His Mumbai Margarita was recently in the running for the Margarita of the Year Award. His mantle sits handsomely decorated by the Diageo World Class ‘Classic Cocktail With A Twist’ (2011) and the Bacardi Legacy Cocktail Competition India (2012) wins. But there’s one jewel in his crown that shines brighter than all of his accolades: Hemant Pathak’s humility. From a fresh faced hospitality graduate in 2008 to a world renowned Mixologist today, Pathak’s rise in nine short years can only be termed as awe-inspiring. Sprinkle that with his drive to continuously evolve his craft and the passion for imparting his global learnings within his home country, and you’d have to be made out of stone to not be captivated.
As Hemant currently helps the world tipple at Vikas Khanna’s Junoon in New York City, #DSSCSecretConversations decided to uncork the makings of this stellar bartender who’s putting India on the world mixology map.
Tell us about Hemant Pathak before the world of mixology?
The start of my life was quite rough, coming from mountains (Uttarakhand) where my schooling didn’t start in English medium to the English-speaking Delhi was overwhelming. It was like coming from a small town to a big city, where you feel lost, have to understand the city, its people, your profession, the language, and get on your feet. It was quite hard, but I was ready for it.
What prompted you to pursue the beverage section of hospitality over the traditional choice of culinary service?
One thing on my mind was that food could be different from region to region, but alcohol remains the same across all cuisines. I wasn’t too inclined towards the theory of culinary arts and was fascinated by the beverage side of the industry from the start, hence decided to stick with the latter. I studied the workings of a bar, international bar trends, and brought my own flavour to cocktails from day one, and the positive feedback I received helped channel my passion for mixology.
You gained recognition while working at the Taj Palace Hotel, Delhi. What was your main takeaway from your time there?
The essence of Indian hospitality. It is more genuine and bigger when compared to anything abroad, we always make our guests feel like God and provide a home away from home vibe. Working at Taj helped me build a strong base and understand the core of hospitality. When you understand that you’re offering an experience in a glass rather than just a drink, that’s when you know how to create a genuine connection through hospitality.
You shifted base from India to the US in 2012. What initiated that move?
I started working with Taj in 2007 and by end of 2011, I was number one amongst 396 bartenders in the Diageo World Class. I was also the first Indian to represent our country in the global competition among 34 countries and faring quite well there helped boost my morale. Then in 2012 I represented India in the Bacardi Legacy Global Cocktail Competition in Puerto Rico, and that form of international exposure in mixology made me realise that I can truly make a mark in this field. I haven’t looked back since then.
How’s the experience fared for you?
Before Junoon my life posed a few hurdles, even rendering me homeless! I was asked by someone to come down to New York for an immediate job at his restaurant, but once there I found out that the scenario was very different and he started making excuses for the delay in the opening. As I was running out of time I decided to quit that job, I left his house and was literally stranded on the road for one night. But I had faith in my skills and knew I would get back on my feet. As luck would have it, after working part-time at the Flatiron Room for two years, I met the owner of Junoon, Mr. Rajesh Bhardwaj, and he offered me a job seeing my credentials. And now I’m here!
What goes behind you designing a cocktail menu, what are the elements that inspire you?
Reading the classic books and learning about the 200-year old history of mixology is what inspires me to put my own twist to classic cocktails. Every bar, every industry person, and every guest I meet is an inspiration for me, I learn something new from each experience.
My mixology is about flavours from all over Asia, I use a lot of Indian spices, herbs and teas. None of the other bars in NYC use these flavours, and at Junoon, I work with the Chefs to create cocktails in sync with the flavours they’re using for the dishes. Highlighting these Indian flavours is our speciality.
Any particular experience that played a key role in shaping your view of mixology?
Yes, my Mindful Mixology session with Sir Gary Regan. His insight about how to see yourself from the other side of the bar, understanding the need and expectation of the guest, and deliver accordingly was quite fascinating and inspiring.
Drawing a parallel between the Indian and international bar scene, how would you say the industry back home is different from the rest?
India has a lot of potential and we are ready to work hard, but do not have enough exposure and products to play with yet. Till 2007 there weren’t many cocktail bars in India, only limited bars and hotels stirring classic cocktails like mojito, bloody mary, pina colada, etc.; now we have craft cocktails and every bar has its own speciality. In the last 5 years we’ve done great and I can predict that in the next 5 years Indian mixology will be at par with the global scene.
What do we need to adopt to bring that exposure to the Indian industry?
It’s happening gradually, many liquor companies are investing in educating young bartenders and established bartenders are bringing global trends to India. So the change may not take place overnight, but it’s in motion and we are growing.
You also go the extra mile to bring your learnings back to the budding mixologists in India. What goes behind that thought?
My goal is to see Indian mixology at par with global mixology. Everything that I observe and learn here, I try and take it back to India. Be it through coaching bartenders, writing articles, or conducting seminars. It’s all about inspiring the youth, motivating them and telling them that the entire world is waiting for them to just to hit the home run.
I do it with personal interest because at one point in my life I was striving for guidance and exposure and due to limitation, whether lingual or geographical, I never got any such learning opportunities. I try and do my best to provide a platform to the young generation today.
That is one splendid journey. What is the ace mixologist Hemant Pathak stirring or shaking next?
I’m launching my first cocktail book in a couple of months. It’s all about India and its alcohol history that talks about the Mughal Era, the British Raj, and more. It will also feature 60 of my signature cocktails.
As our minds brim with the #DSSCTestKitchen sessions this book promises to bring, we down our cuppa joes with Hemant as we bid adieu with the signature DSSC Rapid Fire.
One pro-tip for budding mixologists?
Hemant: Do what you like and love what you do. It’s an artist’s job, so don’t limit yourself.
Two of your favourite bartenders across the world?
Hemant: Gary Regan and Yangdup Lama.
Your fave creation till date?
Hemant: Mumbai Margarita.
A cocktail we need to make in our home bar right now?
Hemant: A simple Daiquiri with rum, sugar, and lime.
Your favourite ingredient at the bar?
Hemant: Citrus zest.
What’s the standout feature that makes your bar different from any other?
Hemant: Junoon has a secret spice room, if you don’t find it anywhere in New York, you can find it at Junoon. And my bar is my spice room, using these condiments in my creations is what differentiates my cocktails from the rest.
This conversation is a part of the DSSC Secret Conversation Series, where we get candid with the ace industry disruptors who map its course one masterstroke at a time.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this feature are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of DSSC & its affiliates.
Featured Image Courtesy: BlindArtWorks