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We Spoke To The Co-Host Of ‘Masterchef UK’ About Cocktails, Dublin & The Perfect Bartender

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This week, Andy Ferreira from Cask in Cork was named as the World Class Bartender of the Year at the Irish final in Zozimus, with a little help from John Torode, co-host of Masterchef UK who joined the judging panel for the second time.

World Class is a programme dedicated to nurturing the very best bartending talent both nationally and internationally, which is something John Torode knows a little something about.

Born in Melbourne, Australia, Torode first got into cooking a young age by learning from his grandmother. At the age of 16, he left school to enter catering college. In 1992, he began working as a sous chef in the renowned London restaurant Le Pont de la Tour, starting him on a path which would see him ultimately landing a key role on the TV series Masterchef UK.

We had a chance to sit down with Torode right before he took up judging duties for the evening in question…

You’re no stranger to this kind of competition, what attracted you to World Class?

I don’t think it’s about competition, it’s about enthusing people and getting the word out about what’s going on in the world. Cocktails are a real art and a real skill, and it’s important to understand the foundation, understand the basic principles, and understand the base product. So what really excites me about it is to see what’s really going on in the world because we are seeing new and exciting stuff coming through.

You’re obviously someone who has an eye for exceptional craftspeople of tastes — what qualities would you say a master of food and drink has?

The great thing about somebody who works in a bar, a proper bartender, is that they have real charisma and real skill. There’s a great saying that goes “effortless takes effort”, which means whoever’s doing it has practiced quite a lot and has spent a lot of time researching in their field.

A great bartender gifts you with something that is truly exciting, something that’s evocative, something takes you somewhere else, something that satisfies your moment there and then. They need to be really skilled, to know what they’re doing and to have done their research.

In Ireland, our attitude towards cocktails seems to be about masking the flavour of the alcohol. What do you think of that approach?

The fact is, you should never, ever, ever use the word ‘mask’, what you should do is take something, highlight its flavours, and build on that flavour by adding bits to it.

Whenever you create anything, what you’re trying to do is to make something which delights. Something which is new, something which is evocative, something which is really interesting and that takes the skill of somebody who not only understands what their ingredients are, but also understands the person receiving it.

What do you look for in a cocktail?

I think anyone who works behind a bar knows how to make a great gin & tonic as well as they know how to make the a very fancy cocktail. It’s about understanding what the base product is, which for a G&T is obviously gin, but it’s also about how cold the glass is, how much ice goes in it, whether someone wants lemon or lime, what sort of gin does somebody want, what sort of tonic, and how much tonic.

It’s all about the way that things feel. I don’t think that a great bartender necessarily thinks very much, I think they just feel, I think they just run with it.

What’s your favourite cocktail?

I’m a sours man, I love sours a lot. I think whiskey sours are just brilliant.

Do you think a mixologist should strive to be experimental or perfect the classics?

Before anyone can go anywhere with any trade whatsoever — be you a carpenter, a bricklayer, a motor mechanic, a chef, a bartender, whatever you might be — you have to understand the basic foundation of what you’re doing. If you understand the rules, you can break the rules whenever you like, but you should never experiment on the customer, the customer is paying for an experience, they’re not paying for you to learn something. Experiment on your friends if you want to, but basic flavour profiles need to be understood before you go anywhere with a new idea.

What do you look for in a bartender? Are there important skills beyond their technical ability to make a drink?

I think a budding bartender has to watch someone behind a bar and admire them, to look at another bartender and say, “you’re cool, you’ve got it, you can see what a customer wants”.

I watched a movie recently and there was this barman in it. At one point, the character asks the barman why he’s always cleaning a glass and he says it’s because it makes the customer feel comfortable because he’s doing something other than just standing there. And that summed it up for me — a great bartender is someone who knows how to make you feel comfortable in a bar.

Are you as passionate about cocktails as you are about food?

I think anything you put inside your mouth you need to be pretty passionate about. It goes in your gob, you’re swallowing it, of course I’m passionate about it.

What’s your favourite bar in Dublin?

I would not want to say that, it would not be fair. I’ll get in big trouble. But I’ll tell you what I do like, I do like the fact that in Dublin you can get a great pint with great craic on any street, you can go to Crackbird and have some great fried chicken and a really good glass of wine, you can come into a bar like this [Zozimus] and have a really good cocktail. Dublin in the last decade has completely changed and I love that about it. The choice now is just so great and I think choice is really, really important.

Are there any Irish chefs that you hold in high regard?

Anyone who is working in the chef industry right now is working really, really, really hard. The only person I know in Ireland who I’ve worked with who’s decided to do something quite different was actually a boyband member, and that’s Donal Skehan. That’s one of the great things about the industry, the opportunities that are here. For example, one of our contestants today was a bricklayer and then became a barman. Donal was a boyband member then became a cook, and now he’s off in Hollywood having a nice time with his dog and his wife. I think that’s a great thing about the industry right now.

What can people expect from tonight’s final?

I’ve seen quite a lot today already and I’m really impressed. There’s a lot of people doing very interesting things but they’re also considering health, they’re considering sustainability, they’re considering how they should be moving forward in the future and they’re also trying to highlight what’s good about a great base spirit, which is exactly what bartending should be all about.

The big round tonight is going to be the speed round. I don’t know how they’re going to do it, but it’s going to be fast, it’s going to be furious and it’s going to be a lot of fun.

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