Berlin, early December: cold, rainy and miserable. Not a surprise, really. But although he’d like some sun, Nawid Samawat is not complaining: « For us, the colder, the better. People eat more fatty and greasy food and drink lot more beers, you know ». It’s fair to say that at Chicago Williams BBQ, his restaurant, high season is not the summer. Six years ago, though, Nawid opened the place in winter, but that one was too cold — one of the coldest on record — even for barbecue amateurs, he quips: « I literally called my parents and asked them to come and sit at the table by the window so people would think we were full ».
Nawid talks straight. He calls things as he sees them which might create problems down the line (when we told him our conversation was recorded he exclaimed « Oh my God! I have to behave! » — he didn’t, of course). He is also one of the nicest, funniest and hardest working guys we know, as he proved last May in Cuba on the Havana Club Cocktail Grand Prix’s bar team. Unsurprisingly, his real passion is hosting. And although Chicago Williams is primarily a restaurant it was born of the desire of putting the fun back into bartending…
Nawid discovered proper cocktails in Frankfurt first, at the small boutique Gerbermühle hotel and at Roomers, both run by the Gekko Group, and then in Berlin at Lebbenstern and Immertreu under German cocktail legend Ricardo Albrecht. « I had made shitty cocktails in clubs, but my mixing game really improved with the Gekko Group and then with Ricardo. I love this guy. He is a genius when it comes to short drinks. I can make a good El Presidente or a Royal Bermuda Yacht Club, but my thing was never sending out a trillion cocktails a night because the interaction with the guest would be missing when it got too busy. I like to interact and talk », he confided. A few years ago, though, interaction was not necessarily top of the agenda. « I got annoyed by the whole bar scene. Around 2011, people were paying more attention to drinks than to the thing that really matter, which is hospitality. Other bartenders would come to your bar and ask you why you didn’t stir this way or that way… »
He had been mulling over opening his own place, but was not quite sure what it would be. It was at this time of doubt about the cocktail scene that he decided to go and spend a couple of weeks in New York City. « I’ll just say this: I gained 8 kilos in two weeks. I went into every exciting thing I saw on the streets. One day I was shown this amazing barbecue place in Queens, called John Brown Smokehouse… I thought ‘wow, what is that?’ » That was March 2012. In July, he found a place. In August, construction started. In November, they opened. « We wanted to create a space for people who are enjoying good booze, good food and good hosts ». Besides straight spirits and beer, the star of the drink program was well made… slushies, a gesture that set the place apart from some self-conscious craft cocktail bars. « It is a type of serve straight from the nineties, but we make it with excellent ingredients and the proper dilution », Nawid explained.
That Nawid went from bartender at Frankfurt and Berlin’s top bars to restaurateur is however not to be read as a rejection of the cocktail scene. First, he trained for restaurant work before moving into clubs and bars, so he was sort of going back to his first love. Second, it was just a certain type of geekiness that didn’t appeal to him. Third, Chicago Williams has always been embraced by the local cocktail scene. « Our biggest hype came when we were asked to do the catering at Bar Convent, one month before we opened. We didn’t even have a kitchen back then. The bar industry really helped us a lot ». It also helps that Chicago Williams provides stuff off duty bartenders crave for, such as comfort food and simple drinks — « Sometimes, all you need is a beer colder than your ex-girlfriend’s heart », quipped Nawid. The model is working, as they are about to open a second location, in the Gekko Group’s next Frankfurt hotel.
The way the cocktail scene is evolving, with less focus on the intricacies of the bartending process and more on experience is also something Nawid likes. As an example, he mentions Jörg Meyer’s Boilerman Bar in Hamburg: « It’s the best thing right now. They work with very high-quality pre-batched drinks, all the glasses are frosted and pre-filled with two ice balls. This allows them to send a lot of excellent drinks very fast, so it doesn’t matter how many people you have in the bar — they all get great cocktails and you can host on a whole other level ». This makes complete sense both in terms of business model and hospitality. No wonder it speaks to Nawid: he told us he started in the industry at sixteen when a friend asked him if he was interested in a job (« He said ‘money’ — I really liked that ») and that he very quickly found out what he loved about it was the interaction with guests (« I had no clue what I was doing, but giving them a good time was my thing », he told us). Well over a decade later, Nawid is still making money by giving people a hell of a good time.