The 12th Havana Club Cocktail Grand Prix was a ‘first time’ affair. For the first time, a woman won. For the first time, a competitor received more than one trophy. For the first time, our winner entered a competition. And it’s probably the first time someone so young and with such a short experience won. Many firsts for Ninon Fauvarque, the grand winner of a grand week in Havana.
On the night of the semi-finals, minutes after she was announced as one of the top ten bartenders at the Grand Prix, Ninon told us that if she was there, sitting with us at Casa Miglis in Centro Habana, it was basically because her boss -and mentor- told her that she should give competitions a try: “He said that you get to share so much with the other bartenders and that the experience helps you to grow as a bartender“. So she sent in a recipe, she was picked for the French regional heat and then for the national heat. She won, came to Cuba and won again. But she didn’t know that yet when we talked…
As many before her, Ninon started in bartending by chance. «I was waiting tables at a bar. I really liked it, I got on well with my boss but it was just a few shifts here and there and I needed a full time job. I was about to leave and he told me to stay, that he would train me», she recalls. That bar was La Queue du Coq in Annecy, a small city in the French Alps, an hour or so by road from Geneva. It is operated by Alexandre Girard, who has been nurturing the cocktail scene in this unlikely setting for a few years now -and has done a pretty good job of it, as Ninon would tell you. Girard helped her realise she had a lot of potential, and she quickly found a passion for the job: «It had many of the things I was looking for: you get to take care of people, there’s artistry in what we do, we work with the senses…“. And although you could call her rise ‘meteoric’, she had her doubts. “At first, I looked at my colleagues and I thought I’d never be able to rise to their level. But it comes, little by little. And when I started to create things I was happy with or when I saw that my clients were happy with my recommendations -something that really is at the heart of everything we do-, then I realised this really was what I wanted to do in life“.
So although she’d only been bartending for 14 months, by the time she landed in Havana she already knew she belonged in this world. And she probably felt that both Havana, the city and the Grand Prix were a good fit: she loves simple drinks packed with flavours (the Cuban template, we’d call it) and she’s had a passion for cooking and fresh products since she was a kid. That’s basically all you need to be successful in the competition (well, that and the knack for coming up with balanced formulas).
Unsurprisingly, Ninon had a lot of flavours in mind when she started working on her semi-final drink in the prep room. The competitors had just discovered the ingredients they would have to play with and she was pretty excited. “It was wonderful to get to work on Cuban cocktails with Cuban ingredients. Here, everything is organic so you don’t have to worry about pesticides, you’re free to use everything, including the peel. And the flavours are so much more intense“. She quickly decided on playing with varied and surprising ingredients: “pastis, basil, cilantro, rosé wine… when you say it like that, it doesn’t really make sense but it worked. The result surprised myself. The concept was a bit chaotic in my head, but I was thinking to myself that Cuban life is chaotic. And it made sense“.
That it did. The drink sent her to the Finals and won the First Sip Award. When we caught up with her on that very evening, she knew she’d have to step up her game, once more, to win it all. “We have to work with Havana Club 7 años, it’s completely different so I’ll need to adapt, but adaptation was the theme of my cocktail. Let’s see“. And adapt she did: her concept revolved around passionfruit and coffee and… well, this is Cuba: there was just not enough passion fruit left for her to make that drink. So she had to change everything last minute and came up with Curvas (see below). Sometimes, the best things happen when things don’t go according to plan. Cubans are acutely aware of this. So is Ninon now: her last minute drink made her a Champion.
Normally, winning such a prestigious competition is a sort of career high. But Ninon is still very young, and much more is bound to come from her. We asked her, as a sort of closing remark, to tell us what she felt she still had to work on: “I think I know how to deal with people. I’m also happy to work with produce because I love cooking so much. Learning the classics is obviously very important too. But I really want to work on technique. I want to be very accurate in what I do and one of the things I like the most in our line of work is the very graceful way in which accomplished bartenders work. It’s tough. I need to relax, to trust myself and my movements“. Seeing how fast a learner she is, we’re pretty sure it will come. All in (un)due time. We’ll be watching, that’s for sure.
Curvas, crafted by Ninon Fauvarque, from La Queue du Coq bar, France:
• 65 ml Havana Club 7 Years Old
• 10 ml Horchata
• 5 ml orange & lime reduction
• 15 ml spice-infused honey syrup (cinnamon, ginger and star anise)
• 20 ml red bean aquafaba (made of red beans)
Put everything in the shaker, dry shake. Fill with ice and shake. Double strain. Serve up in a jicama glass.