. Much of that attitude — sharing, showing, teaching — is part of what makes him so good at being José Andrés’ cocktail innovator. Even if much of his work takes place in that D.C. office.

François Monti